Somerville Divestment Revisited – Strategy

1 Sep

This longish piece ends (or really capstones) this month-long summer series on Somerville with a set of strategic and tactical lessons that I’ve tried to implement when possible over the last ten years of fighting against BDS.  As Israel’s supports face one of our most challenging years yet, I hope it provides some useful thoughts for everyone else in this fight.

There is not much to be learned about political dynamics by reading communications put out by divestment advocates after each of their numerous defeats.  For, according to their analysis, time and time again, it turns out that setbacks are always the result of unrelenting pressure from the all-powerful, well-funded (albeit largely ill-defined) “Zionist Lobby.”

According to SDP, this “lobby” (or put more precisely “The Lobby”) strong-armed Somerville’s aldermen to reverse their position on the original divestment resolution in 2004.  In 2005, Somerville’s mayor and city officials (apparently following the dictates of “The Lobby”) thwarted the will of the people by refusing to allow divestment onto the citywide ballot (a decision upheld by a district court judge who one SDP member decried as being “bought off” by the you-know-whos).

In 2006, the year in which SDP finally got the ballot fight it craved, rejection by the voters was yet another example of co-opted “mainstream politicians” confusing the masses from voting in the way SDP claims was their only moral choice.  Outside of the amusing addition of a certain sinister Jewish millionaire to their storyline [Note: A story for another time], the tale remains the same: an all-powerful, well-organized, fully coordinated Jewish community/lobby united to defeat the heroic efforts of the SDP.

Would that this were remotely accurate.  But, in truth, each of the three Somerville campaigns represented different political dynamics, dynamics based on differing amounts of time, resources and organizational will.

In 2004, divestment advocates succeeded in catching the citizens of Somerville and the wider Boston-area Jewish community completely by surprise.  By the time their activities became public, they had nearly gotten the city’s aldermen to pass a resolution urging divestment from the Jewish state.  And once word got out, there was little more than a month to do anything about it.

Within this very tight timeframe, individuals and groups did what they could.  I started this Web site, Somerville citizens met with their own aldermen and communicated with others via mail (both snail and e-).   Jewish organizations in the area put out calls to members to attend aldermen’s hearings (which they did, although never in larger numbers than divestment supporters).  While it would be nice to think that our efforts were the determining factor in the city’s ultimate rejection of divestment, in truth the jig was up for SDP the minute officials realized that City Hall had become the latest front in the Arab-Israel conflict.  Once the aldermen understood that they had been misled on the nature of this conflict and the significance of their vote, these leaders rejected divestment and have been the sharpest critics of SDP ever since.

In 2005, the year SDP (for all intents and purposes) had become a wholly-owned subsidiary of a group called One Palestine, their plans to get divestment onto the citywide ballot were known well in advance.  To meet this challenge, Somerville veterans from the 2004 battle joined with members from a variety of community groups to launch an organized “decline-to-sign” campaign to educate Somerville citizens in hope that they would not sign the petition required to give SDP access to the November 2005 ballot.

Was that campaign successful?  We will never know for sure.  SDP claimed to have gotten more than the 4200 signatures required to get onto the ballot (which, if true, means we failed), yet no one has ever seen these documents or verified that they are legitimate (which means we might have succeeded).   For the sake of argument, and putting aside the dubiousness of their claims (see 4400), if our campaign was not successful, that means SDP was denied access to the ballot purely because of the political incompetence of its leadership which from the start of their 2005 campaign refused to play by the rules (and, as the courts verified, to obey the law).

This latest election [Note: In 2006] was the first time that either side in this debate faced the voters, requiring each of us to field a formal political campaign.  Unlike 2004, we were not taken by surprise.  But unlike 2005, we did not have six months to organize a counter-effort.  In fact, there was a serious debate as to whether we should engage divestment/right of return advocates this year, or simply ignore them.  It was only after a last-minute successful push to get volunteers to the polling places on Primary Day that we decided to use the next six weeks to organize a proper campaign urging a No vote on questions #5 and #6.

This relatively tight timeframe actually worked to our advantage.  For within the confines of six weeks, there was only time to get a specific set of tasks accomplished, with little time left over to create an organizational infrastructure or define a hierarchy of decision-makers.  Finite time and resources required us to prioritize: create strategies that involved doing some things and not others.  Most notably, the task-based nature of the campaign meant that everyone involved with the project performed tasks that they were uniquely qualified to accomplish.  My writing ability was put to the task of developing campaign materials.  People who lived in the area (and were comfortable with public politicking) took care of visibility before Election Day.  Organizations with political contacts got our message out to candidates and to critical audiences inside Somerville.  Political and religious groups (as well as individuals) put out the call for Election Day volunteers, a call which gave us over 100 people to send to polling places throughout the day.

