The Battle for Divestment from Israeli Securities in Somerville
- Seva Brodsky has been heavily involved in Neoconservative activities
-- especially Charles Jacobs' pet causes. He often attends
Israel-related talks and seminars in the Boston area. He likes to take
pictures of anti-Israel activists, whom he has been known to harass
and threaten as he did at the Jeff Halper and the Sharanski talks at
Harvard, which took place in Spring 2005.
An engineer, Brodsky enrolled as a student at the New England School
of Law in Boston and recently interned at the Jerusalem Center for
Public Affairs (JCPA), a Neconservative racist ethnic Ashkenazi
Jabotinskian think-tank. Now that Brodsky is earning a law degree, he
will probably add frivolous law suits to his arsenal in his defense of
the ethnic Ashkenazi Jabotinskian transnational political elite.
Brodsky, originally from Russia, owes his US citizenship to the
Jackson-Vanik ammendment to the 1974 Trade Reform Act. Congress passed
this ammendment in response to the false claims of the organized
American Jewish community that Soviet ethnic Ashkenazim were subject
to unique and potentially murderous racist discrimination.
The Battle for Divestment from Israeli Securities in Somerville
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
No 4, 27 September 2005, 23 Elul 5765
From summer 2003, the city of Somerville in the metropolitan
Boston area became the battleground for a municipal divestment project
against Israel. Previously, anti-Israeli divestment campaigns had
mainly focused on universities.
The Somerville Divestment Project took the form of a campaign
for divestment of holdings in Israeli government bonds and stocks of
companies engaging in military business with Israel. Its target was
the Somerville Retirement Board, which manages the pensions of city
employees. The mayor of Somerville threatened to veto the proposition
if it was passed by the Somerville aldermen.
Sensing danger, the Jewish community quickly united against
the campaign. In December 2004, the Somerville aldermen voted against
the project. Meanwhile, the opponents of Israel have continued their
efforts by proposing to place an advisory question on the subject of
divestment on the November city ballot.
During the summer of 2003, Ron Francis, a young high school
teacher, founded the Somerville Divestment Project.1 He had previously
been politically opposed to Israel. At the end of 2002 he took an
active part in a boycott of Wordsworth, one of the last independent
bookstores in Cambridge, Massachusetts, because its owner Hillel
Stavis had stopped contributing funds to National Public Radio in
protest against their anti-Israeli bias.2 The activists picketed the
store for a week, effectively disrupting the business.
The Problem and the Background
After the failure to bring about anti-Israeli divestment at
college campuses, the first attempt to do so with municipalities
occurred in Somerville. The anti-Israeli activities there took the
form of a campaign to force the Somerville Retirement Board to divest
its holdings in Israeli government bonds and stocks of companies
engaging in military business with Israel.
The city of Somerville is an integral part of metropolitan Boston,
bordering the cities of Boston and Cambridge. Somerville was primarily
a working-class area until the subway was extended. When high real
estate prices in Cambridge led many of its residents to relocate to
Somerville, they brought with them their politically active culture.
This new population attempted to reframe the city's political agenda.
Whereas Somerville had been primarily concerned with local issues, the
new activists forced the community to take a stand on international
political issues as well.
The Campaign's Beginning
One summer evening in 2003, Ron Francis launched the divestment
campaign at the College Avenue Methodist Church in Somerville. His
presentation included a lecture with many visuals that depicted the
Palestinian narrative. Francis portrayed the Palestinians as a
"peace-loving" population that had been brutalized by the "ruthless
For a year and a half thereafter, Francis and other divestment
activists lobbied the Somerville aldermen (city councilors), trying to
sway them toward the Palestinian stance. They redefined the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a human rights issue and tried to
appeal to the aldermen's sense of justice. These activists used a
door-to-door campaign to spread their views and collect signatures.
As noted, the Somerville Divestment Project sought to force the
Somerville Retirement Board, which manages the pensions of city
employees, to sell any Israeli bonds it had or stocks in American
companies doing military business with Israel. The aim was to convince
the aldermen to vote in favor of divestment. In October 2004, the
activists tried to bring about an unannounced vote by the aldermen on
the resolution so as to avoid any possible opposition.
