After months of wrangling over the wording of a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and hate, the Highland Park Borough Council agreed that employing “economic warfare” against Israel and denying its right to exist are anti-Semitic. Even so, the text of the resolution, which the council must vote on before it is finalized, doesn’t specifically mention the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
Councilman Matthew Hale, who co-authored the resolution with Councilman Josh Fine, said he thought “all voices of the community” had been heard and their concerns considered. The resolution, he said, made “a strong statement” by laying out the ways “anti-Semitism is hurtful to Highland Park.” He added that the Jewish community’s message to the council was clear: “[w]e want you to stand up and support us.”
The consensus for the wording was reached during a work session of the governing body following its regular meeting, where residents spoke for about 90 minutes on the contentious issue, most advocating for the inclusion of BDS. The council will vote on the resolution at its Oct. 29 meeting, during which time residents will be able to voice their opinions once again.
The agreement prompted the handful of audience members who stayed for the duration of the three-hour meeting on Oct. 3, which included other council business, to applaud, and Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler to exclaim, “Thank God.”
Despite not mentioning BDS, the resolution states, “all movements that co-opt legitimate means to unfairly promote economic warfare against the State of Israel in an attempt to deny its legitimacy, existence, and the right of Jewish people to national self-determination are anti-Semitic and contrary to the values of government under which this council performs its obligation to the public.”
The impetus to pass the resolution was triggered by several racially charged and anti-Semitic incidents in the area, as well as a reading of the children’s book, “P is for Palestine,” at the Highland Park Library by author Dr. Golbarg Bashi, a BDS supporter, originally scheduled for May. The book has been criticized as anti-Israeli and supportive of violent insurrection, and the reading was arranged by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a grassroots organization which, according to its website, is dedicated to the “security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians,” but is considered by many to be anti-Israel. After an outcry from the Jewish community, the reading was temporarily pulled from the schedule.
After much discussion the library board decided to reschedule the reading for Oct. 20 (see story on page 4), and to invite authors Gili Bar-Hillel and Prodeepta Das to read their children’s book, “I is for Israel,” at the library as well; the authors agreed and the reading is expected to be held within weeks of the Bashi event.
Reached for comment after the wording was settled, two residents who were pushing for the inclusion of BDS were still relatively satisfied with the proposed resolution. Michael Gordon said he was happy it seemed to rebuke organizations like JVP that support BDS, “something JVP didn’t count on when they opposed this resolution,” while Josh Pruzansky told NJJN that “the language seems pretty fair and states anti-Semitism comes from many sources.”
However, Highland Park resident Sam Friedman (not to be confused with former New York Times columnist and NJJN contributor Samuel G. Freedman), who identified as Jewish and a member of the Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War, said while he supported the inclusion of the text denouncing anti-Semitism, he does not feel the same about Israel, calling its founding “a racist act.” He said the position of those who oppose BDS reminded him of southerners who supported the racist Jim Crow laws against blacks, claiming they use “the same stereotypical racist
Ultimately, members of the Jewish community who feel similarly to Friedman were beaten, he said, because “the Zionists out-organized us tonight.”
The wording for the resolution had been bandied about since July with the council receiving input from the borough Human Relations Committee (HRC) and the Anti-Defamation League, among others. It eventually winnowed down eight different drafts to one co-authored by Hale, the liaison to HRC, and Fine, and the council made other minor changes during the work session.
Councilwoman Elsie Foster-Dublin, who is African-American, said she learned a lot from the arduous process, including some of the similar experiences of black and Jewish people.
“I didn’t know anything about BDS before this started,” Foster-Dublin said. “I didn’t know about all the different plights the Jewish people have experienced and I’m quite sure other people in the community don’t know it either … Education is key.”
Council President Philip George said he thought the escalations on both sides of the issue caused “people to lose their rudders,” but said the council “worked very hard and did the best job for all the people we represent.”
During the public portion of the meeting, many of those who requested BDS be included noted that 26 states and Congress had passed resolutions declaring BDS was anti-Semitic, and even a United Nations report released late last month issued similar findings.
Rabbi Philip Bazeley of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, a Highland Park resident, said BDS “foments hatred of Jews.”
“The main organizing body and many of its affiliates buy into and then try to pass onto us what is ultimately a false choice, that if you support peace you must support BDS,” he said, “and if you don’t support it, you are for genocide — a genocide that doesn’t really exist.”
He said that college students in his congregation have told him anti-Semitism generated by the BDS movement has gotten so bad they are afraid to walk around campus wearing Star of David necklaces.
“Anti-Semitism is like racism. It is not fashionable and is illegal in many places in the world,” said Bazeley. “But anti-Zionism is not, so it becomes a proxy for anti-Semitism.”
Another Highland Park resident, Rabbi Yaakov Luban of Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison, equated BDS with “a form of terrorism.” He told the council he was at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and “crawled out of a manhole. I saw firsthand the effects of terrorism, and when hatred and terrorism grows in one place, it grows in another.”
The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey was also satisfied with the outcome. Executive director Susan Antman told NJJN that the federation “commends the parties in Highland Park who are working together to articulate the borough’s vision of a community free from all hate, bias, and bigotry, including anti-Semitism.” Rabbis Eliyahu Kaufman of Congregation Ohav Emeth in Highland Park, an Edison resident, and Eliot Malomet of Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, and a Highland Park resident, wrote statements advocating inclusion of BDS in the resolution.
Andrew Getraer, a Highland Park resident and executive director of Rutgers Hillel in New Brunswick, said BDS is a “deep form of anti-Semitism” and “in our cozy little town” people fear “being engulfed by the wave of anti-Semitism” that has struck the Jewish communities in Pittsburgh, Pa.; Poway, Calif.; and several European countries.
As if to accentuate Getraer’s point, resident Steve Salit told the council, “I want every one of you to remember, if this is not passed, I will no longer feel welcome as a Jew in Highland Park.”