In short, the campaign was not run by an organization but rather functioned as a team.  This is an important distinction that I’ve been mulling over for the last few weeks since this strategy proved to be so effective on Election Day.

If you will indulge an analogy: in my work life, I run a small IT business, part of a larger organization providing services to institutions such as corporations and schools.  Historically, large institutions looking for major IT solutions would turn to a “white knight” company or consulting group such as IBM or Accenture to solve a major business problem or implement a complex technology system.

In recent years, however, these same clients are asking vendors (such as us) to work in partnership with other companies (sometimes even competitors) to create a solution that incorporates the best features or capabilities of each company’s product or service.  This project-based teaming has been discussed in industry literature for over a decade, but in the last few years it has become part of everyday life, particularly for those in the technology biz.  Where once market dominance was a sign of business health, today the ability to partner and integrate is defining industry leadership.

So what the hell does that have to do with the price of Guinness Stout in Somerville?

Within this business analogy, the central unit is not the organization (or company), but the project-based team.  Never mind that I might be slitting my competitors throat in the proposal going out on Tuesday.  On Monday, this same competitor is my partner and we are both contributing our best work for the sake of a successful project for a common client.

If you look at the world of Jewish political and social activism, there is an alphabet soup of major organizations: CJP, JCRC, ADL, JCPA, AIPAC and many others who have historically represented the institutional leadership of the Jewish community, supporting the diverse needs of the Jewish people in the US and beyond.  At the same time, a large number of new organizations have sprung up over the last decade (CAMERA, David Project, StandWithUs, JCUI, etc.).  These smaller groups are often focused on specific issues (such as pro-Israel activism) and have been a reaction to (1) the world situation vis-à-vis Israel hatred, terrorism and anti-Semitism and (2) a perception that the mainstream “alphabet soup” Jewish organizations have missions too broad to allow them to focus on key issues of concern.

To a certain extent, the emergence of smaller organizations with highly focused missions parallels changes in the last century’s economy when the number of small businesses exploded, providing innovation and energy to industries and ultimately changing the dynamics of much large business entities as well as the economy generally.  Naturally, there is a rivalry (often even antagonism) between bigger, well-funded institutions with broad missions (including the mission to sustain themselves) and more flexible, action-oriented organizations that can devote a majority of energy to activism on what they consider to be the most important issues of the day.

While many (possibly most) people see this rivalry as unchanging and unchangeable, a different way of approaching this challenge was recently demonstrated in Somerville.   Rather than asking any one institution to take the reigns of the campaign, instead the aforementioned team emerged consisting of local veterans from previous divestment campaigns and activisms from a variety of groups.  Never mind that in other contexts these individuals or groups might be bitterly divided politically and even religiously.  Never mind that some of the institutions involved with the campaign may compete for the same donor dollars.  For the purposes of winning the election in Somerville, each of us focused on what our particular skill set allows us to contribute to the team effort.  There was no need for us to agree on this aspect of the Middle East peace process or that aspect of American partisan politics.  We were not creating a permanent organization that would eventually have bylaws and positions on critical issues that would have to be carefully worded and agreed to.  Rather, we had a goal (victory in a local election), a timeframe (six weeks), specific (and limited) human and financial resources and a willingness to focus exclusively on the tasks at hand, not on the political identity of the person standing next to us at the polling place.

Now it may be that Somerville was a unique situation: a political campaign with a specific beginning, middle and end whose dynamic does not lend itself to replication in other political circumstances.  That said, even issues that seem daunting (like the international divestment movement), challenges that seem so large that they can only be assigned to a major institution can frequently be broken into smaller pieces, each manageable by a team.

Using divestment as a case in point, a team (populated both individuals and members of small and large organizations) proved very effective in derailing divest-from-Israel campaigns in US municipalities.  Within the mainline Protestant churches, major Jewish institutions played an important role in communicating to the Presbyterians and others the displeasure of the Jewish community with divestment decisions they had taken in recent years.  However, the actual work of overturning these measures was the effort of small teams, most notably groups of Presbyterians united to take back their church from divestment forces.  The accumulated, uncoordinated work of these many teams has led to the effective death of divestment, at least in the US, to the point where even the Somerville Divestment Project seemed afraid to use the “d-word” during their campaign for fear of being tainted by a loser issue.

I wish I could say how this team dynamic can be packaged and utilized in this or that political situation.  In truth, it probably can’t be used in everywhere and all the time.  There will be occasions when the influence of a major institution is called for, just as there will be times when a nimble, activist group needs to take to the streets to get something accomplished.  But in those situations where it one longs for the resources and reach of “the majors” combined with the flexibility and speed of smaller more focused organizations (or individuals), it would be wonderful to see the dynamic of the goal-oriented team replace rivalry and conflict as a central dynamic in Jewish politics.

