City Council meets amid rancor, withdraws controversial Resolution R-18-5

By ALAN SMASON, Special to the CCJN

It took the New Orleans City Council a little over an hour and a half to undo what they had passed two weeks earlier. When all was said and after 30 minutes of debate – 15 minutes for each side – the Council members voted unanimously to reconsider R-18-5, a non-binding measure they had passed on January 11 and, in another unanimous vote that followed immediately after, withdrew it.

Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans CEO Arnie Fielkow speaks as protestors hold signs behind him from the outside lobby. (Photo by Alan Smason)

It essentially means that the resolution, touted by the New Orleans Pro-Palestinians Solidarity Committee (NOPPSC) as the first pro-BDS (boycott, divest and sanctions) measure passed by a southern city, never was considered or passed. It means for all intents that the anti-Israel measure is now dead. 

Council president Jason Williams, who was not the author of the resolution, but who did promote it at the last Council meeting, noted it was introduced and passed under suspension of the rules, when anyone, timely alerted to the measure, could have spoken as to whether they were in favor or opposed to its passage. “By no means was the option to introduce that resolution under suspension done tactfully, but it certainly unfairly circumvented full public participation and discourse and that’s a problem,” Williams said in initially addressing the matter.

“But we are to be held accountable for our oversight in the same way that we demand accountability from ourselves and others who have a duty to serve all of New Orleans,” he continued. “Although there were no malicious intentions, we understand that the procedure used was not clearly in the spirit of transparency or in the spirit of inclusion that has consistently guided decisions for every single council member and this council as a whole.”

New Orleans City Council president Jason Williams. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Williams hinted at the fallout that occurred as a result of their vote, which resonated in pro-BDS and pro-Israel circles locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. “I think it’s safe to say that the voice of this council has been represented in national media outlets and international media outlets saying far more than was ever said in the four corners of the document,” he said.

Williams then moved that the resolution be reconsidered. That motion was seconded by Councilmember Susan Guidry, who had expressed uncertainty about the resolution, but voted for the measure when it was passed two weeks prior. Just at that moment, the chants of more than a hundred protestors for the continued acceptance of the measure were heard in the outside hallway. “Let us speak! Let us speak!” they shouted in volumes easily heard within the chambers of the Orleans Parish School Board, where the council is meeting while their regular meeting space in City Hall is being renovated.

Williams addressed the fact that, despite the discussion on both sides for or against reconsideration, there was no physical way to allow everyone who wanted the opportunity to weigh in on the resolution. He stated there would be 15 minutes per side for those who were in favor of reconsideration and an equal amount of time for those who wished to advocate again for the continued acceptance of the non-binding resolution.

Resolution R-18-5 author and mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell, the District B councilperson. (Photo by Alan Smason)

The councilman was then challenged from the floor as to why the discussion was being limited and a number of resolution supporters clapped loudly in support, even as the outside crowd continued their chants of “Let us speak!” 

“You are out of order,” he told the woman, advising her and the others outside that on several occasions dealing with controversial matters, it has been the privilege of the council to limit debate to just a few speakers on each side of the debate. “We’re giving an equitable amount of time for both sides,” he continued. “We’re not going to solve the Middle East crisis in the city of New Orleans today regardless of how erudite or intelligent the conversation or robust it is, we are not going to solve everything today, but I want to make sure we have equitable time on both sides.”

Mayor elect- and Councilperson LaToya Cantrell chimed in that, as the author of the resolution, she intended the passage of the resolution to be “our city’s commitment to human rights.” She added, “After extensive discussion and deliberation about the impact of this resolution, I can say that the unintended impact does not reflect my commitment to inclusivity, diversity and respect for all in support of civil rights, human rights and freedoms for all New Orleanians.”

Cantrell, the District B representative, added: “The unintended consequences I am very apologetic for,” she said. “Statements from outsiders now claim that New Orleans is one of the largest cities in the United States supportive of BDS, a movement aimed at delegitimizing the State of Israel.” At the mention of BDS, members of the crowd in support of the resolution shouted loudly and applauded.

Anti-Defamation League South Central Region director Aaron Ahlquist leads off the first of four speaks against Resolution R-18-5. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Cantrell then retorted: “This is totally inaccurate, untruthful and does not reflect the values of New Orleans. We are a city that is welcoming and open to all,” as the crowd grew silent again.

Williams announced that both sides would be afforded 15 minutes in total and invited the opponents, who had never been given a chance to speak, to speak first.

Aaron Ahlquist, the South Central Region director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), was the first speaker in opposition. He spoke on the important legacy of the ADL and its commitment to speaking out in support of human and civil rights. As he continued to speak, the crowd outside was whipped into another chant of “Our voice counts! Our voice counts!”

