Politics

Burlington council pulls resolution backing Israeli boycott, divestment and sanctions

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger looks on as the City Council debates a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolution on Monday, September 13. The council dropped a proposal to become the first city in the country to boycott the state of Israel. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Burlington City Council on Monday dropped a proposal to become the first U.S. city to endorse a boycott of the state of Israel. By a 6-5 vote, the council withdrew a resolution expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people and supporting the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement. 

The resolution’s lead sponsor, Councilor Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7, moved to withdraw his own proposal from the agenda Monday and return it to the Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee for further discussion. 

He explained that after receiving more than 2,000 emails from people across the country expressing concern about the resolution, he came to the conclusion that it was one-sided and failed to recognize the discrimination Jewish residents face.

“There is so much suffering around the world,” Dieng said. “What we can control is our city. What we can control is our state. What we can control is to bring our people together, regardless of their race, their gender, religion.” 

The proposal drew an animated audience Monday night — and two-and-a-half hours of public comment. City Hall’s Contois Auditorium was packed with dozens of advocates for and against the resolution. Some raised Palestinian flags while others held signs reading, “BDS is antisemitic.” Before the meeting began, chants of “Free Palestine” clashed with Jewish hymns.

Though they ultimately were not successful, scores of Palestinian supporters showed up to Monday’s meeting to make their case for a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolution. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

After a robust debate, councilors voted to withdraw the resolution. The five councilors who opposed withdrawing it said they did so because they feared it could be resurrected in the future. Those councilors — Councilors Karen Paul, D-Ward 6, Mark Barlow, I-North District, Chip Mason, D-Ward 5, and Joan Shannon, D-South District — indicated they would have preferred to have decisively defeated the resolution. 

Paul said she considered the BDS movement anti-semitic and argued that the city should not have taken up such a topic. 

“We’ve got to be able to find common ground,” Paul said. “BDS is not about finding common ground.”

Shannon said that by withdrawing the resolution without firmly denying it, councilors would only be prolonging the “anxiety and pain” of Jewish residents if it were to come up again later.

“This resolution is not going to improve the situation in Israel,” Shannon said. “It can only bring pain. This needs to end tonight.” 

Other councilors wavered on the measure, though none expressed outright support for the resolution’s passage.

Councilor Joe Magee, P-Ward 3, said they were ready to support the resolution going into Monday night’s meeting. But after processing the pushback, they said it was important to acknowledge the concerns. 

“I think it’s important for us to express solidarity with the Palestinian people,” Magee said. “But I think it’s also important for us to recognize the rising anti-semitism in our country.” 

The Burlington City Council meeting Monday night. By a 6-5 vote, the council withdrew a resolution expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people and supporting the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The text of the resolution “calls for nonviolent pressure on Israel until it meets three demands.” Those demands include ending the occupation and colonization of “all Arab lands and dismantling the Separation Wall,” recognizing the rights of Arab-Palestinian people of Israel, and supporting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. 

The resolution also calls on President Joe Biden to end military aid to Israel, and it calls Gov. Phil Scott and the Vermont Legislature to demand the same of Biden. 

Opponents of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement say it calls for the dissolution of Israel. 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has persisted for decades, escalated once again this spring and summer. In May, fighting broke out between Israeli troops and the Palestinian militant group Hamas when right-wing Jewish settlers attempted to evict Palestinians from East Jerusalem. Hamas fired rockets into Israel, and Israel responded with airstrikes. 

The Israeli airstrikes killed at least 230 people, including 65 children, and wounded 1,620, according to the New York Times. Hamas’ rockets are thought to have killed 12 Israelis. 

A person raises a sign in favor of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolution. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Though they ultimately were not successful, scores of Palestinian supporters showed up to Monday’s meeting to make their case. Many waved Palestinian flags while others urged city councilors during public comment to support those they said were facing violent oppression by the Israeli government. 

Asma Elhuni, the New Hampshire movement politics director of the political advocacy group Rights & Democracy, said the resolution was more simple than its detractors were making it out to be. She said it was only calling for Palestinians to have equal rights. 

“If you supported the Black civil rights era, you support the strategy of boycotting,” Elhuni said. “That’s exactly what is happening right now.” 

Ashley Smith, a member of activist organization Community Voice for Immigrant Rights, said that Israel was conducting an “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians by displacing them from their land and driving them away to refugee camps. 

Burlington City Council president Max Tracy looks on as the council debates a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolution. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“It is time for Burlington to take a stand with Mandela against racism, occupation, colonialism, endless warfare and an apartheid state,” Smith said, refering to the late anti-apartheid leader and South African President Nelson Mandela. “It’s time for justice.” 

Opponents of the resolution on Monday called it anti-semitic and questioned the timing of its introduction. The debate came at the end of Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah and shortly before Yom Kippur, which is set to begin on Wednesday.

Rabbi Amy Small of Burlington’s Ohavi Zedek Synagogue said that the resolution did not begin to comprehend the complexity of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. 

“We all want justice and peace, which can only be negotiated by those who live there,” Small said. “This resolution cannot achieve that. But rather, it will further divide our community in painful and dangerous ways.” 

Burlington resident Mark Leopold said he believed the resolution would create more polarization in the city. 

“Were the resolution balanced and identified human rights abuses and civilian harm on both sides, and calling for a peaceful resolution ending in two states, I might support it,” he said. 

In a statement released to the press hours before Monday night’s council meeting, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said that while he backed efforts to “advance full equality and human rights for all,” he could not support the resolution before the council. 

“Specifically, I oppose the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to weaken and delegitimize an important and long-standing partner of the United States, the democratic State of Israel,” Weinberger said, calling the movement “divisive.”

Asma Elhuni, the New Hampshire movement politics director of the political advocacy group Rights & Democracy, demonstrated in favor of the resolution. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Jewish Communities of Vermont, a statewide cultural organization, urged its members by email on Sunday to contact city councilors and express their concerns about the resolution. The organization argued that the debate was not appropriate for the Burlington City Council. 

“With all the issues facing the city today, that the Council will use its precious resources to debate an extremely complex, contentious, divisive issue of international politics is a tip-off to its real intent: to bring harm to Israel and the Jewish community through opposition to the one and only Jewish state, Israel,” the email read. “BDS is not a constructive movement to bring peace, it is a hateful initiative to target Israel alone for the failed peace process.” 

Other business 

The council on Monday also postponed a decision to pass a capital plan bond proposal, but it approved a $20 million bond for the Burlington Electric Department. Voters are expected to have an opportunity to weigh in on the bond when a special election is scheduled sometime in the fall or early winter. 

The bond would fund improvements to the city’s grid system, replace aging software, convert one of the city’s energy plants to a renewable source and continue investments in net zero energy initiatives such as electric vehicle charging stations. 

The council also supported a resolution that would charge the council’s Charter Change Committee with considering allowing Burlingtonians with legal residency, but who are not U.S. citizens, to vote in municipal elections. It was supported in a 9-1-2 vote, with Councilor Barlow voting against. Councilors Shannon and Perri Freeman, P-Central District, were absent. 

Winooski and Montpelier passed charter changes last year to similarly amend their municipal laws and allow for noncitizen voting. The charter changes were vetoed by the governor in June, but the vetoes were overridden by the House and Senate.

Clarification: This story and headline were updated to more precisely describe the resolution that was withdrawn.

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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