They almost succeeded, because eight of the eleven aldermen
initially cosponsored the resolution. However, one alderman, Bill
White, called for an open discussion of the motion before the vote,
allowing the "other" side a chance to state its views. Thanks to his
respect for the democratic process, the whole matter suddenly became a
public issue. In autumn 2004, Somerville found itself the scene of a
major political contest with international repercussions. Numerous
articles and letters to the editor, sent from various places, appeared
in the Somerville Journal, the city's main weekly publication. The
mayor of Somerville, Joe Curtatone, threatened to veto the proposition
if it was passed by the board.3
The Jewish Community Responds
The Jewish community mobilized quickly. It assembled an ad hoc
antidivestment coalition consisting of the leaders of the Boston
chapters of the Jewish Community Relations Council, the American
Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Combined Jewish
Philanthropies, Jewish representatives from labor unions, the Israeli
consul-general for New England, and various concerned citizens from
Somerville. The debate was scheduled to be held in the Aldermen's
Chamber of the Somerville City Hall on 8 November 2004.4
On that day, the chamber was filled beyond capacity. Advocates of
each side were given the opportunity to speak for up to two minutes,
and the vote hearing for the full board was scheduled for December.
One participant in this debate was Shamai Leibowitz, an Israeli lawyer
who came to Somerville from Washington where he was a New Israel Fund
Fellow at American University's Washington College of Law. Leibowitz
had published letters in favor of the divestment resolution in the
Somerville Journal, the (Boston) Jewish Advocate, the Jordan Times,
and elsewhere.5 Another Israeli-born, pro-Palestinian lobbyist was
Iftach Shavit, a resident of Somerville, who had written a widely
circulated letter in favor of the divestment.6
The prodivestment activists presented the Arab-Israeli conflict
using the idiom of the radical Left. They portrayed Israel as a
racist, imperialist, expansionist, apartheid, colonialist, settler
state. The pro-Israeli advocates emphasized that the other side had
singled out Israel as a scapegoat for the ills of the Palestinians.
Israel supporters tried to show that the Jewish state has a vibrant,
pluralistic, multiethnic democracy where people of all faiths and
origins partake in equal rights.7 They also emphasized the Palestinian
terror campaign being waged against Israeli civilians during the
Many prodivestment activists who took part in the meeting came
from out of town. Israel supporters were disheartened to learn that
about 40 percent of the divestment supporters were Jewish. One was
Joachim Carlo Santos Martillo Ajami, a vigorous and vociferous,
Boston-based anti-Israeli activist.8 At one time he was known to be
virulently anti-Arab, but he eventually reversed his views.
Another harshly anti-Israeli Jew at the meeting was Noah Cohen.
One of the leaders of the Boston-based New England Committee to Defend
Palestine (NECDP), he was also a friend of a militant Palestinian
activist, Amer Jubran, who was arrested for assault and battery
against several Jewish Bostonians and was eventually deported to
Jordan for fraud in 2004 by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization
Service. Marty Federman and Hilda Silverman, two of the better-known
Boston-area "peace activists," also attended the meeting on the
Also among the divestment supporters were Lana Habash of the NECDP
and Maria Hussain, also known as Karin Friedeman, also known as Umm
Yakoub, who is the New Jersey-based editor of the pro-Arab World View
News Service.9 She is also the wife of Martillo Ajami and a convert to
On 7 December 2004, the divestment proposal was voted down in a
brief interim hearing of the legislative subcommittee of the
Somerville Board of Aldermen. Denise Provost, alderman-at-large, a
lawyer and the most active prodivestment member of the board, stormed
out of that meeting in anger. The full board hearing was scheduled for
two days later.
Both sides inundated the Somerville aldermen with letters. These
locally elected representatives, who were not conversant in Middle
Eastern affairs, were suddenly plunged into a passionate political
debate. To their credit, they quickly learned the basics and were able
to make an educated decision in the final vote on 9 December.11
On the evening of the final vote, the atmosphere was tense. Both
sides filled the Aldermen's Chamber with banners, placards, photos,
leaflets, buttons, and flags. The gathering had the feel of a
political rally. There were many leftist organizations in attendance,
including representatives from Boston to Palestine (B2P), the Boston
affiliate of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), as well as a
number of Arabs and Muslims. In a particularly disturbing incident
before the meeting began, a Jewish Israel supporter asked a man
whether a chair next to him was available, to which the divestment
supporter replied, "Not for the Jews."
