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BREAKING: Highland Park Council Fails to Condemn BDS

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(Photo courtesy of Andrew Getraer/Facebook)

After months of discussion, the Highland Park Borough Council brought their resolution on anti-Semitism to a vote on Tuesday, October 29. The final result, at the end of the nearly four-hour, standing room-only meeting, was a 3-3 tie, with Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler casting the tie-breaking vote to table. The mayor had previously supported the legislation, and asked for a new version to be presented at the next council meeting on November 12.

Public comments and debate significantly exceeded the originally allotted time. Attendees in the room were, according to different descriptions, between two-thirds and one-half favor of the resolution, which would have condemned anti-Semitism and included the BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions) movement as an example of anti-Semitism.

Compounding the problem was that the resolution put up for vote was slightly changed earlier in the evening, replacing the working version that had been posted on the council website last week. The resolution spoke of condemning all forms of anti-Semitism from “both ends of the political spectrum,” including bias, hate speech, discriminatory behavior, and hate-based groups, and charged that “components of BDS activities” are anti-Semitic. 

In introducing the new resolution, Councilman Matt Hale noted that the council was in receipt of approximately 100 emails and three petitions, with approximately two-thirds in favor of the resolution and one-third against. He also called out the lack of civility in discussions about the topic and implored the audience to keep the discussion respectful and polite.

Among supporters of the resolution, community resident John Kovac urged the Council to “say no to hate,” adding that anti-Semitism exists in societies specifically when it is unchallenged. Jeff Schreiber reminded the council that the Holocaust era began with the boycott of Jewish businesses in Germany and that BDS should be considered anti-Semitic because it singles out the only democracy and only Jewish country in the Middle East, while other countries with terrible records on humanitarianism are given a pass.

Andrew Getraer, a Highland Park resident who serves as director of Hillel at Rutgers University, said the resolution condemning BDS and anti-Semitism was unique because all the local Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative rabbis agreed—something that does not happen very often. If the council wants to eliminate anti-Semitism, it must eliminate all forms, including BDS, he said. 

Rabbi Phillip Bazely of Congregation Anshe Emeth (Reform) in New Brunswick said he stood in agreement with the community rabbis in support of the resolution. He nodded to Rabbi Yaakov Luban (Ohr Torah, Orthodox, Edison) and Rabbi Eliyahu Kaufman (Ohav Emeth, Orthodox) and others.

There were close to 20 speakers who opposed the resolution, for a variety of stated reasons. While not all objections focused on BDS, anti-Israel and other comments were made with varying degrees of rancor. One speaker questioned why Israel exists and “why the Arabs have to pay for what the Nazis did.” Another said it was a misappropriation of government funds to support the state of Israel. 

One commenter felt that the resolution should include racial discrimination for condemnation and address each incidence of bias separately. The resolution’s language including Israel’s self-determination was questioned as the resolution doesn’t include the same rights for the Mohawk, Navajo, Lenapi, Catalan and Kurdish peoples. Many of the speakers against the resolution brought up how their Jewish roots led them to feel support for the oppressed Palestinians and the shameful living conditions for Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As the resolution went to a vote, Councilman Josh Fine said he agreed that the resolution was imperfect, but for many reasons, he was supporting it. Councilwoman Elsie Foster-Dublin said she was conflicted about the resolution; so many Jews were fighting each other on both sides of the resolution. How could she, a non-Jew take a stand on any side? She voted to “table.”

Councilman Phil George began his comments with the fact that Highland Park was deliberately targeted with the “P is for Palestine” reading. He researched all sides of the issue and ultimately compared the resolution discussion to the issue of immigration reform where President Trump was putting politics over the truth. Adding that the resolution makes things worse than before and that people won’t change their positions, he voted “no.”

Councilman Hale voted in support of the resolution after noting that there were many complicated issues involved. He noted that there are a large number of people in town who are extremely frightened of anti-Semitism from the right, left and center of the political spectrum. He shared that when he started working on the resolution he had no idea how complicated it would become, but said that anti-Semitism is growing in the community and has to be stopped. He voted “yes.”

Councilwoman Stephany Kim-Chohan said she couldn’t remember this resolution going back as long as others said it did. She also said that she could not vote on an education component when she herself did not understand it herself. She acknowledged that she had not read all her emails on the topic. She voted to “table.”

Councilwoman Susan Welkowitz agreed that a new version agreed upon just that day was an issue, but the council was working to a point of exhaustion to get to the heart of the matter. The mayor had asked for an anti-Semitism resolution and they created one. The addition of BDS to the resolution made things more difficult but it could not be “walked back,” she said. She was concerned that the educational component to promote awareness and fight anti-Semitism was perceived as promoting pro-Israel propaganda. Adding that this was never an issue limiting free speech for those who dislike Israel or align with the Palestinians, she can “smell, taste, and feel” that BDS is anti-Semitism and something needs to be done. Weeding out anti-Semitism, does not mean that people don’t care about Palestinians. She voted “yes.”

Mayor Brill Mittler began her remarks noting how disappointed she was with the process and that Highland Park is a diverse community, and with that comes responsibility. There is freedom of speech, but BDS tactics are anti-Semitic. She said she requested a resolution on the topic seven months ago and brought Rabbi Esther Reed from Rutgers Hillel to the borough’s Human Relations Committee to present evidence of the horrifying rise in anti-Semitic activity in New Jersey, Middlesex County, and specifically Highland Park. Brill Mittler said she found it hard to understand why seven months later the situation is still unresolved, adding that the addition of BDS verbiage “blew everything up.” 

After noting her family ties and expressing love for Israel, Brill Mittler said her primary concern was keeping the residents of Highland Park safe. If people felt that the addition of BDS language makes people feel unsafe or targeted, then she cannot support the resolution. The mayor ultimately voted to table the resolution. 

When pro-BDS attendees applauded, the mayor admonished them. Saying that she cannot tolerate Highland Park residents being attacked in the streets and the council needs to come back at the next council meeting on November 12 with a new resolution. In the meantime, residents have to feel safe and stop fighting one another.

Exiting the meeting, Michael Gordon noted that this outcome was what the ADL had predicted. “Kicking the can down the road emboldens BDS supporters” and their future activities. Others leaving the meeting noted the fallacy of the signs on Highland Park lawns saying “Hate has no home here.” Someone was overheard grumling that an asterisk should be added to the signs saying “except for Jews.”

Community activist Josh Pruzansky took to Facebook after the meeting. “Last night we faced an uphill battle with the anti-Semitism resolution in Highland Park and almost won. I don’t view it as a loss but rather as a step in the process for our community of being heard and respected. The bottom line is although we lost the vote, and I attribute it to members of the Council being unprepared for this vote; we still accomplished much,” he wrote. 

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