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Burlington City Council doesn’t endorse BDS — but leaves the door open

The Burlington City Council narrowly voted to withdraw a controversial resolution to boycott Israel that, if passed, would have been the first such measure approved by an American city. The vote came after hours of heated comments from citizens in a meeting that stretched from Monday evening until the early hours of Tuesday morning and pitted pro-Palestinian activists against Jewish community members who said the measure was one-sided and threatened their safety.

“This resolution, from my perspective, is not ready for the City of Burlington to vote on it tonight,” Ali Dieng, the measure’s lead sponsor, told his colleagues.

But the withdrawal, by a 6-5 vote, was not considered a victory by those who opposed the resolution and preferred that the council vote it down during the meeting.

“We need to be done with this once and for all and not have this come back again,” said William “Chip” Mason. Mason and his Democratic colleagues on the council sought to force a vote on the resolution, which supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. But a majority of Progressive Party members and independents chose to leave the door open for it to be reconsidered in the future.

Dieng’s motion to withdraw the resolution was an abrupt about face. Over the summer he had worked to bring the resolution to a vote. But he and other council members said they had recently received 2,000 emails on the resolution, the vast majority of them from those opposed. Dieng said the controversy over the measure led him to conclude over the weekend that it should be sent back to the council’s Racial Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging committee for further discussion.

The debate — often raucous as dozens of citizens who spoke on either side of the issue, and more measured among city council members — brought dozens of citizens to the council meeting. Vermont rabbis spoke against the resolution, as did professors from the University of Vermont. Students from the school spoke both in favor and against.

One council member said he noticed people crying in the crowd. People waved signs and the Palestinian flag. Some stomped their feet.

The meeting started roughly 45 minutes late and in the lead up pro-Palestinian activists ran through a series of loud chants: “Not another nickel, not another dime, no more money for Israel’s crimes,” and “Two, four, six, eight, Israel is an apartheid state.”

At one point, members of the Jewish community opposed to the BDS resolution began singing Oseh Shalom, a Hebrew prayer for peace, only to be drowned out by cheers from the other side of the room. “Vote as if you have a Jewish friend,” read one sign.

David Edelson, rabbi of Burlington’s Reform congregation, expressed frustration that the Jewish establishment’s strident opposition to BDS had not prevented City Council members from considering it.

“Every major Jewish organization finds BDS to be antisemitic, or rooted in antisemitism, and it is somewhat appalling that is ignored,” Edelson said, during the public comment period. “If every African-American organization, or women’s organization, said something was racist or sexist it would definitely be listened to.”

While people opposed to the BDS resolution made up a majority of those who spoke at the meeting, and nearly all of the roughly 2,000 people who emailed council members about the issue over the last two weeks, several Jewish Vermonters also spoke in favor of boycotting Israel.

Rachel Siegel, a former member of the Council who held a sign reading “Jews for Palestinian Human Rights,” told members that she had come to support BDS in recent years.

“It is sick to use antisemitism as an excuse for oppression,” Siegel said. “I don’t even believe the state of Israel is pro-Jewish.”

Other proponents of the resolution were more blunt.

“I’m only here for one reason and it’s to hurt the feelings of Zionists,” Jadah Bearden, a local activist, told the room.

The testimony appeared to make a significant impact on the council members, including several who said they were sympathetic or had initially planned to support the measure but had second thoughts.

“I’m not hearing the pros outweigh the cons on this — and I want to, desperately want to, because I know a lot of work and organizing has gone into this,” said Jane Stromberg, a Progressive Party member of the council. “But I’m just hearing a lot of fear and I’m hearing a lot of true, real stories from people who are feeling very threatened.”

Dieng said he wanted to receive further input from the community and hear from experts on both sides of the debate. While the livestream broadcasting the late night meeting to roughly 100 people cut out just before the vote took place, Dieng and Mason both confirmed to the Forward that the City Council voted 6-5 to withdraw the measure.

“We should not stay away from these topics,” Dieng said. “It’s OK to be uncomfortable. It just helps you grow.”

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