City Council Votes to Terminate Contracts With Companies Allegedly Violating Human Rights, Drawing Criticism from Harvard Jewish Leaders


The Cambridge City Council voted to end its contract with companies that “perpetuate violations of International Human Rights Laws” during a Tuesday meeting that followed more than seven hours of public comment the previous day.

More than 500 people, among them Harvard affiliates, signed up to speak during the meeting after Councilors Quinton Y. Zondervan, Jivan G. Sobrinho-Wheeler, and Dennis J. Carlone introduced a proposal — which was ultimately amended — for the city to sever ties with companies that have business dealings in Israel, such as Hewlett-Packard, which the councilors charged with “abetting apartheid in the Middle East.”

Due to the high volume of testimony, council business was postponed to Tuesday.

The assistant city manager for business affairs, David J. Kale, found that the city has not had direct contracts with Hewlett-Packard since 2014. He said the city may use their products but would have acquired them through a third party, such as Cambridge’s office supplies vendor W.B. Mason.


Following vigorous public comment, the Council unanimously passed an amended version of the order that omitted mention of Hewlett-Packard and alleged Israeli apartheid. The amended legislation also included language requesting the city manager work with the city’s purchasing department to ascertain if the city has contracts within companies in violation of human rights laws.

“[The City Manager] is hereby requested to work with the Purchasing Department to review Cambridge’s corporate contracts and purchases to identify any vendors or manufacturers whose products are used to perpetuate violations of International Human Rights Laws and Cambridge’s policy on discrimination,” the order reads.

The motion comes on the heels of the worst violence in Israel and Palestine in seven years. After Palestinians protested the anticipated eviction of several Palestinian families living in East Jerusalem, Israeli police clashed with protestors, which left 300 Palestinians injured. In response, the Islamic militant group Hamas launched rockets into Israel, which responded with airstrikes into Gaza.

After 11 days of conflict, 248 Palestinians — including 66 children — were killed, and thousands were left injured or homeless. Twelve Israeli civilians — including two children — and one Israeli soldier were also killed in the fighting.

Zondervan originally introduced the motion to dissolve dealings with Hewlett-Packard at a May 17 meeting. Councilor Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80 invoked her charter right to push discussion to the following week’s meeting, noting that the Jewish holiday Shavuot could keep observant Jews from calling in for public comment on the day the order was first introduced.

Harvard Chabad Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi wrote an email to Chabad affiliates last Friday urging them to call into the meeting and explain their opposition to the motion. He also wrote the proposal would make Cambridge the first city in the United States to join the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement — a movement that aims to put economic pressure on Israel to shift its policies toward Palestinians — which he called anti-Semitic.

“The deceitful, incendiary rhetoric and anti-Semitic policies being put forth by our elected officials are fueling these emboldened public expressions of hate and violence against Jews throughout the US,” Zarchi wrote. There has been a spike in anti-Semitic violence nationwide in recent weeks.

Simultaneously, organizations such as Cambridge Democratic Socialists of America urged their followers to sign up for public comment in support of the motion.

The meeting saw 530 people sign up for comment and lasted until nearly 1 a.m.

Harvard Hillel Orthodox Rabbi Daniel “Dani” Passow gave public comment at the meeting opposing the policy order. He said voting yes on the policy order would be anti-Semitic “in impact, if not in intent.”

“Israel is regularly singled out for criticism, including by government bodies such as this prestigious council,” Passow said. “In a world filled with genocidal regimes and state-sponsored terrorism, this double standard sends a message that Jews should be treated differently.”

Nolan — who co-sponsored the amended order with Councilors Marc C. McGovern and E. Denise Simmons — said about the original version that “the policy order written does single out one country.”

In the amendment, the City Council added that it “affirms Israel’s right to exist and to defend its citizens from attacks” and “recognizes that violence and suffering is happening around the world in Israel as well as other countries.”

Other Cambridge residents such as Harvard Law School and Business School alumna Tabatha P. Robinson spoke and urged the council to “rethink safety,” citing a 2011 decision by the council to investigate a trip that Cambridge Police Department officers took to Israel to receive security training.

“Whenever I mentioned to Palestinians that I studied at Harvard, people responded by mentioning the Boston Tea Party — ‘no taxation without representation,’ they quoted,” Robinson said. “BDS is reviving this peaceful Massachusetts legacy.”

“Let us align our ethics with our wallets,” she added.

Sobrinho-Wheeler reacted to the vote on Twitter, acknowledging the change to the language of the order.

“It’s not as strong as it could’ve been, but it’s a step to address our connection to state violence against Palestinians,” he wrote.

Zondervan tweeted the order was an “unmistakable victory” despite the changes.

“We voted to end purchasing from companies that violate international human rights laws,” Zondervan wrote. “I want to thank the hundreds of brave activists who gave powerful testimony in solidarity with Palestinian liberation.”

Zarchi, though, remained critical of the order even after it was amended.

“After members of the Cambridge City Council exhibited public discrimination against Jews in our city, any policy order they propose (or modify) related to these discussions, is suspect both in its intent and final outcome,” he wrote in an email.

—Staff writer Raquel Coronell Uribe can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @raquelco15.