Two weeks after passing a resolution that brought an international controversy to its doorstep, the New Orleans City Council backpedaled Thursday, citing a misunderstanding of the deep divisions that surround a movement to boycott the state of Israel and a flawed approval process.
The move to rescind the resolution calling for City Hall to avoid doing business with companies that violate human rights drew an angry response from activists who said the about-face was an insult to groups that had advocated for the measure.
At the same time, the 7-0 vote heartened members of the city's Jewish community who saw the resolution as a show of support for the "boycott, divest and sanction" movement aimed against Israel.
Speakers on both sides flooded the cramped site in Algiers where the council is meeting while its chamber at City Hall undergoes renovations, with those in support of the original resolution in the majority.
More than 200 people showed up in all, forcing police officers to ask most attendees to stand outside the glass-enclosed room where the council met, citing fire code regulations.
With only 15 minutes allotted to each side for public comment, many were left without the opportunity to speak. They shouted, chanted and sang regardless, doing the latter so loudly after the vote that the council took a recess before finishing the meeting.
Council President Jason Williams, who voted for the measure initially before agreeing to rescind it, said the council was not the right venue for sorting out the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
"We are not going to solve the Middle East crisis in the city of New Orleans today," Williams said.
"That's offensive!" one supporter of the resolution replied.
Williams and Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell — who authored the resolution — reiterated why they had agreed to reconsider it, saying they had not understood how it would be construed locally and around the world.
They also said the resolution was passed without giving the public enough opportunity to voice opinions.
“Although there were no malicious intentions, we understand that the procedure used was not clearly in the spirit of transparency or in the spirit of inclusion that has consistently guided the decisions of ... this council,” Williams said.
Cantrell, after reading aloud a statement she released last week disputing the council's alleged support of the boycott movement, said she understood exclusion all too well as an African-American woman, and that it was never her intent to sideline any point of view.
The resolution at the center of the dispute had no practical effect or force of law. It encouraged the creation of a review process by which the council could gauge whether companies the city contracts with commit human or civil rights violations.
The New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee submitted an early version of the measure to the council in December, Gambit first reported, calling it a first step toward cutting ties with companies that profit from the Israeli military.
Cantrell produced the final version, which did not mention Israel and which she called an initial move toward a review of all city contracts guided by community input.
It passed the council by a 5-0 vote on Jan. 11, with Cantrell and Stacy Head absent but endorsing it anyhow, and Susan Guidry voting in favor but expressing reservations. The council took it up at the end of a six-hour meeting after a suspension of the rules and on the same day the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans had briefed the council on its contributions to the city.
The Palestinian group and others cheered the original vote. And the measure drew notice from national publications, which cited New Orleans as the first city in the South to pass a measure seen as supportive of the boycott initiative, which has been opposed by legislatures in 24 U.S. states.
The Jewish federation issued a sharp rebuke a day later, calling the approval a “stealth tactic” designed to divide communities. Mayor Mitch Landrieu also rejected it, saying it was not reflective of New Orleans' history of inclusion and diversity.
Cantrell and most council members at first stood firm, arguing that the resolution did not single out Israel or any other country, despite a release from the council’s public relations firm that said the measure was “in accordance with” the movement to boycott Israel.
As the clamor rose, however, Williams backtracked, saying that he was unaware of the boycott movement or its mission and that the way the resolution was approved was improper. Guidry also said it should be rescinded.
Cantrell eventually relented, calling the resolution's impact and the boycott movement out of step with city values and saying the council planned to withdraw the measure.
Dozens of people showed up Thursday, either to urge council members to stand pat on the resolution or to thank them for rescinding it. At times the discussion devolved into harsh accusations and loud chanting.
The resolution “cleverly masqueraded as a high-minded civic statement, designed to address and prevent human rights abuses,” said Rabbi Edward Cohn, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Temple Sinai and founding chairman of the city’s Human Relations Commission, an agency that works to end discrimination and promote human rights.
But “immediately upon its passage, the true intent behind the resolution was made abundantly clear," he continued. "God forbid that our city ever be considered to support this anti-Israel group, as some — not all — but some of its leaders and supporters have trafficked in anti-Semitic rhetoric."
Tabitha Mustafa, from the Palestinian group, acknowledged that the "human rights resolution may be a win for the (boycott) movement." But she added, "All that means is that this resolution values the lives of Palestinians, because that’s all the (boycott) movement is about. It is also a win for any other organization, and cause, that values human civil and labor rights.”
She said after the vote that the flip-flop was a slap in her and other supporters' faces and was proof that the council cared more about pleasing its donors than the community at large.
Arnie Fielkow, a former councilman and now the CEO of the Jewish Federation, said he was pleased by the council's move and hoped the federation and Mustafa’s group could continue to debate the Israel-Palestinian dispute among themselves, rather than in the council chambers.
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