Jewish Journal

B.D.S. activists inject Middle East debate into L.A. bus contract discussion

by Jonah Lowenfeld

September 15, 2012 | 10:30 pm

BDS activists standing outside Los Angeles City Hall on Sept. 12 before a committee hearing about the renewal of a city contract with Veolia Transportation. That company is a subsidiary of a French corporation that does business in the West Bank. Photo courtesy Dump Veolia Coalition

A group of activists affiliated with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, or B.D.S. movement, which seeks to pressure Israel in various ways, publicly opposed the renewal of a bus contract between the city of Los Angeles and a company whose corporate parent does business in the West Bank.

At a meeting of the Los Angeles City Council transportation committee on Sept. 12, members of the Dump Veolia LA Coalition urged the committee members to oppose renewal of a contract with Veolia Transportation to operate DASH shuttle bus services in the Downtown and Mid-City areas.

“The basic message was that there are other companies bidding for this contract and we don’t believe that Veolia lives up to our city’s standards,” Estee Chandler, the Los Angeles organizer for Jewish Voice for Peace, told The Journal a few days after the hearing. “We feel that rewarding a company that is willing to enforce racist policies and run a segregated bus line reflects poorly on Los Angeles.”

By “racist policies,” Chandler was referring in part to the West Bank roads that are open to Jews but are inaccessible to the Palestinians who live in the area. Buses operated by French multinational Veolia TransDev run from Jerusalem to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The company also had a role in building the Jerusalem tram line, which it now operates, and operates a waste facility in the West Bank.

Chandler said that about 50 people affiliated with the anti-Veolia coalition attended the meeting, and 33 were permitted to speak. The committee was not swayed by the BDS activists’ pleas, however. Councilmen Paul Koretz, Jose Huizar and Tom Labonge voted unanimously to recommend the five-year, $160 million contract to operate the DASH bus service in Los Angeles be awarded to Veolia.

Representatives from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles were present at the hearing to urge committee members not to pay heed to the Dump Veolia Coalition.

Catherine Schneider, the senior vice president for community engagement at Federation, said that the Israel Action Network, a joint project of the Jewish Federations of North American and Jewish Council for Public Affairs, had helped alert Federation to the BDS effort.

Together with lay leaders from Federation’s community engagement committee, Schneider drafted a letter signed by eight local Jewish organizations. At the hearing, each speaker was allotted one minute; Schneider and three members of the community engagement committee used their time to read the letter into the record, each one picking up where the last left off.

“[W]hile we have no position on whether or not Veolia Transportation should be awarded the Downtown DASH contract,” the letter stated, “we are strongly opposed to the [Dump Veolia Coalition’s] misguided effort to entangle the City in a complex territorial dispute that can only be resolved through direct negotiations between the parties.”

The letter further also noted that heeding the protesters demands to drop Veolia might be illegal.

“Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions are not helpful for our city, not helpful for the advancement of peace, and the City Council's obligation is to pick the best vendor,” Schneider said. “Our main point here is that this was and should be about what’s best for the City of Los Angeles.”

Koretz, who chaired the meeting on Wednesday, at which he acknowledged that he is a supporter of Israel, agreed that the question wasn’t about Israel, but about L.A. The city, Koretz said in a statement emailed to the Journal, has “very specific laws about city contracting, especially regarding what is and isn’t to be considered.”

Koretz said the committee “took very much into account that staff strongly recommended Veolia Transportation due to its safety record and procedures and customer track record.”

BDS activists in Europe have been more successful in their efforts to get cities to drop contracts with Veolia than their counterparts in the United States have been, according to Marsha Steinberg, an independent Jewish activist who helped organize the Dump Veolia L.A. Coalition.

The matter has been placed on the consent calendar for the Sept. 19 meeting of the full City Council. No time will be specifically allocated to discuss the matter. Nevertheless, Steinberg said, BDS activists plan to attend the hearing.

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