How ceasefire resolutions on faraway Gaza are sowing seeds of hate in US cities
Hatred at city council'The debate over this is tearing apart our community'

How ceasefire resolutions on faraway Gaza are sowing seeds of hate in US cities

Jewish Americans say people are using public hearings as a platform to spew antisemitism – and free speech laws prevent local governments from doing anything about it

Allegheny County Council hears from residents about a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Israel's war with Hamas. (Photo by David Rullo)
Allegheny County Council hears from residents about a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Israel's war with Hamas. (Photo by David Rullo)

NEW YORK — There was a time when the most contentious issue before the Yonkers City Council was how to deal with an $86 million deficit.

That all changed in late October when pro-Palestinian groups started pushing the council to adopt a ceasefire resolution on the Israel-Hamas war, which began after thousands of Hamas-led terrorists invaded southern Israel, murdered some 1,200 people and took 253 hostage. Weeks of debate followed, much of it vitriolic, and a resolution was drafted before ultimately being shelved on April 10.

“It’s not that I don’t want peace in the Middle East or the hostages released, it’s that it’s symbolic,” said city council president Lakisha Collins-Bellamy. “We can’t enforce the resolution; it has no teeth. It’s not like [US] President [Joe] Biden is going to say, ‘Look, Yonkers passed a resolution, let’s end the war.’”

Since Richmond, California, became the first city in the United States to pass a ceasefire resolution on October 25, more than 100 municipalities nationwide, including Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit and Toledo, have followed suit. However, because local governments have no authority over international conflicts, the resolutions are symbolic at best — and the hearings that lead up to the votes often devolve into outright hate speech.

“In many instances, it’s a case of virtue signaling as opposed to taking a sophisticated approach,” said Jeremy Burton, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Boston. “The harm comes in the six to eight hours of a hearing where really hateful, divisive, ugly stuff gets said. It’s like they plop hate speech in the middle of the room and walk away.”

The proliferation of hate speech is all part of a strategy, according to Menachem Rosensaft, an adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, lecturer in law at Columbia Law School, and general counsel emeritus of the World Jewish Congress.

Municipalities and the public should understand that these resolutions are “clearly part of an extremely well-coordinated effort to express opposition to the Israel-Hamas war in the context of broader anti-Israel sentiment generally,” said Rosensaft.

“These resolutions cannot be considered in the abstract — they are being pushed by the very same individuals and groups that have organized the virulently anti-Israel and largely antisemitic demonstrations,” said Rosensaft. “It is also noteworthy that these same municipalities are not calling for Russia to end its war against Ukraine — in other words, the anti-war sentiment of the resolutions’ sponsors is limited to the Israel-Hamas war in a way that would benefit Hamas.”

Tearing communities apart

In late January, the Massachusetts cities of Somerville and Cambridge passed ceasefire resolutions after a period of “brief, very divisive, harmful public debate,” Burton said. Although Cambridge acknowledged Hamas as a terrorist organization and called for a negotiated ceasefire rather than an unconditional one, it held its final hearing online out of fear that anti-Israel protesters — who were calling on demonstrators to show up via social media — would disrupt the proceedings.

The town of Brookline, Massachusetts, won’t vote on its proposed resolution until the end of May, which means repeated hearings — and more time for members of the public to spew hate speech and further divide the community, Burton said. He added that stymying hateful rhetoric brushes up against government interference in free speech, which is unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, about 1,000 miles away in Bloomfield, Indiana, just outside the college town of Bloomington, Alvin Rosenfeld described local city council meetings focusing on a ceasefire resolution as hate-filled.

“In terms of impact on events 6,000 or 7,000 miles away, they’re meaningless. In terms of their impact on the community, it’s changed the climate. There is more tension and more unease. A number of speakers said extreme and hideous things, and no one on the council said, ‘You’re out of bounds,’” said Rosenfeld, the founding director of Indiana University-Bloomington’s Institute for the Study of
Contemporary Antisemitism.

For example, during an April 3 city council meeting in Bloomington, where a ceasefire resolution was being debated, some residents hurled white supremacist invective. Other speakers closed their remarks with “Heil Hitler.” Another speaker asked if he was “supposed to feel bad that these parasites are finally getting some karma. People need to wake up and realize Zionism is Judaism, Judaism is communism, and it’s a religion of sickness and evil.”

Beyond the bigotry, Rosenfeld said the council shouldn’t be working on these resolutions in the first place.

“When you want to serve on the city council, we [voters] don’t ask you about your foreign policy. You’re supposed to fix the holes in the street and make sure the buses run on time,” he said.

That foreign policy lies outside the purview of city councils is of little import to Mohyeddin Abdulaziz of the Arizona Palestine Solidarity Alliance. He said the passage of a resolution on the local level sends a message to the Biden administration.

“I always thought to call for a ceasefire was a reasonable call. This conflict is killing people on both sides and a ceasefire is an opportunity to end the killing and the genocide,” Abdulaziz said. Although Abdulaziz said he thinks both the Israeli government and Hamas are “violent and oppressive,” he holds Israel responsible for the conditions that created Hamas.

Which ‘hostages’ exactly?

Aside from demanding an unconditional ceasefire, Abdulaziz said the resolutions pushed by his group call for the “return of all the hostages” — referring not to the 133 kidnapped Israelis still being held by Hamas but to Palestinian security prisoners convicted of terror-related crimes serving time in Israeli jails.

To combat such confluence of terminology, the JCRC of Greater Boston has created a set of guidelines for local governments that may be considering such resolutions.

For example, the JCRC guidelines suggest that any ceasefire resolution should unequivocally state that Hamas is a designated terrorist organization that violated an existing ceasefire on October 7 and is guilty of war crimes for targeting Israeli civilians and using Palestinian civilians as human shields. Additionally, according to the guidelines, resolutions should acknowledge Israel’s right to defend itself from terrorism and to exist.

In early January, Bridgeport became the first city council in Connecticut to pass a ceasefire resolution.

City Councilmember Maria Pereira was the only member of the all-Democrat council to vote against the resolution — both because Bridgeport has no sway over foreign policy and because of its language.

“We have no authority over international affairs. If you want to express your support for one, contact your senator or representative,” Pereira said. “Before October 7, I would have considered myself pro-Palestinian. I don’t support the Israeli prime minister or sending taxpayer money to the war, but how can you kill 1,200 Israelis, some of whom are American, and pretend you’re the victim?” PJC

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