Englewood votes against BDS
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Englewood votes against BDS

Diverse city comes together to battle movement to harm Israel

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood talks as city council members Charles Cobb and Michael Cohen listen.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood talks as city council members Charles Cobb and Michael Cohen listen.

Last week Englewood’s city council voted to reject the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

BDS is an ideology that tries to turn its proponents’ loathing of Israel into a potent threat against the state by harming it economically, and through that economic weapon to delegitimize it, banning not only Israeli-made goods but even Israeli academics and scientists. All are tarred as somehow morally compromised, simply for being connected, even by birth, with the Jewish state.

New Jersey passed legislation condemning BDS this summer. Englewood was the first New Jersey municipality to pass the legislation, and it did so unanimously; New Jersey was the 11th state.

Michael Cohen, the eastern regional director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, represents Englewood’s second ward on its five-member city council.

“Englewood is a very diverse city, and the council is diverse,” Mr. Cohen said. “I was very impressed by the fact that the legislation passed unanimously. That’s a strong statement.

“There are a lot of political issues and problems that face us, but we had the courage and the wisdom to understand the difference between those issues and this, and we were able to come together and do the right thing.

“Englewood was the first city, and the first one always is the hardest one. Now that Englewood has done it, we — that’s the Wiesenthal Center — have started the conversation with legislators in other municipalities. We’ll try to have this duplicated.”

The week before, a similar resolution — in fact, the same resolution, with only the place name changed — passed New York City’s council. That was a much more contentious legislative session, with protestors trying to shout over the speakers, and it passed 40 to 4, with 4 abstentions.

Mr. Cohen testified at that session (and he wrote about the experience in an op-ed for this newspaper’s September 16 issue). “As each of us in Jewish communal leadership sought to testify publicly, we experienced what Israeli diplomats and other lovers of Zion have been confronted with — loud screeds seeking to stifle our voices,” he wrote two weeks ago. There was a great deal of hatred and teeth-baring, high-decibel anger in the room.

It wasn’t like that in Englewood. To begin with, “We made sure that the Jewish community knew about it,” Mr. Cohen said. There was a great effort to get the facts out. “Our people came in a respectful manner, making sure that all the leadership — both elected officials and otherwise — have a clear understanding that BDS is not a civil rights movement, it is not a human rights movement, it is simply an anti-Semitic movement. One of the things I tried to make sure to do, along with many of my neighbors and colleagues in Englewood and throughout the Jewish community, was to make sure that we were well organized, and that people who truly understood what BDS really stands for could get to the meeting to testify, and allow them to have their voices heard.”

Unlike their counterparts in New York, BDS opponents in Englewood did not face hostility. “As to why that was, I can only speculate,” Mr. Cohen said. (In fact, he did not speculate.)

There were about 50 people at the council meeting, he said; that’s somewhere between two and three times the normal number of observers.

Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen

Mr. Cohen compared the meeting in Englewood to the one in New York. “In New York, you had a very well-organized operation,” Mr. Cohen said. “They tried to make sure that anybody who spoke against BDS was drowned out, and that anti-Semitic rants ruled the day.

“It was a very eye-opening environment to a lot of the people there.”

There are more than 8 million people in New York City. Englewood, on the other hand, “is small. It’s just under 30,000 people, and it has a growing and flourishing Jewish community, probably about 20 percent of the city, maybe slightly more.”

The city council is made up of a representative from each of its four wards, and one at-large member. Three of those representatives are Jewish, and the other two are African-American. Mr. Cohen is the only one of the Jewish city council members who is Orthodox.

“This city was able to come together and recognize both the true nature of BDS, and that we can stand together as a diverse community and do something important.

“The fact that Englewood was able to stand together on this was remarkable. It’s something to be proud of. Englewood really has played a leadership role, and I am very happy to be part of it.”

Gene Skurnick represents Englewood’s third ward. At almost 75, he’s a first-generation Bronx-born Jew, a native of the left-wing Yiddishist world, a politically active Democrat. He’s served two stints on the city council, first from 1978 to 1984, and again starting in 2010.

Before the question of voting on an anti-BDS resolution was brought up, Mr. Skurnick said, he knew very little about the issue, and he suspects he shared that lack of knowledge with many others. He did know, he said, through some stories he’d heard over the years, that “in other parts of the country, there was a lot of what I would call anti-Western, anti-Israel — not anti-Semitic, but anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian, and pro-anyone who is not on top.” But that information had been stored away at the back of his mind.

He thinks that there are two reasons that the resolution passed. The first is that it is correct; BDS is something to be fought. It is wrong. And the second is that Michael Cohen has formidable political skills, and he used them to build consensus.

“Michael spoke to the shakers and the movers in the community, Jews and non-Jews, and they in turn spoke to other people,” Mr. Skurnick said. “He shepherded it through by calling people, speaking to people, and showing how important it is, and how it relates to civil rights. As a result, it became a total non-issue. Nobody was going to stand up and say the usual thing — ask why we were voting on this resolution, what it had to do with us. Nobody was going to do that. Nobody did it.

“Instead, you had a tremendous outpouring of people. I was so impressed by the people who came to speak.”

“What was really terrific was the people who spoke, and gave insights into how the pro-Palestinian anti-Israel position had shifted into being anti-Semitic.

“They taught me a lot. There were smart people there, and they gave great insights on the issue. It was a very good education.

“There were a lot of African Americans there. The population is focused on discrimination, on Black Lives Matter, on police shootings, so it was interesting for them to have people who live up on the East Hill” — Englewood’s first and second wards, which include the city’s largest houses and wealthiest residents, many of them modern Orthodox Jews — “talk about discrimination. What is going on there? They were moved by what they heard,” particularly about the effect of BDS campaigns on college students.

Both New Jersey State Senate’s majority leader, Loretta Weinberg, and the state Assembly’s deputy speaker, Gordon Johnson, come from Bergen County — Ms. Weinberg from Teaneck, Mr. Johnson from Englewood. Ms. Weinberg is Jewish, and Mr. Johnson is African-American. The two put out a joint statement welcoming the council’s action, noting the state’s position as an anti-BDS stronghold, and stressing the economic and cultural ties that bind Israel and New Jersey, adding that “New Jersey stands against global intolerance and anti-Semitism. The BDS movement is an obstacle to achieving peace and security in this volatile region. The movement serves only to inflame tensions that stand in the way of diplomatic progress and a lasting cessation of hostilities.”

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