Rabbi Ed Paul Cohn then addressed the council in his position as a leader of the Human Rights Commission and a person familiar with having to take positions on “thorny” issues. “I am here to earnestly request that this council reconsider and rescind Resolution R-18-5, which cleverly masqueraded as a high-minded civic statement designed to address and prevent human rights abuses. It sounded so good. It took no time, however, to see the deception. Immediately upon its passage, the true intent of its passage was made abundantly clear by the joyous and triumphant proclamation touting the historic first of the BDS movement in a U.S. southern city,” the rabbi stated, as the pro-BDS forces clapped and cheered at the mention of their movement.

Greater New Orleans Section president Barbara Kaplinsky of the National Council of Jewish Women makes her appeal to the New Orleans City Council. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Greater New Orleans Section president of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) Barbara Kaplinsky also took the opportunity to explain their social and economic policies that affect a plethora of human and civil rights causes.  While calling for the withdrawal of the resolution, Kaplinsky concluded stating that the “NCJW is a willing partner in the conversation moving forward,” 

Rounding out the forces opposed to the resolution was Arnie Fielkow, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. Fielkow, a former City Councilman-at-large himself, recognized that he might not have all the time he wanted to make his comments. With the chanting from the hallway spilling over into the council’s chambers, Fielkow respectfully addressed the members of the council, even as protest signs were placed suggestively above his head by pro-BDS supporters.

Fielkow acknowledged that his own council leadership had several missteps while trying to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and related flooding. “I believe this council made such a misjudgment two weeks ago with this resolution and I applaud all of you for now taking corrective action to reverse what was and is a harmful result to the City of New Orleans,” he said. Fielkow continued by adding that the Jewish community has always exercised a commitment to human rights, especially when considering the concept of tikkun olom (repairing the world). 

Jewish Federation CEO Arnie Fielkow speaking to the City Council as protest signs are placed on the glass behind him. (Photo by Alan Smason)

He reeled off a number of past positions the Federation has taken including opposing the discriminatory travel ban to six Muslim countries, advocating for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Act) and the Dream Act and other pro-immigration reforms as well as other programs to erase racism and injustice. “Unfortunately, on the topic of BDS, we must respectfully disagree with the resolution proponents as we strongly oppose the BDS movement and feel does not in any way advance, what I hope is a common goal that everyone in this building and everyone watching on TV, a peaceful resolution of a historic complicated conflict, so that all forces can live with peace, security and prosperity,” he said.

“Being labeled a BDS city is not beneficial to New Orleans in any way,” Fielkow said as time ran out.

Williams then moved that the speakers who wished to speak in support of the resolution begin. First to the podium was Chicago Rabbi and Cantor Michael Davis of Congregation Makom Shalom. Davis, who claimed to have worked with a Baton Rouge synagogue previously, stated for the record that he is the son of a Holocaust survivor, a former chaplain in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and a Jew.

Chicago Rabbi and Cantor Michael Davis speaks for continued acceptance for Resolution R-18-5. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Davis said he had flown in from Chicago to represent Jewish Voices for Peace, who, like him, were in favor of the resolution. “I speak today for the dozens of rabbis on the rabbinical council of Jewish Voice for Peace and these rabbis sent me to represent their moral voice to you,” he began. Davis stated that despite the charges leveled at the resolution from New Orleans Jewish community leaders, “the resolution is not about BDS, but affirming your conscience.”

“The essence of the Jewish religious tradition is to act for justice and the New Orleans City Council is fulfilling the best of our Jewish teachings in acting on its ethical and social obligations to do business in a way that is more peaceful and just,” the rabbi continued.

“Listen not to the raging tumult of the powerful. Listen not to the fury of the rich. Listen not to the threatening drumbeats of anti-Semitism. Listen instead, as you did last time, to that still, small voice inside you – the voice of your conscience, the voice of truth,” he concluded.

Tabitha Mustafa, a member of the New Orleans Pro-Palestinian Solidarity Council (NOPPSC) was far more accusatory in her speech. “As you may have noticed there are 200 people outside in support of human rights, all from different walks of life: people of color, LGBTQ people, people from the immigrant community, Muslims, Palestinians, those who stand for justice are all outside and there are a few of us who made it into this room,” she began.

New Orleans Pro-Palestinian Solidarity Committee leader Tabitha Mustafa was accusatory of the Federation and ADL. (Photo by Alan Smason)

“It’s completely unfair and ridiculous to think that a group of all white Jews can say that every person out there, every person of color, every person from a marginalized community doesn’t matter,” Mustafa continued. “That it’s worth rescinding an entire human rights resolution in the name of everyone in order to exceptionalize and protect a few people.”

Mustafa wondered aloud who would oppose human rights. “Terrorists. White supremacists. The President,” she continued. 

“But it also seems that the Jewish Federation, the Anti-Defamation League, the mayor of the City of New Orleans and now it seems the City Council have suddenly taken the side of opposing human rights. There seems to be a ‘scorched earth’ policy when it comes to Palestinians having human rights, right?” Mustafa lamented. 

Mustafa next accused the ADL of aiding and abetting in the murders of Muslims and African-Americans in the U.S. during the apartheid era in South Africa, although she did not cite specific acts. This created moans and pushback from members of the Jewish community who felt unfairly attacked, many of them shouting out phrases like “Give me a break!”