Despite what our detractors think and say, the Jewish community has too few resources to waste any part of them: human, financial and otherwise, in intramural conflicts that could at least be temporarily put aside to accomplish a focused goal.  The team does not require us to agree.  It does not require us to love each other or even like each other (although members of successful goal-oriented teams often show better social dynamics than people organized around specific political beliefs or principles).  It just requires us to temporarily put what each of us does best into a common pot, and put aside any other matters just long enough to win.

Somerville Divestment Revisited – Jackhammer

31 Aug

A previous essay discussed the closing moves of my favorite professional wrestler, Bill Goldberg.  These included the Spear (a high-velocity head butt) followed by the Jackhammer (dropping an inverted foe head-first to the ring mat).  This Monday, Somerville was treated to something unique in wrestling: the first self-inflicted Jackhammer delivered by the So-Called Somerville Divestment Project (SC-SDP) on itself.

Having lost the alderman’s vote last Chanukah, the SC-SDP’s second defeat in a year fell ironically on the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah.  Having thumbed their noses at the rules for non-binding ballot petitions for close to six months, the SDP’s fantasy of having this November’s official Somerville election ballot printed with their accusations of Israeli racism and Apartheid word-for-word ran smack into reality in the form of the City Election Commissioner and the Cambridge Superior Court.

Absent anything to show for their effort (or the contributions in time and money by volunteers and donors), the organization has been left with few options other than declaring victory and slinking back to church basements where they can gather with the like minded, making speeches and showing films that “prove” that black is white, night is day and Israel (the target of aggression from dozens of tyrannical, oil-rich states since it’s birth) is the source of all misery in the Middle East.

Now that the group is busy demonstrating that it was never more than the latest reconfiguration of the same tired gaggle of anti-Israel activists that travel under numerous names in the Boston area, a question remains: how did such an unrepresentative, tiny bunch of extremists ever manage to hijack debate in the city of Somerville for over a year?  No doubt they would claim that it was their “grassroots appeal” that made them “the voice of the people,” However, I believe that their source of influence came from somewhere else.  Simply put, the SC-SDP got as far as it did because too many people who should have known better handed them the power to do so.

When Somerville’s alderman unwittingly gave the SDP the opportunity to give their agenda the backing of state power, suddenly the anti-Israel petitions and rallies that have always been background noise in the area turned into instruments by which city government was being asked to stake its reputation on the divestment message that Israel was a racist, Apartheid state alone in the world at deserving economic punishment.

The city’s aldermen cannot be blamed for being manipulated by a group as cynical and ruthless as the SDP.  In fact, once they came to fully understand the issue, they became some of our best allies in helping see divestment defeated.  Yet all of us have learned in the last year that had this motion not come close to being approved, many people would not have had to put  months into seeing divestment defeated and defeated again before this issue was finally expelled from our body politic.

A few dozen Israel haters sharing films in church cellars is not only what the SDP has been reduced to.  It’s all they have ever been.  Yes, divestment’s alliances with Money and Power mean that their crusade against Palestinian victimization (solely under Israeli jurisdiction, of course) will always have a bigger megaphone than the suffering multitudes of Kurdistan, Tibet and Sudan.  Yes, kings and presidents and chairmen of the board must pay homage to the Palestinian rights and Israeli wrongs, at least in the world of global politics and economics that often requires compromise and occasional cynicism.  But that does not mean such cynical calculations need to filter down to our cities, our schools our churches and synagogues, the local building blocks of our civil society.

Somerville’s citizens and leaders learned a hard lesson that there are people out there who will ruthlessly misuse the language of human rights to further their own narrow partisan ends.  By falling for a movement that wrapped itself in a false identity of “even handedness” and “justice,” divestment was let in the door and only the work of countless citizens putting in hundreds of hours has finally gotten them out.

Now it is the responsibility of not just city leaders, but all of us, everyone who took part in the debate and those who chose to sit it out, to let people in other cities, towns, universities, churches and civic organizations know that a movement roams the land asking virtuous organizations to lend their name and reputation to wicked purpose, all under the false guise of protecting the weak and fighting for progress.  Divestment took over Somerville for a year because we let it do so.  Vigilance is required to make sure it never happens again, in Somerville or anywhere else.

Somerville Divestment Revisited – Judgement

30 Aug

This longish piece covers the first courtroom battle I know of regarding BDS.  In addition to documenting how the particular 2005 divestment battle in Somerville ended, it also demonstrates why I’m not a big fan of legal remedies to political disputes since – as far as I know – everyone who has brought a suit regarding some BDS-related case (for or against) has lost in court.

The So-Called Somerville Divestment Project’s (SC-SDP’s) case that their failure was the result of great injustice is based on accusation of unfairness by Justice Julian Houston at the SDP vs. Somerville trial last week in Cambridge District Court.

