The City of Cambridge Just Had Its Charlottesville Moment

People across the US political spectrum reacted in horror at Donald Trump’s comments on white supremacist violence in Charlottesville:

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides”

Trump only dug the hole deeper when he explicitly condemned the KKK and neo-Nazis, but then added:

“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides,”

It was widely understood that condemning violence “on many” sides, and speaking of “fine people, on both sides,” is not an adequate response when one side is enacting racist violence and the other side is defending itself from racist violence.

This is precisely what transpired in Cambridge on May 25th when the City Council finally discussed a policy order to end contracts with Hewlett Packard.

While Israel was continuing with a campaign of mass arrests against Palestinians across the country to “even the score” against the uprising of Palestinians trying to defend their homes, with images of the slaughter in Gaza and zionist lynch mobs in the streets of Haifa and Lydd still fresh in everyone’s mind, the Cambridge City Council could think of nothing better to do than express a general sorrow for human suffering on all sides:

“City Council condemns the violence that is currently and has historically taken place between the Israeli government and Hamas, and that we mourn the deaths of innocent Palestinians and Israelis who have been victims of this violence … The City council recognizes that violence and suffering is happening around the world in Israel as well as other countries…”

Just in case we didn’t understand that behind the condemnation of violence on both sides is an implicit acceptance of the status quo, the City Council made its real position clear: it affirmed “Israel’s right to exist and to defend its citizens from attacks, such as those launched by Hamas…”

Especially revealing was the extensive effort of Councilors Patricia Nolan and Denise Simmons to shut down any attempt to actually name the relationship between the state of Israel and Palestinians–any mention of colonialism, apartheid, racism or any other form of oppression. According to these councilors, discussing these issues is “divisive”–the standard complaint of all who defend a racist status-quo.

Councilor Nolan in particular can be singled out as following to the letter a script dictated by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC, a pro-Israel advocacy organization), zealous in her efforts to ensure that nothing in the policy order could be used to support BDS. The original Cambridge City Council policy order under discussion was one that targeted contracts with HP for the technology it provides to support “apartheid in the Middle East” and ICE in the United States. It is important to note that the order was not created with the input of the Palestinian community or the local BDS community before it was proposed. The policy order was itself an extremely watered down version of one that had been supported by the BDS campaign in 2018. Although the language was significantly weakened, the Palestinian, BIPOC, and local BDS communities nevertheless mobilized tremendous support and powerful testimony for the policy order because it at least named a company complicit in the surveillance, tracking and imprisonment of racialized communities both here and in colonized Palestine and would have broken ties with that company.

The Cambridge City Council held two sessions of public comment–3 hours on May 17 and 7 hours on May 24. Supporters of the policy order came from many different communities who spoke on the impact of colonialism, racism, and Apartheid laws on Palestinians and BIPOC people: Palestinians testified to their experiences of dispossession, denial of freedom of movement, loss of family through military and settler violence. Black residents of Cambridge recognized the parallels between their experiences of racism and police violence here and the experience of Palestinians in ’48 occupied Palestine. Caroline Hunter, the Cambridge Polaroid worker who started the movement here to boycott Polaroid for its complicity in Apartheid in South Africa, testified in support of the policy order on the grounds that the issues were again the same. Many Cambridge residents testified to their first-hand experience witnessing the imprisonment of Palestinian communities denied freedom of movement under a system of military checkpoints.

People also testified that HP’s technology is used by ICE to track, detain, and deport millions of immigrant families here and that HP provides essential infrastructure to the prison industrial complex that targets Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.

The only opposition to the policy order was from Israel supporters. They did not deny or even address any of HP’s participation in racist and colonial infrastructure. They instead followed a script put out by JCRC in the week before the vote. It was clear that most of the people testifying hadn’t read the policy order and didn’t know what it actually stated. They kept calling it “the BDS bill”–even though it wasn’t a BDS bill. They decried how it “singled out Israel, even though the policy order specifically mentions ICE and “the tracking, surveillance, detention, and deportation of immigrants across the United States.”. They called the policy order “antisemitic,” on the grounds that people who supported it talked about racism in Israel. They said it was “divisive” and that Cambridge should be “bringing people together.” They said it was creating a climate in which Jewish people don’t feel safe in Cambridge, a sentiment not shared by the scores of Jewish people who supported the policy order.

This was the main theme of the opponents of the bill: it made them feel personally “unsafe” as Jewish people in Cambridge. Have we heard this before? The reaction of Israel supporters was exactly parallel to the white suburbanites who stood on their porches with AR-15s last summer because Black people protesting police violence made them feel unsafe.

None of that should surprise us, since it’s constantly on display. But it’s utterly shameful that councilors Nolan, Simmons and McGovern chose to listen to white supremacists invoking their need for “comfort” and “safety” instead of listening to the call for justice from Palestinians. They are oblivious to the reality of what true lack of safety is to colonized people: having your home bombed with you inside it, or being dragged out of your car because you are Palestinian, or having your child arrested, placed in prison and tortured, or having your home literally taken over by armed settlers.

Nolan, Simmons, and McGovern drafted their own policy order to replace the one originally under discussion. The new policy order, which the City Council passed to its shame, is mostly an exercise in both-sidesism until it reaches the crucial issue at stake, and then it clearly takes a side: “The City Council affirms Israel’s right to exist and to defend its citizens from attacks, such as those launched by Hamas.” In affirming Israel’s right to exist on stolen land and calling its ongoing colonial violence “self-defense,” the city council order is a full-throated statement of colonial values: Israeli settlers have a right to unilateral war and Palestinians have no right to defend their communities when Israel steals their land and water or bombs them. What is especially insulting was the suggestion by City Councilors that this edited resolution was in some way supporting Palestinians.

The Palestinian people in every part of historic Palestine and in the diaspora have sent one message loud and clear to the international community during what they are calling “the Intifada of Unity“:

* We are one land, one people, and one struggle, from the River to the Sea.

* We demand complete divestment from Israel.

* We stand with and support the full spectrum of our popular resistance.

Standing with Palestine means supporting their unified demand for all of their historic land and for their right to resist colonialism by any means necessary.

Lana Habash and Noah Cohen live in Cambridge, MA.