CAMBRIDGE – For the second time in three years, the Cambridge City Council last month rejected a policy order to endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement through a proposed embargo of Hewlett-Packard when it comes to city purchasing, said Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.
Burton, a 10-year Cambridge resident, called the attempt to pass the policy order – which would set the policy of the city government – “a smokescreen for aligning Cambridge with the BDS movement.”
While not expressly mentioning BDS, the proposal drew heated debate on both sides last month, coinciding with the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas. It sparked 7½ hours of public testimony for and against on May 24.
Burton said the anti-Israel faction began mobilizing once the proposal was filed, claiming it would be a victory for the boycott Israel movement.
“You fight it by pulling back the curtain,” said Burton. “That’s the answer.”
The original proposal sought for the city to cut ties with Hewlett-Packard for providing computers to Israel and technology to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in relation to the city’s anti-discrimination policies “over their role in abetting apartheid in the Middle East.”
The tech company has long been a target of the BDS movement.
However, a city councilor and others pointed out during debate that Cambridge does not have direct contracts with the company, though Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui noted the city holds a contract with a larger distributor that may purchase products from H-P.
A substitute statute, which passed by a 9-0 vote, made no mention of Hewlett-Packard, and while it was critical of the “Netanyahu government,” Burton said it viewed the city’s purchasing through a neutral human rights lens.
The statute affirms “Israel’s right to exist and defend its citizens from attacks, such as those launched by Hamas.” It also recognized “that the Netanyahu government has directed unconscionable, destructive attacks against the Palestinian people, and our community should not be willing to play even a minor role in allowing these actions to continue.”
The revision that passed requested the city manager to work with the purchasing department to identify vendors “whose products are used to perpetuate violations of International Human Rights Laws and Cambridge’s policy on discrimination.”
Jewish leaders like Burton were incensed that public comment on the initial policy was first taken up on May 17 during Shavuot, when many Jews were unable to attend.
Burton said he was angry that a city councilor rejected religious accommodation for Jews who could not participate because of the holiday.
“That to me was a moment of the emotion of just anger that a city councilor would say because of the actions of a foreign government, the city of Cambridge could and should ignore the religious accommodation of its own residents,” Burton said of City Councilor Quinton Zondervan. Burton said the Anti-Defamation League and his organization sent a letter asking for Zondervan to apologize.
Zondervan, Councilor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, and Dennis Carlone cosponsored the original legislation.
During a later meeting on May 25, Zondervan said he was disappointed about the last-minute change, and said the council had heard from Jews and Palestinians in support of the original proposal.
“And we heard about families being split in half by Israeli apartheid,” Zondervan said, outlining a number of human rights abuses against Palestinians that were brought up in public comment. “And we heard from a Jewish person who reminded us that anti-Zionism is not the same as antisemitism.
“We heard from another Jewish person who expressed concern that calling BDS ‘antisemitic’ is a dangerous conflation between the action of the Israeli state and all people,” Zondervan said.
That was not the view of city councilor and former mayor Marc McGovern, who was troubled about the original proposal’s lack of transparency.
“Nowhere in this [legislation] does it mention endorsing BDS,” McGovern said during the meeting. “But we all know that’s what it’s really all about. So, we are being asked to vote on one thing, evaluating our contracts, when our vote will really mean something completely different.”
He said the intent of the original proposal is “all about making Cambridge one of the few cities in the country to support BDS.” He said the BDS movement is a complex one, with some Cambridge residents supporting the use of boycotts to make change, “but the BDS leadership does call for the eradication of Israel.”
McGovern also was concerned how debate divided the community.
Sobrinho-Wheeler said on May 25 he did not think he could vote for the substitute wording “because it tries to make the ‘both sides’ issue and it doesn’t make clear the power imbalances situation.”
Carlone said on May 25 his support of the original proposal came from his feeling “something has to change” after a trip to Israel made him aware of what he called unjust treatment of Palestinians.
The substitute wording was applauded by Jewish groups, but it was also seen as a partial victory by BDS supporters.
“[It] had one clear purpose,” Rob Leikind, the regional director of the American Jewish Committee New England, said in a statement, “to leverage the Cambridge City Council to advance the narrow political interests of advocacy groups whose sole purpose is the demonization, isolation and eventual destruction of the State of Israel. The AJC said approval of the substitute language “was a constructive step that we hope will cool extreme rhetoric and contribute to a more constructive and productive climate where difficult issues can be discussed.”
In a joint statement, Combined Jewish Philanthropies President and CEO Rabbi Marc Baker and Burton of the Jewish Community Relations Council said:
“Our community was mobilized and energized to push back against a one-sided narrative presented a week earlier, when the motion was first debated during the Shavuot holiday.”
In a statement, BDS Boston said the adopted proposal “is a clear step in the direction of ending purchasing from” H-P and other companies according to the BDS movement. “While specific mention of Hewlett-Packard Incorporated (HP Inc) and HP Enterprise (HPE) was removed, these companies clearly violate international human rights law due to their role in maintaining Israeli apartheid. The approved policy order is not the strong statement of solidarity with Palestinians that was initially proposed.”
In her remarks on May 25, Cambridge City Councilor Patricia Nolan called the original proposal “a proxy for BDS” for singling out Israel.
“I heard the conviction that we must do something for justice for Palestinians,” Nolan said, “And I heard the fear of Jews with experience of antisemitism here in our city. I reject the notion that the only path to seeking justice for Palestinians is BDS – there are other coalitions working for justice and peace that are not as divisive.”