Highland Park council debates include BDS in resolution condemning anti-Semitism
As racially charged incidents in Highland Park and around New Jersey have continued to spike in the last few years, there is little debate about the need to be vigilant against anti-Semitism. However, many in the general community — including some Jews — are split over whether to include the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) in the text of a proposed resolution to be voted on in the Highland Park Borough Council condemning anti-Semitism.
“I see already how deeply divisive any mention of this group in the proposed resolution against anti-Semitism can be,” said Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler at a Sept. 17 meeting of the borough council at which more than 40 people turned out. “I’ve heard from community members with deep concerns about a resolution that seems to discourage types of political speech, even if that speech is deeply disturbing to others.”
The mayor said municipal officials have received several hundred e-mails from residents, and at present there are eight draft versions of the resolution, including two written by councilmen Matthew Hale and Josh Fine, two from the Anti-Defamation League, and another submitted by the borough Human Relations Commission (HRC). Hale, a liaison to HRC, said the two resolutions he co-authored with Fine, one with text calling out BDS and one without, were being used as “a starting point,” and the council would look to include recommendations from HRC. If the council’s Health and Human Services subcommittee is able to reach a consensus on the wording of the resolution, it will be up for first reading Oct. 3 (all resolutions and ordinances come up twice with the public getting a chance to speak at the meetings) and on the agenda for final passage Oct. 29.
Brill Mittler said it’s past time for the council to make a decision.
“Anti-Semitism must be addressed here in Highland Park,” she said. “I am calling on the council to stop going back and forth on this issue.”
Both versions authored by the councilmen state the mayor and council recognize anti-Semitism; note the rise of anti-Semitic incidents in Highland Park, including “abusive” social media activity by students and young adults, property destruction, and hate speech; acknowledge the deadly attacks at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Chabad of Poway, Calif., that have forced local synagogues to reevaluate security measures; and commend the state for establishing an interagency task force to provide recommendations on reducing hate, bias, and intolerance among young people.
But one resolution specifically condemns BDS, noting the ADL’s belief that the founding goals and strategies of the movement are anti-Semitic because the campaign “is founded on a rejection of Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state.” The other recognizes that “Israel represents the historical, spiritual, and religious homeland of the Jewish people,” asserts that Israel “should be treated no differently than any other of the 193 countries in the United Nations,” and states that “attempts to demonize, dehumanize and delegitimize” Israeli Jews “is just another form of racism and anti-Semitism.” However, it does not mention BDS.
Brill Mittler said she has heard privately from members of various synagogues and degrees of observance, including a congregational Orthodox rabbi whom she did not name, who’ve expressed “serious misgivings” about including BDS in the resolution. Often people who fall into this camp say that although they disagree with BDS, they are uneasy outlawing any boycotts, which they see as a form of free speech. “They feel their concerns are being dismissed by the louder voices in town,” she said.
The drive to push for a resolution is part of the fallout after the Highland Park Public Library initially invited Golbarg Bashi to read her children’s book, “P is for Palestine,” in May. After an uproar — 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 — was postponed. The council eventually decided that Bashi, a BDS supporter, would again be invited to the library, as would Gili Bar-Hillel and Prodeepta Das to read from their children’s book, “I is for Israel.” As of press time, neither reading had been scheduled.
Also an impetus to pass the resolution was an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents in the area, such as an individual following and yelling anti-Semitic slurs at a Jewish man walking to synagogue on Passover and a group of middle school students who designed a hate-filled website targeting Jews, African-Americans, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community in the spring.
The council first began work on the resolution in July. NJJN learned a closed meeting was held Aug. 22 with several municipal and Jewish community leaders, including Susan Antman, executive director of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, and Alex Rosemberg, director of community affairs for the New York/New Jersey region of the ADL, in attendance.
Antman didn’t comment on her federation’s role in drafting a resolution, but she wrote in an email that “Jewish Federation applauds Highland Park for its commitment to fostering a community free from all hate, bias, and bigotry, including anti-Semitism. We trust that any conversation about how to articulate this vision takes into account Israel’s right to exist as a democratic and Jewish state.”
Although he wouldn’t give specifics about the Aug. 22 meeting, Rosemberg told NJJN, “We based our recommendations on bipartisan text used at the state level and by the federal government in the past while adapting to the needs of the community. We trust the council will do what’s best for all.” He added that any resolution needs to be followed up with initiatives and programming to stem the rise of hate.
At the Sept. 17 borough council meeting, residents spoke for more than an hour. The majority supported inclusion of anti-BDS language in the resolution, and all supported a resolution decrying anti-Semitism.
Matthew Hersh, an HRC member, said it is difficult for him to articulate his opinion on anti-Semitism, as he thinks it is being fomented on both the right and left, leaving him “uncomfortable” with citing just one left-of-center source. A resolution that singles out BDS seemed “retaliatory in nature for a really terrible situation” involving the library, he said.
However, Michael Gordon of Highland Park said the library was “targeted” by one group in effort to gain publicity for the BDS movement.
“If the Ku Klux Klan had planned a children’s reading at the library would we be debating whether to include the Ku Klux Klan and not any other group?” he asked.