In what many have been calling a test case for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in the greater Bay Area, the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights voted July 24 that taking a stance against a transit company based on its operations in Israel and the West Bank was beyond the commission’s purview.
With a tie 4-4 vote broken by chairperson Judy Rice, the commission decided against the creation of an ad hoc committee to investigate whether the SCCHR could in fact have jurisdiction over the issue, and to hear the issue further at the next meeting in August.
Roughly 130 people, including many key players in the area’s Jewish community, packed the Santa Rosa hall for the 5:30 p.m. meeting, which ended around 10 p.m.
The North Coast Coalition for Palestine made a 30-minute presentation about Veolia Transdev, a multinational transportation company with operations in 28 countries, including Israel; Veolia also has a contract to run Sonoma County’s bus system through 2014.
Members of the pro-Palestinian group feel that the county should end its relationship with the company, based on allegedly discriminatory operations by Veolia and its subsidiaries in the Israeli settlements, said NCCP representative Lois Pearlman. In a statement before the meeting, NCCP said that “Veolia participates in operations that facilitate and promote illegal occupation of Palestinian land by Israeli settlers.”
Two top-ranking executives from Veolia’s U.S. headquarters in Chicago rebutted with a 30-minute presentation, and members of the public were each granted one minute to speak — an opportunity almost 40 people on each side put to use. One of them was Rabbi George Gittleman of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa.
“As a rabbi of the largest congregation in the county, I was disappointed in the commission for even allowing this issue to come on the docket,” Gittleman said in an interview July 25. “What is the Sonoma County human rights commission doing deliberating Middle East politics? It runs contrary to their central mission, which is to bring disparate groups together.”
Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council (which issued an action alert about the meeting), said he was pleased to see the way the Jewish community mobilized.
“In addition to the words of concern that people expressed about the NCCP, the visual of how many people came out to speak about this — it was clear how sharply divisive and harmful to the community this initiative would be,” Kahn said.
He added that the discussion was civil, and chairperson Rice did an “outstanding, very fair job” of moderating the room.
“We came out of this meeting feeling very positive,” said Pearlman, one of the NCCP’s Jewish members. “By the end of the meeting, there were four commissioners who at least felt it was worth investigating, worth learning more.”
Kahn said it was tough to listen to “some of the gross misrepresentations and outrageous lies about Israel that were perpetrated by Israel’s detractors and by supporters of the BDS movement.”
SCCHR commission member Gail Jonas made a motion for the creation of an ad hoc committee for the purposes of research and investigation on this issue.
“This is what being a democracy is all about,” said Jonas, adding that she believed the NCCP might now take the issue directly to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.
Pearlman said that was “possible,” but that the group had not yet decided their next move on the Veolia issue. Regardless, she said, “We’re not going to walk away from this.”
Rice said she had felt from the beginning that issue was not one for the SCCHR.
“It seems clear that the primary issue being brought before us tonight — supporting a boycott — is not within the scope, purpose and jurisdiction of the commission,” she said at the meeting.
While opponents of the BDS movement may see that decision as a victory, according to many in the community, it’s far from the end of the discussion.
“It was a wake-up call for me,” Gittleman said. “This one issue might be over, but it’s clear to me that the BDS movement is well-organized and strong and determined. I was heartened by the turnout from the Jewish community, but this is going to be a long, protracted fight, and that makes me sad because I don’t believe it’s going to bring us closer to peace.”