“Where is the justice,” cries one SDP member. “The Superior Court Judge ruled against us in a grossly unfair decision,” cries another, all making the same case, that the SDP was absolutely within its rights to use any document it wished for it’s petitioning, and could collect signatures whenever and as long as it wanted.

Those of you bewildered by talk of Chapter 53, Section 18A and other state legislation and rules regarding ballot petitions might benefit from a description of the court proceedings in detail since, by good fortune, I was able to attend the hearing and witness both side’s legal cases while they were being made.

The trial took place in Room 7B of the Cambridge Superior Court building, by coincidence the same room I sat in while performing a week of jury duty regarding a back-ended automobile and very bad toupee (a story for another time).

The SDP was represented by attorney Neil Berman and a Lawyer’s Guild associate.  John Gannon, the solicitor for Somerville, represented the city.  Another attorney, Bill McDermott, represented a group of Somerville citizens who are part of the Somerville Coalition for Middle East Peace, a group which – in the interest of full disclosure – I should disclose my membership in.

The audience was surprisingly sparse, given that hundreds of people attended the alderman’s meetings last year.  Two SDP members were there, carrying with them four cardboard boxes allegedly stuffed with signed petitions.  Our side included just me and two other members of the anti-divestment coalition.  Given the courtroom setting, I was looking forward to the issues being hashed out in a dignified environment.  While certain SDP members found the courage to storm the alderman’s podium last year and burst into song, I strongly suspected they would not be interested in making the same kind of statement in the presence of armed court officers.  Also, the context of a court trial meant that decisions would be based on facts and law, leaving little room for the type of emotional arguments that have characterized the debate to date.

The SDP’s attorney’s opening statement made a lucid case that Massachusetts law is vague on details regarding non-binding ballot petitions and that such vagueness could be interpreted as intentional because non-binding ballot drives do not circumvent the legislative process (since they are simply a way for voters to express an opinion, not a substitute for lawmaking).

The Somerville solicitor countered with an equally compelling argument that imparting legislator intention to the law’s vagueness was just speculation and that whenever law is vaguely worded, branches of government (including city officials or the courts) look at similar law (such as much more specific state statues regarding binding petitions) or legal precedent for guidance as to how vaguely worded laws should be interpreted.

Presiding over the case, Justice Julian Houston (who I later discovered played a prominent role in the civil rights movement in Boston and beyond), listened to both statements and indicated that the question foremost on his mind was whether or not, in the absence of clear guidance from state statute, the city was within its rights to determine procedures for a non-binding ballot petition and require those seeking such a petition to follow city-specified rules.

Discussions moved onto the petition itself, with Justice Houston inquiring as to why the city’s sanctioned petition (which included just one line asking if the signing voter supported putting divestment on the ballot) was so abbreviated from the SDP original form (which included a multi-part indictment of the Jewish state).  Gannon indicated that the original petition never actually specified that the signer was being asked to support a ballot initiative, the question posed at the end of the petition merely asking if the signer supported divesting Somerville’s retirement holdings from Israel bonds and US companies doing business with Israel.  He also indicated that the first three “Whereas'” of the SDP petition constituted political campaigning which would not be allowed within 150 feet of a polling place under Massachusetts election law, which was why the Somerville Election Commission could hardly allow such language on the ballot itself.

After some backing and forthing, it was clear that the judge was mostly interested in the one paragraph of the original SDP petition that had to do with fact, rather than opinion, the fourth “Whereas” specifying the scale of Somerville’s current holdings in Israeli-related securities.  While this questioning had some merit, it was quickly clear that nothing could be done to create a court-ordered compromise petition that would satisfy either party.  Gannon stressed that the deadline for filing petitions was days away and that the SDP had squandered the chance to work with the city’s Election Commission to come up with an appropriately worded petition and was thus now facing problems of its own making.

Interestingly, the SDP attorney also expressed no interest in coming up with a compromise form.  This was no doubt prompted by the eleventh hour nature of the deliberations, but I also got the impression that SDP was committed to language that included multiple condemnations of Israel as a racist and Apartheid state, hoping that somehow such language would end up printed verbatim on a Somerville election ballot in November.

After some careful questioning of both sides regarding timelines and deadlines for various steps in the petition and ballot process, the court recognized Attorney McDermott as having standing in the case (representing, as he did, Somerville voters who would be affected by the decision).  McDermott indicated that while state legislation regarding the form and format of a petition for a ballot initiative might be vague, the scheduling requirements for such a drive were very clear and that SDP should not have been collecting signatures before the August 10th deadline specified by the Somerville Election Commission.  McDermott held before him several affidavits from witnesses (including one from me) saying they had seen SDP signature gathering months before that deadline.  The judge seemed surprisingly dismissive of this written testimony, although that might have been because the SDP was not making the case that they had collected their names within the legal time window.  Rather, they were saying that the time window, like the format of the petition, was open to interpretation and thus all of their activity was undertaken legally and properly.

