Saturday, June 22, 2024

A sticker on a lamppost seen Nov. 8 on Elm Street in North Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

After three and a half hours of impassioned public comment, a City Council order about a cease-fire for violence in the Middle East came to a shockingly fast defeat Monday in Cambridge. 

The policy order resolution by city councillor Quinton Zondervan and co-sponsored by Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui would have had councillors support U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s call for a cease-fire in Israeli retaliation for an Oct. 7 attack by the Palestinian group Hamas, as well as for the deployment of humanitarian aid to Gaza, its target in weeks of bombing.

More than 200 people signed up to speak during public comment, and some 140 used their minute at the lectern or calling in to say why support was correct, or if they thought such foreign policy matters should be outside council purview; that they have been feeling less safe in Cambridge because of a surge in antisemitism or Islamophobia; and that the order was a good start, or lacking certain language and therefore fatally flawed.

When the time for debate arrived, though, the order was handled in around 10 minutes.

After introductory remarks by Zondervan and Siddiqui, councillor Patty Nolan had the floor, remarking that “foreign policy is not something that should be before the council in a meeting like this, especially in light of the clear division in our community.” She said she intended to call the question – which cuts off debate and leads to an immediate vote – and had a substitute motion ready for if that failed.

It’s rarely done, and caught councillors by surprise. Six members favored an immediate decision without debate, and three – Burhan Azeem, Marc McGovern and the mayor – were opposed.

The vote was upon Azeem again almost immediately. The clerk called his name for a decision.

There was a long silence.

“I was not ready for this,” Azeem said with a nervous chuckle. “I had comments and amendments and a suggestion.”

There was a longer silence. Azeem shifted.

The mayor nudged him from the dais: “Councillor Azeem, you just have to vote.”

“Can I not vote?” he asked.

Upon an explanation that the options were a yes, no or that he was present but essentially abstaining, Azeem quickly voted that he was “present.”

The same vote sounded around the chamber – McGovern’s vote uttered with an audible shrug, as he’d intended to explain his position before the question had been called and the option taken away – until Zondervan and Siddiqui were the only members in favor. The 2-0-7 result meant the order failed, though technically not because anyone was opposed.

The rest of the council’s business was handled quickly, and the meeting ended less than 10 minutes later. The last item in council meetings is announcements, which are usually about upcoming events; in this case, Azeem used the time to say: “I have been the councillor who said all term that we shouldn’t have foreign policy resolutions. But I don’t think this was handled correctly.”

A previous Israel order

An order Zondervan filed in May 2021 went differently. He’d filed a motion to explore how Cambridge vendor contracts intersect with foreign policy, and comment from the public and fellow councillors interpreted it as referring to a Palestinian-led movement called Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. That raised the issue of antisemitism among some speakers, and ultimately public comment stretched to 7.5 hours – or 553 comments – before lengthy debate among councillors, several of them irate. They called it a “political charade” that traumatized Cantabrigians. The words were Siddiqui’s.

Monday’s vote responded to something more urgent. After 1,200 Israelis died in the Hamas attack and hundreds more were taken hostage, Palestinian deaths in Gaza in retaliation have been estimated at more than 12,000. Several speakers said around 5,000 of those deaths were children.

“The death toll is increasing daily, and even by the minute, so I’m not going to add a lot more comments here,” Zondervan said. “The resolution speaks for itself. It’s a call for a cease-fire and humanitarian aid to civilians and to free all the hostages.”

Zondervan it was “a very charged issue and brings up a lot of emotions,” prompting Siddiqui to address directly why it was before a city council far from the bloodshed.

“There is a history in Cambridge of the council speaking out against violence and using our collective voice to call for peace. And for me this resolution is a continuation of that sentiment,” Siddiqui said. “Children are the biggest victims of this violence, and we should do everything in our power to protect them. That’s the main intention.”

Breakdown in community

The Mayor’s Office has seen a surge in calls from people who feel unsafe in Cambridge because of a rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia, Siddiqui said, and the resolution tried to “call for supporting both Israeli and Palestinian residents and being a place where students, families, staff and community can support one another and join in thinking about peace.”

Police spokesperson Robert Goulston late Monday confirmed that there had been an uptick in hate crimes reported in Cambridge.

As of Tuesday, there have been six antisemitic hate crimes reported to police just since Oct. 7, compared with four in all of 2022, Goulston said. There have been two anti-Arab hate crimes since that date, compared with zero in 2022. Of those eight incidents, four were vandalism, two were threats and two were assaults. “These numbers could change after the end of the year when we review all our bias incidents,” Goulston said.

Public commenters testified to the breakdown in community as well, though some added that the policy order resolution itself made them feel less safe. 

Residents disagreed even on the intent of language being used. The slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” was uttered and unfurled on a banner from the second floor of the council chambers Monday, seen by some as a threat to wipe out Israelis in the way and by others as an innocent expression about feeling safe and independent of Israeli control. 

One voice that stood out among the division was Judy Somberg, a Mid-Cambridge resident. “I’m a Jew. I raised my children in the Jewish community in Cambridge. I do not feel unsafe here. I’ve been to many demonstrations in the past month and Palestinian, Jewish, interfaith, they have all been welcoming to me,” Somberg said. “There is antisemitism, but this is not it.”

“It’s also appropriate for the City Council to speak on foreign policy issues,” Somberg said. “It’s important that we amplify the call for a cease-fire. Every additional call for it adds up and makes it more possible.”

This post was updated Nov. 21, 2023, with information from Cambridge police.