NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans City Council unanimously rescinded a human rights resolution Thursday, two weeks after approval of the seemingly benign measure sparked accusations that members had unwittingly played into the hands of international anti-Israel extremists and anti-Semites.
The Jan. 11 resolution states that the city has “social and ethical obligations to take steps to avoid contracting with or investing in corporations whose practices consistently violate human rights, civil rights or labor rights” and it “encourages the creation of a process” to avoid such investments and contracts. It mentions no nation, issue or business. But it was pushed by supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement, also known as BDS.
The BDS movement says it “works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.” Critics call its efforts anti-Semitic.
Debate over the resolution was brief — limited to 15 minutes per side — but intense. Immediately after it was rescinded, demonstrators broke into songs of protest, prompting a half-hour recess. Outside the meeting room, resolution supporters who had been unable to enter because of space limitations held protest signs up against the glass wall while chanting.
“The resolution as written protects everyone,” said Tabitha Mustafa, of the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee. Mustafa accused council members, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and others who opposed the resolution of bowing to campaign contributors.
“We have to ask ourselves: ‘Is the Zionist lobby willing to continue to destroy and defame reputable social-justice movements by using this scorched-earth policy in order to deem anything that is a critique as anti-Semitic?” Mustafa said.
Also among the backers of the resolution were a Chicago rabbi and numerous people in T-Shirts that bore the words “Jews for Human Rights (No exceptions).”
Arguing for rescinding the measure were representatives of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and other prominent members of the New Orleans Jewish community, including former City Council member Arnie Fielkow.
Rabbi Edward Cohn said the resolution “cleverly masqueraded as a high-minded civic statement designed to address and prevent human rights abuses.” But he said it was being hailed by some advocates as a foothold of support in a major Southern city for opponents of Israel.
After initially defending the resolution, council members soon began backing away from it. When he announced Thursday’s vote to revisit the issue, Council president Jason Williams acknowledged he was unfamiliar with the BDS movement.
“Both sides agree with the black-and-white words on that human rights resolution,” Williams said just prior to the vote. “However, how the New Orleans City Council is reflected internationally and how we are reflected nationally, that is up to the members of the City Council.”
Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell, currently a council member, authored the resolution. Emails released Thursday by supporters of the resolution included correspondence with staffers for Williams and Cantrell and the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, indicating discussions about “human rights investment screen” legislation had been discussed for months. The emails do not mention BDS. Cantrell spokesman David Winkler-Schmit said Thursday that she had been unaware of any potential connection between the resolution and the BDS movement prior to the vote.
Williams and Cantrell backed withdrawal of the resolution after the politically fraught nature of the BDS movement became clear.
“While I will continue to examine issues of civil rights and fair contracting, I want to unequivocally reiterate that I am neither supportive of the BDS movement nor in any way hostile to the Jewish community or the State of Israel,” Cantrell’s statement said. “Nor was it my intention to commit the City of New Orleans to such positions.”
The resolution, which does not have the force of law, was adopted toward the end of an hourslong meeting.
Council members, all Democrats, approved it 5-0. Two were absent, but both were listed as sponsors. It had been added to the agenda without advance notice, another point of criticism from opponents. During a public comment period, it was praised by representatives of the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee.
Backlash followed the next day from Jewish groups and prominent Republicans.
“This measure is rooted in anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel,” said Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy.
Landrieu — who, like the council members, is a Democrat — added his voice. “This resolution was ill-advised, gratuitous and does not reflect the policy of the City of New Orleans,” he said in a news release.