At this point, Justice Houston surprised everyone in the room by deciding to issue a judgment from the bench.  Slowly and deliberatively, the judge brought the question back to whether or not the city has the right to make the rules when the state has failed to lay out specific steps that must be followed by all municipalities.  In his opinion, the city was indeed within its rights to do so.  Since the only question he was being asked to decide was whether he should compel the city to set aside those rules for the sake of the SDP, he announced that he would not do so and thus the SDP’s motion was denied.

To say that the courtroom was a site of high drama would have been an understatement.  For those of us raised on The People’s Court and Law and Order, we were not used to a justice who moved at his own pace (not the camera’s), a justice who took the time needed to make a deliberate and sensible judgment.  The city’s filing in the case included a sworn affidavit stating that election commission officials informed the SDP of the rules, rules the SDP chose not to follow.  Had evidence shown that the city had been arbitrary or misleading as to what those rules were, I suspect the court would have looked more favorably upon the SDP’s argument.  But in light of the evidence presented, the justice’s ruling was unequivocal.

One of the SDP’s most compelling arguments (made in both its responses to the court ruling noted above) indicate that the group had received assurance (presumably verbal) from city and state officials that they could collect signatures on any form they wished for as long as they liked.  While I do not have access to their official court filing that might have provided information about the form such assurances took, it was interesting to note that the SDP’s own attorneys chose not to bring up that argument in court.

While one can dismiss comments made during the SDP press conference on Friday that claimed Justice Houston had been “bought off” as heated rhetoric after a major disappointment, it does seem to me that the organization is running out of branches of government to besmirch and alienate.

More to the point, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Cambridge Court may have actually been doing the SC-SDP a favor, by allowing them to claim moral victory with 4500 signed forms that would never need to be checked, never need to be verified.

As noted in previous writing, it’s been comforting that this year the anti-divestment side was organized and (unlike last year) did not consist of people like me working in a vacuum.  And I take great pride in everything we did to inform the public about the harm divestment would do to the city of Somerville.

That said, I wish I could say our effort had more to do with divestment’s failure than the SDP’s own fanaticism and unwillingness to play by the rules.  In their heart of hearts, I suspect they truly believed that they could force the city to print up thousands of ballots that would give their hateful rhetoric of the Jewish state the official imprint of the Somerville city government.  Apparently, anything they were told that conflicted with that desire crawled in one ear and flew out the other.

Now that divestment has gone down to defeat not once, but twice in less than one year, the SDP leadership is no doubt being faced by donors who provided them thousands of dollars, and volunteers who trudged through the streets of Somerville for weeks on end to “sell” divestment to a public that was thankfully not buying.  How to explain that these leaders’ own arrogance and ideological blindness wasted everyone’s time and money and doomed their movement, not just in Somerville but in municipalities around the country?

Last Thursday in court, the SDP’s narrow-minded, blinkered view of the world ran smack into justice.  And justice, and the people of Somerville, were the winners.

 

Somerville Divestment Revisited – 4400

29 Aug

This piece was written after the Somerville Divestment Project (precursors to the part of today’s BDS “movement” dedicated to municipal divestment) lost their attempt to sue an anti-Israel tirade onto the official ballot in Somerville, MA.  A blow-by-blow of that court decision will appear tomorrow.

With divestment on November’s ballot looking less and less likely, the So-Called Somerville Divestment Project (SC-SDP) has turned its attention towards mythmaking.

“The Somerville Divestment Project collected 4,400 signatures…” cried SC-SDP member John Spritzler when notice went out to supporters last weekend delivering the bad news that the Cambridge Superior Court upheld the city’s right to reject petitions they considered to have been illegally gathered. (Interestingly, that numbered climbed to 4500 when the same notice was posted on the SDP Web site on Wednesday night.)

In the pro-divestment storyline, these 4400 (or more, or less – see below) alleged signatures represent the voice of the people supporting “[t]he fact,” says Mr. Spritzler, “that over 4,500 Somerville voters want a democratic vote on divestment from Israel.”  And who prevented the people’s will from being acted upon?  The city, Mayor Joe “Israel” Curtatone, and no doubt behind them, operating in the shadows, the “You Know Whos.”

Angered that the people will not get to vote on this important issue, Mr. Spritzler bitterly declares that “our so-called democracy is a sham” (forgetting that he once wrote “urging people to vote is the opposite of urging them to join a revolutionary movement”).  But who can blame this momentary lapse in consistency when the clearly stated will of 4000+ citizens has been thwarted.

