Allegheny County Council rejects cease-fire motion
Israel at warMarch 5 meeting became contentious at times

Allegheny County Council rejects cease-fire motion

Nine councilmembers voted "no," with only three voting "yes."

Charlene Tissenbaum  addresses Allegheny County Council during a March 5 meeting. Council rejected a motion calling for a cease-fire in Israel’s war with Hamas. (Photo by David Rullo)
Charlene Tissenbaum addresses Allegheny County Council during a March 5 meeting. Council rejected a motion calling for a cease-fire in Israel’s war with Hamas. (Photo by David Rullo)

Allegheny County Council voted overwhelmingly against a motion calling for a cease-fire in Israel’s war against the terrorist organization Hamas.

The vote — 9 to 3, with two council members abstaining and one not present — came at a March 5 meeting after almost five hours of public comments by more than 200 county residents. In the end, the only councilmembers to support the motion were Bethany Hallam, who introduced the motion, and its co-sponsors Dan Grzybek and Anita Prizio.

Jack Betkowski, Samuel DeMarco III, Suzanne Filiaggi, Nicholas Futules, Patrick Catena, Paul Klein, Robert Macey, John Palmiere and Robert Palmosina voted against the resolution. David Bonaroti and Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis abstained.

The motion urged “the United States Federal Government to work cooperatively towards an immediate de-escalation and cease-fire in Israel and Palestine as well as the release of all hostages held in Palestine and Israel.”

About 140 people spoke in favor of the motion, with 72 speaking against it.

At times, the atmosphere of the meeting became contentious when several people, all in favor of the resolution, were removed from the meeting for various reasons.

Many of the same falsehoods and antisemitic tropes heard by the council two weeks ago, when it first heard public comments about a possible cease-fire motion, were repeated.

Dozens of speakers, many wearing keffiyehs, accused Israel of being a murderous, apartheid, colonist state that indiscriminately bombs innocent women and children in furtherance of a genocide, and of trying to push Palestinians out of Gaza, ethnically clearing it.

While the purpose of the public comments was ostensibly to discuss Hallam’s cease-fire motion, many used the forum as an opportunity to rail against Israel, its right to exist and what they alleged were historical crimes committed by the state.

Many of those who spoke in favor of the motion said Israel was purposely targeting hospitals in Gaza. The first in a line of speakers from Jewish Voice for Peace, all with coordinated T-shirts, took issue with President Joe Biden’s recent assertion that but for the state of Israel, no Jew in the world would be safe.

“This statement is extremely dangerous and misguided,” she said.

Several speakers equated the actions of Israel with those of Hitler, attempting to create false equivalencies between Israel’s defensive military mission and those of the Nazi regime during which more than 6 million Jews were murdered.

Others said that bringing the cease-fire motion was just the first step in what they expected from the council, and that they would be urging the council to divest from Israel next.

Julie Paris, MidAtlantic regional director of StandWithUs, was first to the lectern opposing the motion. She cataloged the long line of misstatements made against Israel during both the March 5 and Feb. 20 meetings.

“Over and over, I’ve heard how Israel was committing genocide and ethnic cleansing, that Oct. 7 was fabricated so that Israel could commit war crimes, that Israel is a settler colonial state that does not have the right to exist, that the International Court of Justice ruled that Israel was committing genocide, that a cease-fire vote is a call for peace and justice, Israelis and Jews are warmongers, Israel is like Nazis and that, apparently, tonight, Zionists are a powerful lobby,” Paris said.

Offering a glimmer of hope in a meeting that teemed with anxiety, Rabbi Yitzi Genack of Congregation Shaare Torah told the council that after he offered comments at the last meeting, he reached out to a pro-cease-fire attendee.

“We exchanged emails and met for coffee for over two hours,” Genack said. “We discussed our personal stories and our views on the tragedies in Israel and Gaza. And we didn’t arrive at a unified position.”

Unlike that meeting, Genack said, the cease-fire motion was a divisive action that would drive a further wedge between communities.

Speaking of the fear in the Jewish community over an uptick in antisemitic attacks since Oct. 7, Mor Greenberg recounted traumatic instances experienced by her children. As she did so, some in attendance shook their heads, seeming to not believe her.

