Friday, July 19, 2024

A protest against the company Elbit in Cambridge’s Central Square in April was filmed and posted to Reddit by the user monsterzeno.

A company with labs in Cambridge’s Central Square was removed from a City Council policy order last week decrying killings and human-rights violations in the Philippines.

The order in support of the Philippine Human Rights Act in the U.S. House of Representatives – and urging a matching U.S. Senate version – passed 7-0-2, meaning no councillor voted against, but two voted “present” to avoid specific support.

When introduced June 26, the order called out Elbit Systems Ltd. as “a Cambridge-based weapons company” that has sold weapons to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has continued a “war on drugs” begun by former leader Rodrigo Duterte that has killed more than 30,000 people since 2016.

An amendment when the order returned Aug. 7 deleted Elbit in Central Square as being uninvolved. The weapons are coming from Elbit in Israel, said the author of the amendment, councillor Patty Nolan.

“Elbit Systems of America, to be very clear, is separately incorporated and has a completely separate board from Elbit Systems in Israel,” Nolan said. “That doesn’t mean that the company as a whole is not a weapons company – but it does mean that their particular office right now in Cambridge is intended to be primarily medical, which the staff is now.”

The labs, called the Cambridge Innovation Center, supports a medical instruments division called KMC Systems in New Hampshire, a spokeswoman for Elbit in America said.

Nolan said Aug. 7: “If you had a PCR test during Covid, chances are it was processed using a device designed, developed and produced by Elbit Systems of America. About half of the PCR test devices were made by Elbit.”

Around 15 people spoke during public comment Aug. 7 about Elbit, most condemning the company and asking councillors to reject Nolan’s amendment to show “that we will not accept the presence of a weapons company that’s been complicit in human-rights abuses right here in our backyard,” but not engaging directly with the distinction Nolan was drawing.

Owen Elrifi, who contributed to a July 28 letter rallying support for the order, said Nolan’s was not a distinction that mattered to him. “Even if it’s all just administrative logistics, they are still supporting this massive corporation selling insane numbers of arms to support extrajudicial killings,” he said Monday.

Elrifi acknowledged that because Elbit Systems of America is the tenant of a private landlord, the council vote was “just a condemnation. If there are tangible ways to remove Elbit – to make them genuinely unwelcome – I don’t know what the mechanism would be,” he said. But he considered a condemnation the “minimum” a Cambridge city councillor could do.

“Foreign policy”

Nolan’s amendment passed 6-2-1, with the “no” votes coming from Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and councillor Quinton Zondervan, the original order’s author. Councillor Burhan Azeem voted “present,” saying he is “not particularly excited about voting on foreign policy in City Council, mainly because I just don’t feel like it makes a difference.” When the amended order came up, he voted “present” again and was joined by councillor E. Denise Simmons, who agreed “at some point, the council should have a fuller conversation about where we wade into what you might call foreign policy issues and what real impact it’s going to have.”

The same question has been brought up numerous times in past years, as orders about issues outside of councillors’ direct purview are a recurring theme in Cambridge politics. Azeem is a first-term councillor, but Simmons has encountered the issue many times as the council’s longest-serving member. She was first elected in 2001 and is seeking her 12th term in office.

Israel as an issue

This was also the second time this term Israel has come up as a political flashpoint; the first, a question about municipal vendors, wound up drawing 7.5 hours of public comment at a meeting in May 2021. This time, Nolan said her amendment was a way to avoid what she deemed a side issue.

Raytheon has branches in Cambridge and is directly supplying and working with the Philippine government and military – why aren’t they named? Once again, there was only one company which appears to have a direct tie to Israel, which is the only one named, which makes one wonder,” Nolan said. “If there’s a separate policy at some point to talk about the range of companies and nonprofits based in Cambridge that are involved in the war machine, that is a totally appropriate thing to do.”

Elrifi said he’d seen some response that was suggesting the naming of Elbit was “some kind Israel-Palestine issue,” but that was not the case for him. “The P.O. includes absolutely no language relating to Israel or Palestine,” he said Aug. 7. “Elbit is by far the highest-volume weapons provider to the oppressive regime and needs to be singled out for their uniquely horrible role in these atrocities. Excluding Elbit on the basis that it is an Israeli company is a cheap cop-out.”

There was a Central Square protest against Elbit in April that included members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation holding signs calling on the United States to end all “aid to Israel.” Elrifi is associated with a different group, the Cambridge Democratic Socialists of America.

This post was updated Aug. 15, 2023, to correct the identity of a “no“ vote among the City Council.