Or has it?  Forgive me for not taking the SC-SDP at its word, especially with regard to quantitative information.  During last year’s alderman’s debate, the organization frequently alluded to a petition signed by over 1500 Somerville citizens that triggered their political action.  But when a ward-by-ward count of those signatures appeared in the paper months later, that number turned out to actually be 540.  Looking at how the SDP treats statistics related to the Arab-Israeli conflict (see Numbers), they seem to demonstrate an uncanny tendency to multiply all numbers that benefit them by a factor of 3 (and reduce all numbers that harm their case – like the 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands – to zero).

Consider the following:

  • The SDP – by its own admission – has been collecting signatures for their ballot petition since March of this year.  And by August 29th, they had managed to submit 999 of them to the city’s election board.  And now, less than a month later, they somehow managed to collect more than three times that number of new signatures, all during a period when (unlike March through August), they faced organized opposition on the street.
  • The city reported that of the 999 petitions submitted in August, only 692 were from valid Somerville voters (a reduction of more than 20%).  Presuming this percentage drop-off continued, this means that even if they actually had 4400 (or even 4500 names), a continued 20% level of invalidation would still have meant they failed to collect a sufficient number of names to get onto the ballot.
  • Part of the opposition (to which, it should be noted in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member) involved phone banking to several thousand Somerville residents, during which time opposition to divestment outpolled support by ten to one.  Interestingly enough, this trend exactly mirrors other progressive communities, such as Harvard University, where opposition to divestment out-petitioned support by the same ten to one ratio.

While not scientific, I can also provide anecdotal information based on the little time I spent holding a sign in Davis Square.  During that period, over a dozen people let me know they supported our anti-divestment stand, or did so after hearing our side of the story.  This was balanced by two divestment supporters who gave me the finger as they drove by in their cars.

And then there is that drifting total that, even in the SDP storyline, refuses to stand still.  Did they collect 4200 signatures (as was mentioned in court last Thursday), or 4400 (as they announced over the weekend) or 4500 (as they state in their current press releases)?  Given the criticality of numbers to this debate, how difficult can it be to get a precise count?

Now it could be that through extraordinary effort, the SDP reached out to 3500 people in one month’s time, despite the opposition, and made it past the finish line.  Forgive me if I say I’m just not seeing it.

Nor has anyone else, for that matter.  In court, SDP carried in several cardboard cartons, supposedly stuffed with legitimately signed documents.  And at their press conference, they stood next to several thick bundles of forms.  Yet I have piles of paper on my desk at least as tall as those.  Was the city’s refusal to accept the SDP petitions and the court’s subsequent support for that refusal the outrage claimed by divestment’s supporters, or was it a relief that freed the SDP from having to have their 4200/4400/4500 names verified?  Was the crown of martyrdom the goal all along (or at least the goal once it was clear they were never going to be able to reach the number of legitimate names they needed)?

Of course, all this is speculative, and Justice Houston (who presided over the SDP vs. Somerville trial last week in Cambridge Court) would cast me a withering gaze if this were my presentation in his courtroom.  And yet we are similarly being asked to take at face value that the SDP has reached remarkably challenging goals in the face of significant evidence, including the fact that they were less than 25% the way there less then 30 days ago.

USA Network had a successful hit on their hands last year, a sci-fi thriller series called The 4400.  The show concerns a group of (you guessed it) 4400 people deposited on a beach by a comet, people who had disappeared from the planet years or decades earlier.  While fans spent last season discussing if the 4400 were taken and returned by aliens or men from the future, the series has yet to explain how this entire group made a stop in Somerville during the last thirty days to hand the SDP a supposed victory that the numbers would not seem to support.

Somerville Divestment Revisited – Mission Creep

28 Aug

As the second chapter of the Somerville divestment story inches to a close, you can see what happened by reading this spoiler that chronicled the first two years of the Somerville BDS story.

Not to keep dwelling on the So-Called Somerville Divestment Project (SC-SDP) Web site, but from experience with my own writing on the Internet, I’ve always felt that a person or organization’s official site is often a window into their political soul.

What then is one to make of the astounding mission creep of the SC-SDP Web site over the last several months as their hope for getting on the ballot fades, partly because of the existence of an organized political opposition, partly due to their own blunders?

Where once the group seemed happy to fill their site with endless streams of condemnations of the Jewish state, culled from every source they could find (including some of the world’s most repugnant bigots and Jew baiters), the group seems to have turned its wrath on the United States of late.

The organization’s opposition to the Iraq War is certainly something that could be reasonably explained as part of the organization’s “portfolio” of Middle East causes.  But why is the group now focusing its attention on issues regarding Puerto Rican nationalism, the U.S. economy, and Hurricane Katrina?  While these are all interesting topics for debate, it appears as though the SC-SDP’s one-sided harangue against Israel is transforming before our eyes into a general critique of US domestic and foreign policy, indistinguishable from that of International ANSWER and similar loud organizations.

