BDS battle against transit company comes to North Bay

Seeking to end Sonoma County’s contract with an international transit company — in part because of the company’s operation in the West Bank — a local pro-Palestinian group will be making its case this week to the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights.

Some are looking at the Tuesday, July 24, meeting in Santa Rosa as an important test case for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Veolia Transdev, a privately owned, French-based, public transportation company, has operations in 28 countries; Veolia Transportation, which operates and manages public transportation systems in the United States and Canada, has been under contract with Sonoma County since 1989.

Sonoma County Transit buses photo/creative commons-la wad

According to a statement issued by Ken Westbrook, president of the Chicago-based headquarters of Veolia’s transit division, the company operates more than 100 bus routes in Israel — including six that run through the West Bank. It’s those routes, as well as other Veolia connections to the West Bank, that have made the company the focus of criticism from pro-Palestinian groups worldwide.

“Since Veolia participates in operations that facilitate and promote illegal occupation of Palestinian land by Israeli settlers, no city or institution should engage their services,” wrote a Sonoma County–based pro-Palestinan group.

That group, the North Coast Coalition for Palestine, prepared a docket for the Sonoma County CHR that outlined several beefs with Veolia and its subsidiaries — such as the operation of a West Bank sewage plant that the group claims treats waste from an Israeli settlement but not from Palestinian towns and villages.

Veolia has provided the Sonoma County CHR with a statement on its business in Israel, focusing mainly on the bus lines in question.

“Veolia Transport-Israel operates all its bus lines on a non-discriminatory basis,” reads the statement, penned by Westbrook. “There are no special permits or requirements for riding a bus other than a valid ticket.” The statement adds that an “express route” that runs between the Israeli cities of Modi’in and Jerusalem has caused confusion among pro-Palestinian protestors because it skips multiple stops and villages, “both Israeli and Palestinian. Any impression of discrimination due to limited stops is inaccurate.”

Ann Zimmer

Members of the NCCP disagree. The 2-year-old group of about 14 people will present evidence July 24 of the company’s alleged violations, which its members claim center around “providing infrastructure for the settlements, which are in violation of international law, and are built on stolen land,” said Lois Pearlman — one of three Jewish members of the NCCP.

Pearlman said group members ultimately hope that when Veolia’s operations and maintenance contract with Sonoma County comes up for renewal in 2014, the board of supervisors will choose to take its business elsewhere. The NCCP will present for 30 minutes at the July 24 meeting; the 14-member Commission on Human Rights voted last month to give them the time allotment, after commission member Gail Jonas brought the organization’s topic to the agenda.

While the CHR can’t enact policy, it will present a recommendation to county supervisors should a resolution eventually come to pass as a result of the meeting. The supervisors have final say over whether or not the Veolia contract is renewed.

“I realize this is an incredibly difficult issue,” said Jonas, a Healdsburg-based attorney. “I don’t think a human rights commission should steer away from difficult issues.”

Three vice presidents from Veolia — including a top company lawyer — are expected to be present, as Veolia was invited to speak for 30 minutes.

Members of the public are welcome to attend, and will be given opportunities to speak for one minute each, said commission chair Judy Rice.

Rice added that she was expecting a long meeting — starting at 5:30 p.m. and possibly running past midnight, she said — because of a “huge number of representatives from the public who [may] want to speak.”

The Jewish community, in particular, will “hopefully” turn up in great numbers to hear the issue, said human rights commission member Ann Zimmer, the Sonoma County chairperson for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council from 1990 to 1994. She said she has spoken to fellow JCRC members in the North Bay as well as others in the Jewish community who are deeply disturbed about the prospect of BDS gaining a foothold in Sonoma.

Lois Pearlman

“I do believe this is a test case, at least for the West, possibly for the United States, for the BDS movement,” said Zimmer, who added that she was the only commission member with a strong Jewish identity, to her knowledge. And after NCCP was granted time at next week’s meeting, she was the commission member who suggested inviting Veolia representatives to rebut, she said.

The JCRC this week sent out an action alert about the meeting, encouraging members of the Jewish community to attend and speak. Noga Zimerman, the JCRC’s director of Middle East affairs, said the organization was denied the right to formally present before the commission.

“This is a deeply divisive initiative … that is absolutely part of a larger BDS campaign, and the JCRC rejects that movement because we believe it’s one-sided,” Zimerman said. “It works to delegitimize Israel’s existence under any borders, and it works to delegitimize the two-state solution.”

Zimerman added that the initiative was “outrageously out of [the commission]’s mandate to promote better human relations among people in Sonoma County.”

Three months ago, a similar action was undertaken against Veolia in Davis, but it failed. There, BDS and pro-Palestinian groups attempted to prevent the Davis-Woodland Clean Water Agency from including Veolia Water North America (which falls under the umbrella of Veolia Environment) in a bid for a multimillion-dollar project to bring water to Central California communities. The agency ultimately voted unanimously to include the company, according to the local newspaper, the Davis Enterprise. 

If next week’s meeting in Santa Rosa leads to a proposal from a member of the Commission on Human Rights, it’s possible that the commission could vote on a resolution on July 24, Rice said. But given the size of the expected turnout, it’s not likely within one evening, the chairperson added.

If the process does eventually lead to a resolution, said Rice, it will mean that the commission — which is mandated to advocate “for policy at the local, state and federal levels that promotes equal rights, tolerance and inclusiveness” — presents the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors with a docket of information related to the issue with a draft of the resolution. “We have no power over what the county actually does,” she said.

Rice added that, as chair of the commission, she will be issuing a stern warning about conduct to those present July 24.

“At some point at the beginning of the meeting, I’ll announce that we are dealing with issues that are probably going to arouse some passions,” she said. “And that while everyone is free to speak their mind, I will insist that every speaker be treated with courtesy, with respect, and that we remain civil.”

She added: “Whether or not we manage to follow that, we’ll see.”

Emma Silvers