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City Council rescinds controversial human rights resolution

More than 200 protesters gathered inside and outside the council meeting Thursday.

Amid dueling cries of “anti-Semitism” and “Islamophobia,” the New Orleans City Council voted 7-0 Thursday to rescind a human rights resolution it passed on a 5-0 vote just two weeks ago.

The Jan. 11 resolution, which calls for a review of contracts and investments to make sure city money doesn’t go to support human rights violations but mentions no specific groups or violators, was quickly hailed as a victory for an international movement to boycott Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.

Some of those same supporters were among more than 200 protesters who gathered inside and outside the council meeting Thursday.

After the council voted to rescind the resolution, a group of Jewish activists who had backed the original resolution began singing and held up signs reading “not in our name.”

City Council members said they were stunned by how international news stories were casting their neutral, non-binding resolution as something that aligned New Orleans with a movement aimed at punishing Israel for its occupation of Palestinian territories gained in its own defense 50 years ago.

Some of those reports appeared in Arab and Israeli newspapers and said New Orleans had become the first U.S. Southern city to back the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS.

“I’m sure that folks on both sides agree with the black-and-white words on that resolution,” Council President Jason Williams said. “However, how the New Orleans City Council is viewed internationally and how we are reflected nationally, that is up to the members of the City Council.”

Williams previously told WWL-TV he felt duped by the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee that had pushed the original resolution.

“Statements from outsiders now claim that New Orleans is one of the largest cities in the United States supportive of BDS, a movement aimed at legitimizing (sic) the State of Israel,” said Councilwoman and Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell, intending to say “delegitimizing.”

Cantrell authored the original resolution but also later claimed she hadn’t realized its larger significance.

When Cantrell recounted what pro-Palestinian groups had claimed about the resolution two weeks ago, supporters in the audience cheered loudly. She looked up and admonished them: “This is totally inaccurate, untruthful and does not reflect the values of New Orleans.”

But it wasn’t just “outside groups” or the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee who said the resolution was a part of the BDS movement. The City Council’s own public relations firm, the Spears Group, put out a summary of the Jan. 11 meeting the next morning that said the human rights resolution was passed “in accordance with … BDS.”

Cleveland Spears, whose name was on the summary, has not responded to WWL-TV’s requests for an explanation.

Members of the city’s Jewish community spoke before the council Thursday while protesters’ chants could be heard through the wall behind them. They all thanked the council for reconsidering their earlier vote and asked that any future human rights resolution be considered in an open and inclusive forum. The original resolution had been added to the council’s agenda six hours into the Jan. 11 meeting and no notice was given that it was going to be considered.

Aaron Ahlquist from the Anti-Defamation League emphasized the ADL’s commitment to human rights and civil rights, but said the Jan. 11 resolution was “not the way to do this.”

“We have proudly stood beside and in solidarity with the Muslim community in opposing every iteration of the Muslim travel ban,” he said.

The passage of the resolution and subsequent backlash also raised thorny questions of whether condemning Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is necessarily anti-Semitic. The New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee and others noted that criticizing the actions of Israel’s government does not make someone anti-Jewish.

But statements put out two weeks ago from the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy did equate the BDS movement with rising anti-Jewish sentiment, and Cassidy quickly commented after Thursday’s vote to rescind the resolution that “Anti-Semitic, far-left activists wrote this crazy resolution, and it should have never seen the light of day.”

Rabbi Michael Davis of Congregation Makom Shalom in Chicago warned against such positions. He traveled from Illinois to support the original resolution and spoke on behalf of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group of rabbis and other Jews that routinely criticizes Israel. He blasted the local Jewish groups for opposing a neutral resolution because of BDS.

“They are saying that to support human rights, including in Israel-Palestine, is to hate Jews,” said Davis, a former chaplain in the Israeli Army. “And they are here to convince you that your resolution is anti-Semitic and therefore must be withdrawn. We strongly disagree.”

Tabitha Mustafa, a leader of the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee that crafted the resolution in the first place, claimed the City Council had “exceptionalized” the Jewish community.

“The resolution as written protects everyone,” she said. “There are no exceptions in the resolution.”

Mustafa alleged a group of “all-white Jews” had exerted undue influence over the council, convincing the council to undo the resolution by saying “every person out there, every person of color, every person from a marginalized community, doesn’t matter.”

None of the opponents of the resolution ever said that. Mustafa also blamed the rescinding of the resolution on the “Zionist lobby” and “Islamophobia.”

The issue of anti-Semitism that had been simmering under the surface for the last two weeks took center stage as Rabbi Ed Cohn, the former spiritual leader of Temple Sinai and a founding member of the city’s Human Rights Commission, spoke before the council.

He looked at the group of Jewish protesters who later got up to sing and said, “I see folks here wearing ‘Anti-Zionist Jews’ T-shirts, but after 1933 and 1945 there are many, many fewer, and that’s a fact,” he shouted. He was referring to the fact that Jews around the world tended to be more split on the need for a Zionist state before 1933-1945, the period of Adolf Hitler’s reign in Germany, during which 6 million European Jews were exterminated. Shortly after that, in 1948, Israel was established as a Jewish homeland in what had been the British territory of Palestine.

Supporters of the resolution booed Cohn as he said this.

Arnie Fielkow, the former City Council president who recently returned to New Orleans and now leads the area’s Jewish Federation, offered an olive branch by saying he had great respect for those who supported the original resolution.

“On another day and on other topics, the Jewish community would be standing shoulder to shoulder with them,” Fielkow said.

Editor's Note: This story was edited Jan. 26 to correct the syntax of a quote by Tabitha Mustafa and to clarify the context of her comments.