Even with regard to hurricane relief in the Gulf Coast, the SC-SDP has gone beyond legitimate criticism of local, state and national responses to recent natural disaster to indulge in grotesque conspiracy theories whereby US (and Israeli) companies contributing to disaster relief are characterized as mercenaries feeding off the misfortune of others.  Given that the divestment movement is allied with some of those wealthiest nations in the world, one is tempted to ask what divestment’s champions have contributed to the alleviation of misery in New Orleans, other than drop a donation link on their Web site (fifteen seconds of effort by any decent HTML programmer) and cast aspersions on those actually doing something down there.  One is also tempted to ask what experiences have left Israelis uniquely qualified to help find survivors buried under mountains of rubble, talents they have been asked to apply with increasing frequency in disasters both natural (hurricanes and earthquakes) and man-made (bombs placed in high-rise buildings).

The SC-SDP has also shown an increasing interest in “Neo-Cons” and their nefarious role in shaping US foreign policy since 9/11.  For some, the emergence of neo-conservativism as a competitor to other political philosophies such as traditional conservativism (which values stability and caution in foreign affairs) and liberalism (which shares neo-conservativism’s internationalism, although not necessarily its priorities) is an important subject of discussion and debate.  Yet this interesting discussion seems to have passed the members of the SC-SDP by.  For them, “Neo-Con,” as one late-night comedy wag put it, translates to: “‘Con’ meaning ‘conservative’ and ‘Neo’ meaning ‘Jew.'”

It would be one thing if the endless lists of conspiratorial “Neos” with Jewish-sounding names and wicked schemes for dragging the US into war with Iraq today and Iran tomorrow represented even a shred of original thinking.  But like everything on the Somerville Divestment Project Web site, this particular conspiracy theory is just another mix of paranoia, balderdash and outrage written by someone else and “linked though” with a feeble qualification that that it does not necessarily represent the opinions of the SDP.  Sure.

In a few days we will know if the arrogance and fanaticism of the SDP leadership has doomed their movement for municipal divestiture, not just in Somerville but around the country.  If and when that happens, I expect the SDP site (if it is not shut down) to continue its descent into a quagmire of assault and conspiracy, targeted at any and all who disagree with what the ‘movement” stands for (whatever that might be on a given day).  Coupled, of course, with feeble attempts at seizing the crown of martyrdom, built around the “Myth of the 4400 Somerville Citizens” whose voice was ignored by a city working hand and glove with sinister Jewish lobby.  (This Myth will be the subject of my next essay.)

My hope is that the SDP site stays up and stays updated for years to come, as testimony to the true, snarling face of the divestment movement that no longer needs to hide behind masks of “fairness,” “human rights” and “democracy” but is finally free to tell us what is truly in their hearts.

Somerville Divestment Revisited – Charity

27 Aug

At one point during our 2005 campaign against a divestment ballot initiative in Somerville, I discovered where the local BDS group was receiving some of its funds.  Here is what I had to say about the matter at the time.

For those of you fretting that the So-Called Somerville Divestment Project (SC-SDP) may not have the money required to fund their campaign; fear not!  In addition to whatever other sources of income the group has, the organization has also been making use of at least $8000 from the Boston-based charity foundation The Haymarket People’s Fund.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Here is where he starts slamming the divestment crew for raising and spending dollars on lawyers, paid signature gatherers and other expenses related to getting their anti-Israel measure onto the November ballot.”  Well surprise!  In today’s era of politics, I fully recognize that it’s people, organization AND money that are required to run a modern campaign, and I would never condemn Israel’s critics for trying to raise needed money for their activity, just as the SDP would – I’m sure – never criticize it’s opponents for any fundraising we do to stop their efforts.

While it’s no mystery why the SC-SDP would try to solicit funds from wherever it can, the more interesting question is why the Haymarket People’s Fund would give $8000 – it’s largest grant of the year – to an organization like the Somerville Divestment Project.

As background, Haymarket People’s Fund (hereafter “Haymarket”) was founded in 1974 with a generous contribution from the heir of the Pillsbury Flour fortune, as a reaction to the irresponsible way other rich individuals made use of inherited wealth.  The mission of Haymarket was to fund groups working on projects related to community activism.  Established organizations trying to start a newsletter or produce a video, while worthy, are asked to look elsewhere for funding.  Haymarket exists to help underwrite action, especially political action, on the ground.

One of Haymarket’s major innovations was the way it chose to make decisions regarding who gets funded.  In contrast to larger and more bureaucratic charitable institutions, where decisions are often made by an elite executive group, Haymarket would make its funding decisions through local committees in each New England state, committees made up of activists working in their own communities.  As they state proudly on their Web site: “Haymarket is an activist-controlled foundation committed to radical social change.”

Haymarket’s techniques in democratic decision-making have been emulated by other organizations, and are growing in popularity thanks to resources like the Internet (see, for example, the Funding Exchange). [Note: Global Exchange went out of business in 2013.]

