Tears filled the eyes of Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler when she was unexpectedly forced to cast the deciding vote on whether to include the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) into a controversial resolution condemning anti-Semitism. A former president of the Highland Park Conservative Temple -Congregation Anshe Emeth, the mayor threw back her head and spoke out against BDS before voting, for “the good and safety” of the community, to table the resolution during a contentious Highland Park Borough Council meeting on Oct. 29.
And after eight months of debate and a more-than-four-hour meeting in which community members on both sides of the argument squared off during the public session, the governing body was still unable to pass a resolution condemning anti-Semitism.
When members in the audience who wanted BDS removed from the text of the resolution cheered, Brill Mittler slammed her hand down on the dais in front of her and repeated several times in a raised voice, “Don’t applaud!”
It was Brill Mittler who originally requested the resolution to counter an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents in the area, particularly after a Jewish man walking to synagogue on Passover was followed by someone yelling anti-Semitic slurs. But the mayor, who only votes in the case of a tie, was thrust into that role when the council was deadlocked, with three members in favor of passing the resolution that included BDS in the wording, two voting to table the discussion, and one who was against the resolution — the votes to table and the vote against effectively count as three votes against passage.
A revised resolution — the 10th proposed version — is expected to be voted on at the Nov. 12 council meeting. As of press time, the wording of the revised resolution had not been formalized, according to Councilman Matthew Hale, who drafted the resolutions with Councilman Josh Fine, and who serves as liaison to both the borough Human Relations and Equity commissions, both of which weighed in on the various resolutions.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” Hale said. “I wish there was an easy consensus because to me it seems like a very clear-cut thing to do. Obviously, it’s a very complex issue that doesn’t lend itself to a simple solution.” Hale told NJJN he wouldn’t elaborate on the wording of the resolution because he did not want to jeopardize its passage.
The meeting attracted a crowd that filled the council chamber and spilled out into the hallway. It was marked by frequent applause and some jeering, and Mittler had to remind them several times to remain civil.
Councilwoman Susan Welkovits, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, joined Hale and Fine, the other two Jewish council members, in voting to include BDS in the resolution. The three other council members acknowledged being confused by the arguments on both sides.
Councilwoman Elsie Foster-Dublin, a Jamaican immigrant, said until this issue she had never heard of BDS and had to look it up online. She said she did not feel well-versed enough on the issue to cast a vote for or against the resolution, so she voted to table it. She also said she received “racist, bigoted” e-mails because of the issue, and talked about the “venom we have spewed at each other,” a side of Highland Park she hadn’t seen before.
Citing “extreme opinions” on both sides Council President Philip George voted against passage, while Stephany Kim-Chohan also voted to table. Votes to table are considered to be votes against, borough attorney Edwin Schmierer explained to the council, leaving Brill Mittler to break the impasse.
The council had introduced the resolution on first reading on Oct. 3 without mentioning BDS, although it unequivocally stated that employing “economic warfare” against Israel and denying its right to exist are anti-Semitic. However, after hearing from the community, some council members pushed for a revised resolution that would include the BDS movement; according to statistics provided by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, 25 municipalities in the state have passed resolutions condemning BDS as anti-Semitic.
Fine said at the meeting that e-mails requesting more specifics in the resolution were among the prompts for the revision.
In fact, council members said they had been inundated with e-mails from both sides — Hale said there were 66 favoring inclusion of BDS and 33 disproving. Additionally, the council received “at least three” petitions, each with hundreds of signatures, two of which favored inclusion, and one that did not.
“I don’t know what to expect or how we move forward,” said resident Josh Pruzansky, formerly the regional director of the Orthodox Union’s Advocacy Center who has been outspoken on the pro-Israel side. “It’s been very nasty. We’ve had Facebook posts that can only be classified as classically anti-Semitic. But hopefully when the smoke clears, Highland Park needs to get back to where we were, a very diversified community but very warm and very together.”