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City Council Resolution to Support BDS Movement Fails in Burlington, VT

Earlier this year (2021), Ben and Jerry’s ice cream decided to quit selling its ice cream in the illegal settlements built by Israel in the Occupied Territories of Palestine. This decision was reached after years of letter-writing, leafleting, editorializing, and other forms of pressure organized in large part by the anti-occupation group called Vermonters for Justice in Palestine (VTJP). VTJP is a secular organization composed of Vermonters of several faiths and backgrounds, including those of the Jewish faith, Islam and Christians. Although Ben & Jerry’s action is not a full on divestment from Israel’s apartheid, the announcement by the company provoked a hysterical outcry from the Israeli media and government. That outcry was echoed by right-wing Christian supporters of Israeli expansionism and several Jewish organizations and rabbis in the United States.

Although it is difficult to link the decision by Ben and Jerry’s to end the aforementioned sales to the attack, it is important to note that their decision was announced not long after Israel’s contemptible attack on Gaza in May 2021. Some of those attacks were clearly aimed at civilian targets. According to the United Nations, The United Nations reported that Israeli attacks killed 260 people in Gaza, at least 129 of them civilians, including 66 children. Furthermore, Gazan authorities said that 2,400 housing units were made uninhabitable, while over 50,000 units were damaged, and over 2,000 industrial, trade, and service facilities were destroyed or partially damaged. During the May onslaught, a protest against Israel’s occupation and brutality and in support of the BDS movement was held in Burlington, Vermont—Vermont’s largest city. Several hundred people participated in the protest, which was one of thousands worldwide.

The campaign to convince Ben & Jerry’s to move towards divestment in Israel has been underway for over a decade. Besides the letter-writing mentioned above,VTJP, the group behind the campaign, has distributed literature about the Israeli occupation in Burlington’s downtown on the company’s free cone day for years. Individuals involved in the campaign who have confronted Ben Cohen tell me that the company’s social responsibility organization has been debating for a while as to how Ben & Jerry’s could end what amounted to tacit (at best) support for Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza. The fact that Ben & Jerry’s decided on July 19, 2021 to end sales of their ice cream in illegal settlements and terminate the contract with their license holder when it expires in 2022 is seen as a significant victory.

In direct relation to the decision by Ben and Jerry’s and as a result of the relentless campaign by VTJP, the Burlington City Council was compelled to address a resolution from BDS activists calling on the City of Burlington to “express its solidarity with the Palestinian people, condemn(s) anti-boycott legislation, and endorse(s) the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which calls for nonviolent pressure on Israel until it meets three demands:

1. Ending the military occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Separation Wall;

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated under U.N. Resolution 194.

(The full text of the resolution can be found here.)

The resolution has been endorsed by close to two dozen organizations in Vermont, from Vermont’s State Labor Council AFL-CIO, Jewish Voice for Peace to the Party for Socialism and Liberation – PSL, AFSCME 1674 and the board of the Will Miller Social Justice Lecture Series. As noted by local organizer and rabble-rouser Albert Petrarca, “Monday’s vote (on the resolution) will be the first test of political will between Israel’s apartheid government and those demanding justice for Palestine…. A vote to pass the BDS resolution establishes Burlington as the first U.S city to officially endorse this growing worldwide movement.” The statement supporting the resolution from the board of the Will Miller Social Justice Lecture Series defines the issue clearly.

“The current situation in Palestine and Israel is untenable. The illegal, immoral theft and occupation of Palestinian lands by settlers supported by the Israeli military breeds conflict and is defined by brutality. The building of more settlements must end immediately and the ongoing military operations against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza must cease. Since the United States—who is the primary patron of the Israeli nation—refuses to curtail, much less end its funding of Israel’s gross violations of human rights and international law, it is up to the people around the world to facilitate the end of the Israeli occupation. We on the Will Miller Social Justice Lecture Series board recognize Israel’s current existence to be that of an apartheid state. In the same manner that our namesake Will Miller was a lead organizer in the movement to get the University of Vermont to divest from the apartheid regime of South Africa in the 1980s, we support this resolution as part of the international movement to divest from the Israeli apartheid state today. It is a small but important step and we hope the Burlington City Council votes to approve this resolution.”

Novelist and VTJP member Marc Estrin wrote in a commentary published September 13, 2021:

“As a Jew, I am proud of Jewish calls for equality for Palestinians, and for Israel to end its many inhumane activities…. The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the “Days of Awe,” are traditionally devoted to seeking forgiveness from those one has harmed over the previous year. Yom Kippur is a day of atonement for such behavior. No more perfect time to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

The evening of September 13, 2021 in Burlington began with a rally in Burlington’s downtown district and a march to the City Hall for a scheduled City Council meeting. A few hours before the meeting, Burlington’s Democratic mayor released a statement opposing the resolution, calling it divisive. It is a statement that is oblivious to the divisiveness implicit in the statement itself; a statement that echoed those who would do anything to destroy the concept of Palestine. After the normal procedural proceedings and a discussion of some previous business, the resolution quoted above was introduced. The discussion was occasionally heated, with those opposed repeating claims of anti-Semitism designed to move the focus of the debate away from the crimes of Israel. In other words, the opponents of the BDS resolution read from scripts that might as well have been drafted by Israel’s Likud party. After all was said and done, the resolution was withdrawn by a 6-5 vote. Perhaps it was too early to bring the resolution to a vote. Perhaps the organizers did not do enough groundwork among the public. Either way, what could have been a major step forward in the movement against Israeli apartheid turned out to be at best a small step backward. As those who participated in the struggle to end South African apartheid remember, upending a system supported by some of the world’s most powerful people is not easy. However, that struggle also teaches that victory can be achieved.