One Squirrel Hill resident who spoke of her cousin who was killed on Oct. 7, called out Hallam for posting a video celebrating the terror attack. It was not the only time Hallam was criticized for her social media post or behavior during the meeting.

One speaker, who stressed the importance of safety in the community, addressed Hallam directly.

“I also urge Ms. Hallam to stay off of her phone and pay attention to what people are saying tonight,” she said, noting the councilperson’s lack of attention as she spoke. Hallam defended her actions.

“I’ll do that,” she said, “but there are people being denied entry right now. So just so you know what I’m texting about right now.”

Those weren’t the only moments of tension during the meeting. One speaker, who took issue with a rule passed at the beginning of the meeting cutting public comments from three minutes to one minute, ensuring everyone who signed up had the opportunity to speak, was removed from the meeting after failing to leave the lectern at the conclusion of his time.

Often the lines of disagreement fell on predictable lines: union members, community organizers, far-left Jewish organizations and political parties supported the motion, while other Jewish community members urged the council to vote it down.

One outlier, though, was Candace Wagner, a Socialist Workers Party candidate for the 12th congressional district, who spoke against the motion.

Wagner spoke about the silence surrounding the rape and mutilation of women and girls by Hamas.

“Hamas’ backers, the Iranian regime, are leading an ‘axis of resistance’ against Israel,” she said. “They all share the Iranian rulers’ hatred of Jews.”

After nearly four hours of public comments, council members offered comments.

District 1 Councilperson Jack Betkowski said he was concerned about “what tomorrow will bring” to the community after such contentious dialogue.

District 13 Councilperson David Bonaroti talked about the political theater involved with such a motion, saying a diplomatic solution was needed for the conflict. His tone changed though.

“Two weeks ago, and today, there were audience members who justified, minimized and outright claimed the events of Oct. 7 did not happen,” he said. “To those individuals: You are wrong. On Oct. 7, innocent people were raped and slaughtered by terrorists. That is a fact.”

He went on to say that violence is happening in the United States and that we don’t value the lives of people in this country.

“I wonder with these types of events, how we have any right to lecture anyone about violence in the world,” he said. “If we are going to be in the business of asking for a cease-fire, then I ask that we start with a cease-fire in the country, particularly in this county,” he said.

Members of the audience shouted “shame” and took issue with Councilperson DeMarco when he noted that the Oct. 7 attack was the second-largest terror attack since 9/11. He criticized the motion for not mentioning Hamas and said that those mentioning the death toll in Gaza didn’t say how many of those killed were terrorists. The audience’s negative reaction prompted Council President Patrick Catena to call for order and threaten to clear the room if disruptions continued.

Motion co-sponsor Grzybek, who represents several South Hills neighborhoods — home to the second-largest Jewish community in the county — told the Chronicle after the Feb. 20 meeting that he would not introduce a motion calling for a cease-fire. After the motion was listed on the March 5 agenda, he said he decided to co-sponsor the bill “upon reviewing the motion language and verifying that it met the criteria I was calling for (calls for release of all hostages and is not overly incendiary).”

Many who spoke to the language addressing the hostages explained that Israel didn’t capture hostages; it detains prisoners who have been convicted of murder. Grzybek attempted to address that point in his statement to the crowd.

“A hostage is someone who is taken as a prisoner by an enemy to force the other people involved to do what the enemy wants. A prisoner is not a convicted murderer,” he said.

Councilperson at large Hallam acknowledged the pain felt by the Jewish community, but added, “We are literally witnessing terror and genocide on the news and social media in real time.”

She apologized for the post she retweeted following the Oct. 7 attack, saying she had taken the time since then to learn more about the conflict.

“I have done much research and I have educated myself,” she said.

It was because of that education, she noted, that she decided to introduce the motion.

During District 9 Councilperson Macey’s remarks, proceedings were disrupted again when he made a remark many interpreted as racist. An audience member was forcibly removed by sheriffs for an unknown reason causing many to scream at the public safety officers.

A final outburst occurred after the vote against the resolution when many chanted “cease-fire now” and “blood, blood on your hands,” and “free Palestine,” for several minutes after the meeting concluded and councilmembers left the building. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at

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