My statement on recent Council Israel-Palestine policy orders

On May 25, the Cambridge City Council unanimously voted to approve a policy order that I, along with Councillors McGovern and Simmons, proposed as substitute to an earlier-proposed policy order (this link will download it as a PDF) related to city contracting and specifically Hewlett-Packard, which is tied to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. We proposed the substitute since the proposal was an attempt to have the City support the BDS movement [Boycott, Divest and Sanction of Israel] and thus a divisive and counter-productive policy order grounded in an overly simplistic and flawed interpretation of the Israel-Palestine conflict.  The council received hundreds of emails from Cambridge residents – about evenly split between in favor of and opposing the original order.  And several thousand emails from outside Cambridge, almost universally opposed.  We heard similar personal testimony at the 7 hour public comment meeting, also split. 

The Council voted unanimously for the substitute, a major accomplishment in the face of controversy and emotion made possible through tremendous effort on my part to integrate the goals and values of a diverse set of constituents into something that could bring people together.  Four amendments were proposed that I found divisive and/or unnecessary given the language of the proposed substitute.  Only one, which includes an undefined reference to following international law, was approved.

With this vote in the past, I hope that the Council will focus once again on other important local issues including dealing with re-opening as the pandemic recedes,  addressing the climate crisis encouraging community connections, and having an open transparent responsive government. 

What follows is the statement I used to introduce the substitute motion:

City Councillor Patty Nolan's statement on policy order on BDS and substitute

May 25, 2021
This week has been challenging for all of us as the question of addressing Israel/Palestine has been raised in the context of a policy order related to the BDS movement. I exercised my charter right out of respect for the community, and democracy. And I know many of my colleagues would have done the same – in the spirit of inclusivity. First, I want to thank those 250 Cantabridgians who wanted to speak up – and declined, instead signed a joint letter urging us to reject the policy order – saving us 4 hours of testimony (even at 1 minute).

I have learned a lot these past two weeks. I have spoken to people in favor and opposed to BDS. I have had some uncomfortable and deep conversations with people who were upset that I do not support the resolution as presented, and do not support BDS. I spent some time looking into our foreign aid – turns out the top countries we fund include countries with serious human rights violations – Egypt, Ethiopia, Yemen, Syria. And I read Amnesty International’s most recent report on Israel – which cites human rights violations. And they cite Palestine as well. I also learned that we have no contracts with HP. And HP has said they don’t do the work others say they do. I learned that many people had no idea we have no HP contracts. We have been divided as a community over this policy order.

The passionate and heartfelt testimonies from Cambridge residents urging us to vote down BDS moved me as did the testimony of those urging a yes vote. I heard the conviction that we must do something for justice for Palestinians. And I heard the fear of Jews with experience of antisemitism here in our city. I reject the notion that the only path to seeking justice for Palestinians is BDS – there are other coalitions working for justice and peace that are not as divisive.

Several residents succinctly summed up important points, which I will quote briefly: “While I will not get into the discussion as to whether or not criticism of Israel’s practices is equivalent to antisemitism… singling out Israel for criticism encourages the anti-Semites in our midst, in the same way that blaming China for the Covid 19 pandemic encourages anti-Asian racism.” And another “why single out Israel – it may not be antisemitic, but it IS anti-Israeli which ends up enabling antisemitism.” And a particularly powerful reminder: “If deaths and governments with US ties are the rationale for the council taking action, why has there been silence on the thousands of deaths this year in Tigray?”

A young friend in medical school here wrote to me shocked to wake to antisemitic posts this week in her social media – online incidents equivalent to the many physical antisemitic attacks exploding in our country – which we all decry. She wrote at length, noting appreciatively that her medical training includes education on systemic racism and implicit bias. And she asked me “how can anyone work so hard to dismantle systemic racism while simultaneously creating and implementing systemically racist policies against Jews? Our identity is unchangeable… Jews must be included in our activism.” And, of course, not all Jews are white – we must ensure that in discussions we do not erase Jews of color.

I am part of Boston Worker’s Circle – I was on the board for 6 years and currently serve on two committees. That community is known for radical leftist views… with passionate social justice at the core – and we do not take a stand on BDS – even as we support the right to boycott. We live with a range of views, work for peace, seek to heal divisions, engage in dialogue. I hope our city will do the same.

This issue IS complex – and it’s very divisive. The original PO as written does single out one country – and IS a proxy for BDS. I believe we can stand for justice and oppose BDS. I am aware that BDS per se does not necessarily advocate for erasing Israel, yet many of the leaders do, the advocacy for this specific policy order erased Israel entirely, and most BDS material and rhetoric point to a one state solution that is only Palestine. I believe we must stand up for all people, and in my view that means rejecting this policy order.

And before I end, I will add that I hope the hundreds who came forth today will work and advocate for programs like HEART – which proposes an emergency response program separate from police, for high quality summer programs, for meaningful action on environmental justice, municipal broadband and universal PreK. Those issues are important to equity and social justice and our city.

If we care about human rights, then let’s find out what ties we have to ANY company or country that may violate our own policies. We have a strong anti-discrimination policy – let’s base all decisions on that. I am proposing a substitute to do that. And I deeply, deeply regret the divisiveness this entire debate has caused. That has not moved us forward towards any semblance of justice.


Scroll to Top