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Breaking: Highland Park Town Council Pressured to Remove BDS Language From Resolution Condemning Anti-Semitism

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(photo courtesy of Lisa Ben-Haim) 

Following increased numbers of anti-Semitic acts locally and globally, the Highland Park Borough Council and Gayle Brill Mittler, the borough’s mayor, have spent the last four months examining and drafting proposals of resolutions condemning anti-Semitism, specifically calling out the BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement in terms of its anti-Semitic bias and its demonization of Jews and Israel. 

However, in the wake of the borough’s “P Is for Palestine” library brouhaha, an event which was initially delayed due to strong Jewish communal objections and then ultimately held last week—reportedly with few in attendance to hear author Golbarg Bashi speak, but with scores demonstrating outside the library—Highland Park continues to grapple with the underlying issues associated with the political leanings of its heterogeneous, multicultural community.

The borough is a diverse and progressive community that includes members of the Rutgers University community and a strong observant Jewish population; the sticking point with the borough’s meetings has been whether or not to include anti-BDS language in the resolution. Key differences in various drafts have concerned if or how BDS would be included by name; the mayor and councilmembers have reportedly been inundated with emails and messages about this. The Jewish Link has learned that a group calling itself “HP United Against Hate” submitted a letter to the mayor and council requesting that the resolution not be passed due to its anti-BDS provisions, though dozens of Jewish residents have written the borough leadership expressing support for the resolution and the need to pass the resolution—with the anti-BDS concern spelled out—as currently drafted. 

Councilman Matthew Hale, a co-author of the resolution that was agreed upon at a recent working meeting, plans to support the legislation. “The current resolution is the product of months of discussion, collaboration and compromise. It has the support of the large majority of the Jewish community in Highland Park, across the denominational spectrum,” he told The Jewish Link. 

That being said, Hale added, “we have a lot of work to do explaining just how dangerous and prevalent anti-Semitism is today. We need to educate the broader Highland Park community on Israel and its importance to people in Highland Park. We need to educate the broader Highland Park community on how anti-Semitism is showing up in new and scary places. This resolution starts this education process and affirms that commitment to ongoing discussion, education and dialogue,” he explained. 

Councilman Josh Fine, who co-authored the resolution with Hale, has been outspoken publicly on the need to fight anti-Semitism and to include BDS language in any resolultion passed. In and out of council meetings, he has highlighted the increase in anti-Semitic acts in Highland Park and across the state, noting that according to the Anti-Defamation League, New Jersey is currently ranked third highest in the US in terms of the number of anti-Semitic acts, behind California and New York.

In a letter from the Central Jersey Jewish Public Affairs Committee (CJJPAC) to the mayor and council that was obtained by The Jewish Link, CJJPAC Co-Chair Marc Kalton wrote that “While many members of the community have been quite upset that Highland Park has found it difficult to ‘call-out’ by name those organizations, [those] identified by name by the UN and Congress, associated with known terrorists groups that have targeted Jews in Israel, South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, we have nevertheless sought a compromise by defining in crisp terms what constitutes anti-Semitism. There are individuals in the community that oppose this resolution. They advocate for selective anti-Semitism, throwing out ‘red herring’ complaints about how they are being targeted, how the town is being divisive.” CJJPAC believes, however, that BDS supporters are the ones being divisive, he said. 

The now-drafted “Resolution Condemning All Forms of Anti-Semitism” includes the following language: “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 the Jewish people to national self-determination are anti-Semitic and contrary to the essential values of government under which this council performs its obligations to the public.”

Highland Park resident John Kovac said that he’d been paying close attention at council meetings in relation to this issue. “At recent town council debates in Highland Park [in discussion] over including mention of BDS in an anti-Semitism resolution, a number of speakers cautioned against ‘upsetting people.’ For them, Jews and non-Jews alike, concern about upsetting BDS supporters took precedence over betrayal of Jews seeking support against anti-Semitism, whose concerns were treated as non-existent,” he said. 

For example, at the September 17th council meeting, Highland Park resident Ira Mintz, who is president emeritus of the I.L. Peretz Community Jewish School, a secular Jewish school located in central New Jersey, stated that “we should be supporting free speech in our community, not siding with those on the right, who pretend to champion free speech, but then seek to silence the voices of those who advocate for the non-violent BDS movement. Our borough government officials should not be taking sides in that debate,” he said. 

At the same meeting, Highland Park Jewish community member Michael Gordon, in reference to the P is for Palestine controversy, stated “we were targeted by BDS,” and that “BDS is not an anti-Zionist movement that happens to be pro-peace,” rather it is “anti a two-state solution” whose founder promotes a one-state solution without Jewish residents. Gordon indicated to the mayor and council that the majority of the Jewish community in Highland Park wants them to pass the resolution complete with the language that condemns BDS.

But detractors continue to exhibit fiery, divisive rhetoric. At its October 3rd council meeting, Sam Freedman, a member of the “Central Jersey Coalition of Endless War” referred to the founding of Israel and the right of return for Jews as a “racist act” and that BDS opponents use the same racist language used in the past by supporters of Jim Crow laws against African-Americans in the United States. 

At the same meeting, however, there was rabbinic support expressed from across all three major Jewish denominations for including anti-BDS language in the resolution. Rabbi Philip Bazeley, a Highland Park resident and rabbi of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, a reform community in New Brunswick, whose congregants include Highland Park residents, thanked the council for bringing up the resolution against anti-Semitism and asked that it include anti-BDS language. Also in attendance was Rabbi Yaakov Luban, a Highland Park resident and rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah, an orthodox synagogue on the Edison/Highland Park border, whose congregation has many Highland Park residents. Rabbi Luban told the council that he was “strongly in favor of including anti-BDS language” in the resolution. Rabbi Elliot Malomet of the Highland Park Conservative Temple, who also supports anti-BDS language in the resolution, had a statement read for him during the public comment period of the meeting as well.

Multiple attendees at the September and October meetings wondered aloud in public comments, and privately, how there could be so much hesitance about mentioning anti-BDS positions, as many state and federal governmental organizations, and even the UN have stated the anti-Semitic nature of all BDS-affiliated groups. Others noted that even if passed, there is no legal support or recourse associated with the resolution.

While initially it was thought that the resolution would be supported by all six council members, The Jewish Link has been contacted by community residents with concerns that the anti-BDS legislation would need to be removed in order for all council members to support it. To that end, a Change.org petition has been launched, authored by community member Gary Leslie, that states the following: “We do not question the right of any citizen to participate in a peaceful protest or boycott of any entity.  We do, however, recognize that the global BDS movement is a specific organization, one that has specific originators, organizers, tactics and goals. This specific BDS movement has made widespread use of anti-Semitic hate tropes and intimidation tactics. Furthermore, they do not promote a peaceful, negotiated two-state solution;  rather, their goal is to delegitimize Israel.” 

The final resolution is scheduled to be voted on at the Tuesday, October 29, 2019 meeting. The community is invited to attend and make its views known.

The New Jersey state legislature passed bipartisan legislation in 2016 prohibiting the state from investing pension and annuity funds in companies that boycott Israel or Israeli businesses. As of January 2019, 27 states have passed some form of anti-BDS legislation.

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