A day after the New Orleans City Council unanimously approved a resolution to add a human rights standard into the review process for city contracts, which was pushed by Palestinian solidarity activists and would include companies profiting off of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, city officials have started to distance themselves from the politics behind the legislation.
The statements come after backlash from the outgoing mayor — and pushback from major pro-Israel organizations who lobby against the law, and who for years have given donations to local leaders.
The resolution has been hailed as a victory for the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, though it makes no mention of Palestine, Israel, BDS or any specific company. The measure advocates universal human rights, but because it was brought to the city council by the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee (NOPSC), its broad and inclusive language did not deter critics.
The Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans (JFGNO), which has forged multiple economic partnerships between Israel and the city, offered a swift rebuke.
Expressing “deep disappointment” with the city council’s decision, the JFGNO characterized BDS as having “inherently anti-Semitic components,” ultimately “designed to challenge Israel’s economic viability and very right to exist.”
The JFGNO went on to say that while it “fully supports the values of human rights expressed in the resolution, we are deeply concerned about its unintended consequences relating to Israel and in bolstering the divisive BDS movement.” Thus JFGNO used the language of vague human rights — the very condition that has so infuriated critics.
In voting for the resolution, Councilmember-At-Large Jason Williams had likened it to measures taken by New Orleans along with some seventy more U.S. cities in order to isolate the Apartheid government of South Africa.
After the ensuing backlash, Williams stripped the implicit connection between BDS and the Apartheid boycott from his response.
“My support of this measure was not, and is not, intended to in any way be reflective of either an anti-Israel or pro-BDS sentiment,” he said. “This resolution is pro womankind and mankind. It is simply humanitarian.”
The explicit denunciations of what is essentially a human rights adherence resolution, can undoubtedly be understood as the ubiquitous influence of the pro-Israel lobby and its financial ties to U.S. lawmakers.
Take, for example, international law firm Jones Walker LLC and the largest private ambulance company in the nation, Acadian Ambulance. Founded in and still headquartered in New Orleans, both companies serve as major underwriters of the local Jewish Federation.
In 2013, the JFGNO hosted the first annual New Orleans/Israel Partnership on Emergency Response and Medicine (NIPERM) conference, sponsored by Jones Walker and Acadian Ambulance. Israeli experts on counterterrorism and crisis response — with methods tested on the Palestinians under Israeli military occupation — traveled to New Orleans to hold workshops and trainings for local emergency responders.
According to public financial disclosures, the two companies have also contributed thousands of dollars to the campaigns of two term Democratic Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Republican State Senator Conrad Appel, two of the most outspoken critics of the recent resolution.
Appel expressed his indignation on Twitter, calling the measure “beyond absurd!”
“Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and a true friend. So the city council votes to support those who want to destroy Israel! I am am speechless” tweeted Appel, representative for the 9th District including parts of Orleans and Jefferson parishes.
In a statement released Friday evening — after business hours before a holiday weekend — outgoing New Orleans mayor Landrieu characterized the resolution as “ill advised” and “gratuitous,” adding it “does not reflect the city’s history of inclusion and diversity.”
Landrieu could not be reached for comment.
Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell, who sponsored the resolution and will replace Landrieu in May, responded to criticisms by noting the neutrality of the resolution language.
“The Council did not single out any particular companies, countries, nations, issues, conflicts or existing contractors. The Resolution simply seeks to keep City contracts and investments in line with our commitment to upholding universal human rights,” Cantrell said.
But Cantrell stopped short of taking a firm stance on enacting the resolution.
“If and when a Committee is formed, the members will consist of a cross-section of community members and stakeholders, including members of our faith communities,” the mayor-elect said.
Leaders of the JFGNO and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) “immediately undertook an aggressive effort to combat a legal instrument which is harmful to the City of New Orleans and also the Jewish community,” according to a follow-up joint-statement.
“We have been in constant contact with members of the city council, the office of the mayor, and other civic leaders,” and the JFGNO and ADL are actively seeking “statements of clarification issued and [an] amendment of the resolution considered.”
At the same time, an organizer with the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee said her group is also looking to the city council.
As co-founder Tabitha Mustafa explained to Mondoweiss: “We’re definitely going to go through a little more trouble to let the city council know that they did in fact make the right decision.”