Wednesday, July 17, 2024

The Cambridge City Council had a policy order resolution on the Nov. 20 agenda that called on the council to take a stand on how to handle the Israel-Hamas conflict. Every one of us is horrified by the violence – the attack by Hamas and the deaths of many civilian Palestinians in Gaza by Israel. It is an issue weighing on many of us in Cambridge, and the world. Yet I, along with five colleagues, voted not to debate the resolution, and then seven of us voted “present” – neither against nor in favor of the resolution. I did not speak in the council meeting, although I had spent many hours listening to constituents, writing about the issue and working with other councillors on a substitute resolution about which we all were prepared to speak. Sometimes leadership means taking a back seat and not taking the floor to speak.

Everyone should be clear that every councillor without exception abhors the war and deaths in Gaza and Israel and advocates for a stop to the violence and killing. We support calls for cessation of violence, delivery of humanitarian aid and release of hostages. We may disagree on wording and how to achieve peace or feel ill-equipped to know the most effective path to reach it. The city has seen some escalation in protests, including arrests for vandalism at a recent one. And with more protests planned for the next month in Cambridge by passionate activists, I hope we can all direct our efforts in productive ways that do not further divide our community.

We do important work on the City Council, elected as a municipal body, and residents see us as leaders. It’s important to ask whether as a body during regular council meetings we should weigh in on foreign policy issues. Several councillors over the years have been frustrated when forced to wade into sensitive foreign policy discussions over which we have no control. In this case, there was clear public interest in the issue; the council heard from about 200 community members during public comment who shared a broad range of strong feelings and expressed great deal of pain, and more than 400 people emailed the council about the issue. These responses showed a tremendous divide in our community: Near-even numbers of individuals implored us to either pass the resolution or oppose it. Every councillor received all of these messages, and every councillor felt the pain expressed by all our residents on that Monday night. There is a role for local leaders to speak out, which we all can do about any issue – individually or joining others in advocating, speaking, writing. The question before us was whether a regular council business meeting is the appropriate venue for foreign policy discussions. Could such discussion bring us together as a community? As I reflected on the situation, I came to the conclusion that debate on this issue at that time would be unproductive and could increase rather than heal the existing divide in our community.

Thus, when it came time for the council to discuss, I made a motion to end debate and move to the vote. I did not come to that motion lightly. I listened, and felt the community’s messages of grief and pain, for nearly four hours that night. I spent the weekend considering my personal views and my role as a councillor, and I discussed the resolution with community members and colleagues. My reason for making the motion was that the resolution at hand was such a complicated and divisive foreign policy issue that I did not think it was in the best interest of the city to engage in further debate. While I – and my colleagues – could each have spoken at length, it seemed to me that the community had already expressed a wide range of feelings and concerns, and further commentary would not leave the city better off. The divisions would still exist and we would have no true impact on the issue. I’m also concerned that by dedicating time and emotional capacity to foreign policy that we end up not giving full attention to important agenda items that we do control. On Monday, our agenda included several important items we did not discuss, including a report on the city’s equity and Inclusion work, a citywide community engagement plan and the annual resident survey, all of which should guide our work.

Councillors E. Denise Simmons, Paul Toner and Marc McGovern and I had prepared a substitute resolution that we believe was more balanced, calling for a cessation in violence, release of hostages and delivery of humanitarian aid. Our hope was to bring people together and avoid language in the original motion that was problematic. I crafted a personal statement to express my views on the situation. Instead of presenting our substitute and reading my statement, I chose what I thought best for the community as a whole: to not read my statement and to move to end debate on a foreign policy issue in which we had no role. The motion to end discussion on the order, which passed, required a supermajority of six councillors. We then voted on the resolution. Two councillors voted yes to approve the resolution as written, no one voted no and seven councillors voted present, meaning we decided to neither support it nor vote to oppose it. The resolution failed to pass, 2-0-7.

A question that I have been asked repeatedly, and something I have been grappling with is, since I support ending the violence, how could I oppose the resolution as written? What is there to argue? How can anyone be opposed to something titled “calling for a cease-fire”? In this case, the details in the text of the resolution and its specific wording contained many troubling elements.

The resolution’s wording made an implicit moral equivalence between the terrorist attack by Hamas and the response of the Israeli government. That is wrong. Wholesale slaughter of civilians, which was the goal of Hamas’ attack, is abhorrent. Full stop. The Israeli government response has been a military response to an attack targeting civilians. In responding, Israel’s goal is to eliminate Hamas as a threat, not eliminate the Palestinians as a people. Hamas’ explicit goal is to eliminate Israel and to kill Jews. This doesn’t mean that the Israeli response was appropriate – the scale of deaths is unacceptable and horrifying, and any war crimes should be prosecuted. And I believe that Netanyahu is a reprehensible leader. Full stop.

Further, the resolution made no explicit condemnation of Hamas. The statement linked to in the resolution, made by two dozen U.S. Congresspeople including Rep. Ayanna Pressley, affirmed “unequivocal condemnation of the Hamas attacks on Israel.” This resolution should have done the same. It should not be controversial to condemn Hamas and advocate for the organization to be dismantled. Destroying Hamas is supporting Palestine and Palestinians. It is also important to note that the fighting is between Israel and Hamas, not all Palestinians. Further, the resolution mentioned 2 million Palestinians under siege, yet not the 250,000 Israelis displaced who are refugees due to the conflict. Several colleagues and I believed that we should have supported the statement and plea of our senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey; U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders; U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock; and others. They called for a humanitarian pause and immediate release of all hostages, and are now calling for an extension of the truce in place. In recent days, the United States helped broker a temporary pause in violence to facilitate the exchange of hostages. This development is good progress, and speaks to the ongoing and mercurial nature of international conflicts – conflicts the Cambridge City Council has neither the ability to affect nor the expertise to navigate in real time. I think it does the people of Cambridge, who are reeling from the violence, a disservice to pretend that we can have a meaningful impact on this war by passing a resolution, particularly when even subtle details of wording can be painful to large portions of our community.

Civilian deaths are horrifying, no matter which side commits them. And Hamas and Israeli leadership should be held accountable for civilian deaths and war crimes. The question for those who decide foreign policy in the United States and around the world is how best to limit civilian deaths. The G7 and many other countries have been debating the best course of action, the path to peace and the best way to end violence and stop the loss of human life. Who are we, as a municipal body, to decide we know better? I admit there are many parts of this conflict that confuse and terrify me, and it is clear from much of the dialogue I’ve heard within Cambridge that many feel the same way. This conflict has exacerbated rifts within our own community, and we have work to do to mend them.

Instead of focusing on a divisive resolution, I would prefer an emphasis on treating each other with respect, empathy and compassion. Let’s put our efforts into listening to and understanding each other’s losses, hopes and perspectives. We, as a council, should model that behavior instead of dividing our community further with no-win resolutions.

The writer is a Cambridge city councillor.