Ten aldermen voted against the divestment proposal with one
abstention by Denise Provost. The results were greeted with cheers as
well as hissing and booing. Alderman Provost, who presided, demanded
that order be restored, at which point the prodivestment activists
began passing out leaflets and singing the anthem of the African
Although Provost remonstrated with them, the divestment supporters
ignored her and had to be removed by the police as they continued
singing. After the public had finally left and the aldermen returned
to their business of running the city, Provost tried unsuccessfully to
bring the motion to another vote.12
The advocates of Israel's legitimacy won this round. Although a
flurry of letters appeared in the Somerville Journal and the Jewish
Advocate, the issue receded as the city returned to its daily
business. Despite their reversal, the proponents of divestment claimed
their loss as a victory.13
Shortly afterward, Mayor Curtatone visited Israel on a trip
cosponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the American Jewish
Congress, and returned with favorable impressions.
In January 2005, the anti-Israeli activists tried to revive the
divestment effort at the Clarendon Hill Presbyterian Church in
Somerville, whose pastor, Karl Gustafson, is known for hostility to
Israel. Local Jews, joined by a number of Christians, protested
outside the church.14
The divestment supporters, including ISM/B2P members, continued
their anti-Israeli activities in April 2005 by organizing a series of
weeklong demonstrations at the entrance to the Massachusetts
headquarters of the Caterpillar corporation, which sells construction
equipment to Israel.15 This effort was led by Jeff Halper, a
pro-Palestinian activist of the Israeli Committee against House
The Somerville Divestment Project is making another try, planning
to place an advisory question on the subject of divestment on the
city's November 2005 election ballot.16 To this end, they have again
begun "raising awareness" by spreading pro-Palestinian propaganda.17
In spring 2005 they organized a viewing of the anti-Israeli film
Qalqilya, distributing leaflets describing Israel as a "racist settler
regime" and urging supporters to "Reject Racism. Reject Israel."
The Somerville Divestment Project also now has workshops, paid
advocates, and information tables near the two subway stops closest to
Somerville, and is collecting signatures for its petition, handing out
flyers, and canvassing the city once more.
This time, however, the antidivestment activists were prepared and
began organizing for the next round by forming a broad coalition and
planning their future course. Meanwhile some church leaders, such as
M. Thomas Shaw, the Episcopalian Bishop of Massachusetts, began to
reconsider their support of divestment from Israel.18
Lessons Learned: "United We Stand"
Despite the activists' efforts, the Somerville Divestment Project
did not achieve its objective of forcing divestment from Israeli
securities. When its questionable tactics, such as secretive lobbying
and trying to pass resolutions without democratic process were brought
to light, the movement began to lose its legitimacy.
When it sensed danger, the Jewish community united quickly,
setting aside political differences. It drew on a variety of human
resources, including student groups, labor unions, Jewish
organizations, and concerned citizens. The success of the effort
brought familiar accusations from the other side about Zionist
Meanwhile, the Somerville Divestment Project continues its
campaign by trying to place its agenda on the November city ballot.
Supporters of Israel actively oppose this initiative.20 The Project
has already run into trouble with the Somerville election commission
for "failure to comply with the requirements of the election
The next showdown of the Somerville divestment campaign will most
likely take place during the November 2005 elections. The radical
leftist and anti-Israeli advocates of divestment have not given up,
and the friends of Israel will have to remain mobilized.
* * *
* Gratitude is extended to Dr. Joel Fishman and Dr. Manfred
Gerstenfeld of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs as well as to
the Center's intern Aviva Horowitz for their kind assistance.
1 See HYPERLINK "www.divestmentproject.org". A thorough account of
the events as they occurred, including background and key players, was
written and is continuously being updated by Jon Haber, and is
available at www.somervilleMEjustice.com. For Somerville-related as
well as general divestment information, see also
2 Mary Kathryn Burke, "Protest Targets Wordsworth: Bookstore Owner
Criticized for Pulling Sponsorship of WBUR," Harvard Crimson, 10
December 2002; Mark Jurkowitz, "Wordsworth Targeted for WBUR Funding
Boycott," Boston Globe, 10 December 2002; Seth Gittle, "Hillel
Stavis's Protesters Are Missing the Point," Boston Phoenix, 12
3 "Curtatone Opposes Israel Divestment Resolution to Be Considered
Tonight," City of Somerville, 9 November 2004,
www.ci.somerville.ma.us/newsDetail.cfm?instance_id=193; Joel Fishman,
"A Case Study: Madison, Wisconsin, U.S.A.: A Battleground for Israel's
Legitimacy," Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 16, Nos. 3-4 (Fall
4 Penny Schwartz, "Committee Hearing Slated for Nov. 8," Jewish
Advocate, 5 November 2004.
