Members of the New Orleans City Council say they want a do-over after learning they inadvertently stumbled into an international controversy last week.
The council voted 5-0 last Thursday to plan a review of the city’s contracts and investments to ensure that none of them support companies or entities that have violated human, civil or labor rights around the world.
But after belatedly realizing the resolution was part of an international movement to boycott Israel, City Council President Jason Williams and other council members say they will move to reconsider it at their next council meeting.
On its surface, the resolution looked innocuous and made no reference to any specific human rights violations. But the City Council’s public relations firm, the Spears Group, put out a summary of the council meeting Thursday that clearly stated the resolution was “in accordance with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, also known as BDS."
That was news to the City Council president, Jason Williams, even though he was the one who added the resolution to the council’s agenda.
“I'm sad to say I didn't realize or know anything about the BDS movement until a friend, Harold Asher, educated me on it Friday morning and I began to do my research,” said Williams, who said Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell had only notified him about the resolution on Jan. 10, the day before the council meeting.
BDS is a non-violent movement dedicated to economically punishing Israel and companies that do business with it as a protest of the Jewish State’s 50-year military occupation of the West Bank. Israel gained the West Bank and other territories while defending itself from a simultaneous attack by six Arab countries in 1967’s Six Day War.
Other council members joined Williams in saying they had no idea that the resolution was based on condemnation of Israel.
“I had no clue we were stepping into an international political controversy,” Susan Guidry said in an interview with WWL-TV.
Even Cantrell, who drafted the resolution as a part of her Welcoming Cities initiative, said she was baffled by its connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I didn’t know it would be this controversial,” Cantrell told WWL.
When WWL-TV asked her if she knew her resolution had been crafted by the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee, she equivocated.
“Um… I know that there were students -- I believe they were students -- that were at the council meeting, I believe, because I saw them when I was leaving,” she said.
The passage of the resolution was immediately trumpeted by pro-Palestinian groups as a watershed moment: they claimed it was the first official support for BDS from a Southern American city.
The story was picked up by national and international news agencies including The Associated Press, The Intercept, the Arab Daily News, the Middle East Eye and even Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Haaretz.
That prompted outcry from local Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and the Anti-Defamation League, and from Louisiana politicians, including U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who called the council's action "crazy," and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, D-New Orleans, who said the resolution was “ill-advised.”
Adding to the intrigue, the resolution was not on the agenda and had to be added by vote six hours into the meeting, but members of the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee turned out in force to speak in favor of the resolution.
Tabitha Mustafa of the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee came to the microphone and explained exactly what the resolution meant to her group.
“This decision, like the one the council made to divest from South Africa in the 1980s, is historic,” Mustafa said.
Speakers specifically took aim at Caterpillar, urging New Orleans to end all contracts with the firm for making a bulldozer that Israel’s military has used to raze thousands of Palestinians’ homes.
Even after hearing those comments, however, Williams and Guidry said they did not connect the resolution with any pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel movement.
Speaking in favor of the resolution before the vote, Max Geller, a member of the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee, specifically thanked Williams for backing the group’s efforts for the last year. Williams responded from the dais by saying, “Mr. Geller, thank you for keeping your foot on the gas.”
Williams told WWL-TV he had not worked with Geller or the pro-Palestinian group on the human rights resolution, but rather on unrelated issues, including opposition to President Donald Trump’s original Muslim immigration ban last year.
Williams says that’s why he feels duped.
“We do not stand for the things that have been stated since Thursday,” he said. “And I need to make it very clear: The City of New Orleans, Jason Williams, is not anti-Israel and there is no notion or hint of anti-Semitism in the New Orleans City Council.”
But Geller said Thursday, Jan. 18, that Williams was not accurately portraying his involvement. Williams stood with members of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee almost a year ago, on the steps of City Hall, and pledged his support after they asked him if he would commit to a resolution to review city investments.
Williams said he reviewed a list of the group's demands, including the investment-screening resolution, and declined to sign it. He said he never met with Geller specifically on the human rights resolution. But Geller said he explained to Williams that BDS was the movement that fought South African Apartheid in the 1980s and pointed out that Williams referred to the anti-Apartheid movement in supporting the resolution at the City Council meeting.
What's more, Geller said he and other members of the BDS movement worked hard to draft a resolution that was neutral, that everyone could support without singling out Israel. Indeed, even while expressing disappointment about the resolution passing, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans acknowledged that it supported the language of the resolution itself.
Less than four months from taking office as mayor, Cantrell now says she wants to patch things up with the city's disappointed Jewish community.
“What I'm doing now is pretty much just listening to the Jewish community in terms of what would revisions look like,” Cantrell said. “Because, without any mention of the Jewish community, without any mention of the Palestinian community, I'm really looking for guidance from the Jewish community as to what would need to change.”
Guidry, one of only two council members who did not sign on to co-sponsor the resolution, said there shouldn’t be any question about what needs to happen now: They must rescind the resolution, she said.
“On its face, this resolution speaks to social justice and equity,” Guidry said. “I believe it has been marred by being attached to this controversy. I think we should rescind it, do a motion to reconsider, vote it down, and then let's get together and come up with a resolution that everyone can feel is for our good and is not pointed at anyone.”
Editor's Note: This story was updated Jan. 18 to include comment from Max Geller and Sen. Bill Cassidy.