Yet despite these worthy methods and goals (or, perhaps, because of them), groups like Haymarket are particularly vulnerable to appeals by organizations like the Somerville Divestment Project.  Because for a program like Haymarket’s to work, it requires that all participants – granters and grantees – be acting in good faith, looking out for what’s best in their communities.

But what if someone is not acting in good faith?  What if a person or organization is, in fact, motivated not by charity but by ruthlessness, masquerading (as always) in limitless self-righteousness?  What if, for example, an organization is ready to make an appeal based on the most highly truncated, highly politicized version of events (such as events in the Middle East) and eradicate any trace of fact that might counter their arguments?  What if a group like SDP was willing to challenge the progressive credentials of groups like Haymarket, just as they have challenged the worthiness of progressive cities like Somerville, by demanding such institutions wholeheartedly accept their view of the world?  How can an institution built on consensus, one that assumes the language of human rights will be used as a tool for social activism, not a political weapon, withstand the lures of the ruthless?

Haymarket’s official flirtation with Middle East issues started with funding of the Boston Committee for Palestinian Rights (BCPR), yet another ad hoc coalition of the same anti-Israel activists and organizations that form, break apart and reform based on the latest news from the Middle East (like the violence of the last five years) or the latest tactics (like divestment).  According to Haymarket: “The BCPR was formed shortly after the Al-Azsa Intifada arose in September 2000, when women of Arab and Jewish descent from Boston, distraught about the turn of events, gathered to begin planning a response.”  Yet those of us familiar with the people and groups that make up this “spontaneous” new “grassroots organization” recognize all of the familiar names and faces that have been at the forefront of anti-Israel activism for at least two decades.

When the decision was made to provide the SDP with $8000, Haymarket crossed into new and particularly dangerous territory.  For, as the SDP has made clear on its Web site and communication (particularly to other divestment activists), the goal of the group is to get the city of Somerville to add it’s name, it’s “brand,” it’s reputation behind the SDP message that Israel is a racist, apartheid state, alone in the world at deserving economic punishment.  While Haymarket has made pains to say their funding of BCRP and SDP do not represent “taking sides” in the Arab-Israeli conflict, they have chosen to underwrite an effort to tie the city of Somerville to a message that Haymarket understands is too dangerous to officially state itself.

Haymarket’s commitment to the eradication of racism adds new ironic twists to their funding of SDP.  On page after page of the Haymarket Web site, the organization states unequivocally its opposition to bigotry and racism in any form.  Even their response to criticism of their funding of anti-Israel organizations (“Haymarket’s mission is to work for a world where these kinds of oppressions are obliterated and where we can finally live in a society free from the ravages of all forms of racism”) was couched in the language of the battle against bigotry.

And yet, as has been pointed out time and time again on this site, no organization has spent more time introducing the vile language of bigotry into Somerville’s political dialog than the SDP.  Whether it’s the open homophobia of Karin Friedemann, the ravings about “Ashkenazi primoridalism” of Joachim Martillo, or the rantings of America and Europe’s most discredited Jew baiters, from Pat Buchannan to Israel Shamir, SDP has not missed a single opportunity to introduce the views of some of the world’s most notorious spewers of hatred to the city.  Indeed, if the target of this endless onslaught was any minority group other than Jews, Haymarket would likely consider itself duty bound to fund any activity to counter such views.

This language, designed to set one ethnic and religious group against another, also demonstrates the hugely destructive influence of the tactics divestment has used on an ethnically diverse city like Somerville.  Again, groups like Haymarket pride themselves on building bridges and bringing communities together.  Yet their funding and support is going to an organization dedicated to having its way, even if that means tearing Somerville apart in the process.

The same tired refrain rings out whenever criticism like this comes up: of course community action, particularly political community action, will be controversial.  Yet who is most responsible for distinguishing between a charity with political ramifications and a political organization masquerading as a charity?  The decision makers at organizations like the Haymarket People’s Fund.

As noted in a previous essay, divestment asks of it’s supporters that they sacrifice everything they hold most dear at the alter of the divestment agenda.  In Haymarket’s case, it’s the battle against racism, the lofty goal to build and strengthen communities and the cause for human rights that have been jettisoned in order to show support for an organization that has shown no problem spewing bigotry, wrecking communities and cynically manipulating the language of human rights to achieve their narrow political ends.

Sadly, rather than face up to mistakes, groups that have supported (like the mainline churches) or underwritten (like Haymarket) the divestment agenda are more likely to embrace hostility to the Jewish state ever more tightly in order to avoid looking at the consequences of their actions.  For, after all, Israel’s crimes must be particularly heinous, indeed uniquely evil in the world, to justify everything divestment’s supporters have sacrificed in order to sign onto the movement.

As millions of moms would say in their simple, yet profound judgment: “Shame on them.”