5 Shamai K. Leibowitz, "Support Peace by Divesting from Israel,"
6 Iftach Shavit, "Help Israel Save Itself,"
7 Gena Gorlin and Sharon Silverman, "The Crucial Difference,"
Tufts Primary Source, 12 February 2005.
8 Joachim Martillo, "How to Talk about Zionism: The New Improved
9 Maria Hussain, "Night of Power for Somerville," Al-Jazeerah, 8
November 2004; Erin Dower, "Fake Jazeera Wants Prayers to Steer
Somerville Pols," Somerville Journal, 18 November 2004.
10 Maria Hussain, "Observations on the Palestine Solidarity
11 http://somervillemejustice.com/marriage.html; Benjamin Gedan,
"Proposal to Divest Israeli Funds Sparks Outrage," Boston Globe, 9
12 Hilary Leila Krieger, "Boston Suburb May Become First US City
to Divest from Israel," Jerusalem Post, 26 November 2004; Benjamin
Gedan, "Somerville Rejects Divestment Plan," Boston Globe, 8 December
2004; Michael M. Grynbaum, "City Rejects Divestment," Harvard Crimson,
10 December 2004; Penny Schwartz, "In City of Somerville, Mass., a
Decisive 'No' to Divestment," Jewish Advocate, 22 December 2004.
13 Tom Wallace, "Somerville Divestment Failure Is Bittersweet,"
Electronic Intifada, 20 December 2004; Paul Beran, "On Divestment,
Even Failure Breeds Success," Daily Star (Beirut), 8 January 2005.
14 Erin Dower, "Church Protest Held for MidEast Speakers,"
Somerville Journal, 20 January 2005.
15 Sara Withee, "Activists Protest CAT Bulldozer Use by Israel,"
Milford Daily News, 17 March 2005; Ran Dagoni, "Caterpillar
Shareholders Reject Motion to Review Israel Sales," LexisNexis, 14
April 2005; Shira Schoenberg, "Boston's Far Left-Wing Jews Are
Determined Not to Be Left Out," Jewish Currents, 22 April 2005.
16 Shira Schoenberg, "Somerville's New Divestment Row," Baltimore
Jewish Times, 31 March 2005; Daniel J. Hemel, "Israel Divestment
Debate Reignited," Harvard Crimson, 27 April 2005; Shira Schoenberg,
"Will Somerville, Mass. Divest from Israel?" Boston Jewish Herald, 1
April 2005; Shira Schoenberg, "Here We Go Again: Boston Suburb Center
of Renewed Divestment Battle," Jewish Ledger, 25 May 2005.
17 John Spritzler, "Fighting Zionism with a Class Analysis on the
Streets of Somerville," Axis of Logic, 19 June 2005.
18 Michael Paulsen, "Bishop Backs Off Push to Divest Funds,"
Boston Globe, 23 May 2005; Associated Press, "Episcopal Bishop of
Massachusetts Opposes Divestment in Israel," 23 May 2005.
19 Karin Friedemann (Umm Yakoub), "Israel Out of Somerville! The
JCRC in Boston Wants Somerville to Pay for Israel," Boston Independent
Media Center (by way of the World View News Service), 23 August 2005,
20 Penny Schwartz, "Another Divestment Struggle Opens Ahead of
Somerville Senate Election," Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 11 August
2005; Ted Siefer, "Somerville Group Wages Counter-Divestment," Jewish
Advocate, 26 August 2005.
21 Ted Siefer, "Move for Divestment Could Stall," Jewish Advocate,
26 August 2005.
* * *
Seva Brodsky grew up in Moscow and immigrated to the United States
in 1981. He received his BS and MS degrees in electrical engineering
from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Northeastern
University in Boston, respectively. He is currently a student at the
New England School of Law in Boston. Brodsky was actively involved in
the struggle against divestment in Somerville. This article was
written during an internship at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of
the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
WORLD VIEW NEWS SERVICE
To subscribe to this group, send an email to:
NEWS ARCHIVE IS OPEN TO PUBLIC VIEW