Mustafa’s next tack was to re-read the language of the resolution again and to make a simple point out loud. “Israel wasn’t mentioned,” she noted. “The Anti-Defamation League denounced the resolution. The Jewish Community Human Relations Council denounced the resolution. Senator Bill Cassidy denounced the resolution, but so did Mayor Landrieu, the very same mayor who brought down Confederate monuments,” she stated. 

Mustafa charged there may have been collusion between the members of the council, the mayor and the senator because many of the campaign supporters for all of the politicians came from the Jewish community. “We’ve received letters of support from groups including Amnesty International,” she decried. “Do you want to be on the side of human rights? You must ask yourself: are you committed to the grassroots committee that helped pass this resolution or are you committed to campaign dollars and political clout?”

Resolution R-18-5 supporters stand and hold signs while members of the New Orleans Jewish community remain seated. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Resolution supporters were extremely vocal and broke out in applause on several occasions, especially as Davis and Mustafa finished their remarks.

Maryam Eversley, another NOPPSC supporter asked everyone in the room who was in favor of the resolution to stand. 

“Take a look around,” Eversley stated. “The controversy will not go away and we will be back,” she promised.

Eversley tackled the thorny point that the resolution involved getting the city to take a controversial position on the Palestinians, which many have suggested is beyond the pale of the New Orleans City Council. “This resolution is about ending New Orleans’ involvement in human rights abuses, because New Orleans is already involved. There is investment in human rights abuses,” she charged, although she did not offer a case to support her accusation. “There is nothing neutral about profiting from violence,” Eversley continued, “If you rescind this resolution, you are voting to continue our city’s stake…and continue investing in human rights abuses like controlling land and water, controlling freedom of movement and racial apartheid, very reminiscent of unjust policies in the U.S.,” she claimed.

Eversley finished by asking the council to join in the fight against “state violence and racial apartheid,” which pro-Palestinians in the audience cheered loudly.

Chloe Segal, who was the last to speak for Resolution R-18-5 with protestors holding signs up behind her. (Photo by Alan Smason)

The final speaker for the pro-resolution forces was Chloe Segal, a woman who identified herself as a Jew and whose family she claimed had fled pogroms in Lithuania. “I am appalled that Jewish concepts like tikkun olom have been mentioned in today’s meeting to rescind this resolution,” she stated. “Hundreds of companies profited from the Holocaust. Hundreds of companies are profiting today from human rights abuses – from Palestine to the U.S.-Mexico border. Do not stand with those companies. Instead, continue to support human rights and marginalized communities,” she concluded.

Williams stated that he and the NOPPSC have worked on issues like battling the proposed travel ban from six Muslim states by the Trump administration. He stated for the record that they have agreed on many issues and disagreed on others. “We need to define was an ally is,” the councilman said. “Allyship, friendship, whether it’s personal or political, it is not ownership. It does not mean that you own my voice on every vote. I think we all need to realize that there is a difference between a friend you are in disagreement with and a mortal enemy.”

With chanting in the outside hallway becoming louder in the background, Williams continued: “There are not two sides to this issue. There are a number of sides and nuances to this issue. This is an issue about content and nuance about what is in the four corners of a page and what’s between the four corners of a page,” he said.

More to the point, Williams seemed to be perturbed that the council had become part of a global discussion on human rights and Israel and Palestinians. “I’m certain that folks on both sides agree with the black and white words on that resolution. However, how the New Orleans City Council is reflected internationally and how we are reflected nationally, that is up to the members of the City Council,” he contended.

“No one else is going to interpret a resolution that comes from this body,” William warned. He then moved to withdraw the resolution, which received immediate and unanimous approval.

Jewish protestors sing “We Rise” while holding signs at the New Orleans City Council meeting as soon as Resolution R-18-5 was withdrawn. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Just as the vote on the withdrawal was complete, a group of protestors for the now-failed resolution holding signs began singing “We Rise,” a feminist protest song by Batya Levine. The singing became so loud that Williams moved that the council take a five- to ten-minute recess, after which the council continued the remainder of the meeting.

Three hours after the meeting, Fielkow, Ahlquist and others joined to thank the City Council for the withdrawal. “By withdrawing the resolution, it allows the opportunity for a clean slate to begin to engage in meaningful, transparent and inclusive dialogue on how this community advances issues of civil rights and human rights, and how we collectively build a better New Orleans reflective of our commitment to these values, ” the statement read. “The Federation, ADL, and the Jewish Community Relations Council stand-by as willing partners and participants in this discussion. The withdrawal of the resolution in no way reflects a lack of commitment to human rights, from either Federation, ADL or the City Council. Rather, this important conversation can now happen in the light, with transparency and inclusivity.”

As the author of the resolution, Mayor-elect Cantrell added her own statement late in the day: “After extensive discussion and deliberation about the impact of this resolution, I can say that the unintended impact does not reflect my commitment to inclusivity, diversity and respect and support for civil rights, human rights and freedoms for all New Orleanians.”

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