Thursday, July 18, 2024

Police watch over protesters Monday at Cambridge City Hall. (Photo: Julia Levine)

The Cambridge City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza at a meeting Monday held over Zoom after the first two regular meetings of the year were disrupted by protesters.

Pressure to support a cease-fire proposal, which the council failed to pass in the previous term in November, mounted after the Somerville City Council passed a similar resolution on Thursday.

The high volume of commenters – there were 200 people on a list of speakers provided by council staff – prompted vice mayor Marc McGovern, starting the meeting in the temporary absence of Mayor E. Denise Simmons, to move for a rule change cutting speaking time to one minute from three. More than a dozen speakers would be cut off by the new time limit, and public comment still stretched to three hours, with the vast majority of comments about the call for “an immediate, negotiated cease-fire by both Hamas and [Israel’s] Netanyahu administration.” 

Residents commenting on the cease-fire resolution fell into three main camps, the largest supporting a “clean” resolution, without amendments or “whereas” clauses with language that they said “watered down” their hoped-for message. A smaller group opposed the resolution in any form, and the smallest group was ambivalent about or somewhat opposed to the resolution, but suggested amendments to clarify the proposal’s meaning.

A protester outside Cambridge City Hall on Monday. (Photo: Julia Levine)

Many Pro-Palestinian activists spoke from within Cambridge City Hall, where – watched over by police – they called in to make comment to the remote meeting and described a crowd of hundreds of protesters whose cheers could be heard in the background.

“Moving this meeting to Zoom was a clear attempt to silence our voices. We’ve got hundreds of us right here in City Hall right now and we will not be silenced,” Rafeya Raquib said.

Protesters weren’t the only ones unhappy with the remote meeting, which followed an altercation between a protester and Simmons the previous week. Tony Clark, of the My Brothers Keeper Cambridge group, said the remote meeting ran “counter to the ethos and spirit of Cambridge” – and spoke as someone who said he’d experienced name-calling, death threats, and disparaging remarks but believed in how an “aspirational beauty of democracy allows dissenting views.”

McGovern called several times for decorum after particularly harsh criticisms of council members.

“People have very strong feelings, and I just hope that we in public comment that we respect one another and appreciate one another, because at the end of the day we are a community and we need to continue to be one together,” McGovern said.

Deciding on the order

Consideration of the policy order was among the last few items considered by the council before the session adjourned.

Councillor Sumbul Siddiqui brought forward her cease-fire motion at around 9:20 p.m., kick-starting a debate that lasted almost an hour around potential substitute orders and amendments. A simpler version of the order with “whereas” clauses stripped out was offered by Siddiqui but withdrawn when she felt it wouldn’t pass; a suggestion by councillors Patty Nolan and Paul Toner to call Hamas “a terrorist organization” was approved 6-3, while an attempt to eliminate specific numbers of Palestinian deaths failed, with some councillors noting that it seemed unfair if the order also kept the number of Israelis killed or taken hostage in an Oct. 7 attack. Some other changes were approved as well, including referring to “disproportionate” military force in response to that attack.

“I think the Netanyahu administration would even say it’s proud that it’s disproportionate, and it’s like, ‘If you attack us, we’ll attack worse, so don’t attack us,” councillor Burhan Azeem said. “So I think that this is accurate and factual.”

Before the order’s passage, councillors offered a defense of having a vote at all after many in the community said the body should stick to local matters.

Protesters outside Cambridge City Hall on Monday. (Photo: Julia Levine)

The council “does have a history of speaking out against violence and using our collective voice to call for peace. this resolution is really a continuation of that sentiment,” Siddiqui noted.

McGovern explained a process over the decades of using foreign-policy motions to signal beliefs to other elected representatives.

“I don’t think any of us are under any delusion that Hamas or Netanyahu are waiting to hear what Cambridge thinks about this,” McGovern said. “I do think it’s appropriate for us to share our views with our elected representatives in Washington. We do that all the time.”

Another charge faced by the councillors was that a cease-fire resolution was divisive, to which Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler said: “I hear that, and there’s definitely been divisions on display in public comment tonight. This issue has also already divided our community, regardless of whether the council does anything.”

Siddiqui, McGovern, Sobrinho-Wheeler and Ayesha Wilson were co-sponsors of the order; Siddiqui was co-sponsor of the November order with former councillor Quinton Zondervan, and at the time the two were the only “yes” votes. On Monday, the council passed the order 9-0, with a vote afterward to prevent reconsideration.

Public comment

Early in the evening, state Rep. Mike Connolly and Zondervan spoke in support of the cease-fire resolution.

“I stand in solidarity with Jews, Muslims, Palestinians, Israelis and people of all faiths and backgrounds who are calling for peace, for de-escalation, for the safe return of hostages, for the delivery of humanitarian aid and for an end to the killing of innocent civilians,” Connolly said. “I was proud to support the resolution back in November, and I think the resolution before you does even more to address the complexity of this issue.”

“Of course, I’m really thrilled to see the council take up the cease-fire again, and I’m confident that you will get it right this time,” Zondervan said.

Residents’ public comments from before councillors deliberated were more varied:

“While I don’t agree with everything in the resolution, I do believe there was an attempt at even-handedness,“ said Sarah Gross, who supported labeling Hamas as a terrorist organization. “I was extremely disheartened and frankly confused to hear that two City Council members felt that was a controversial statement. That makes me feel like we elected city councillors who are just not in line with our views and cannot fairly represent their Jewish constituents. Lastly, I ask you please not to give in to these protesters. They don’t live here and they seek to divide our community further.”

An opponent of the order, Tamara Roth, said: “As noted in the policy order, the purpose of the order is to relieve the significant trauma, fear and grief Cambridge residents have been experiencing for some time since Oct. 7. This policy order would accomplish the opposite. It would cause even more tension and stress in an already traumatized and divided community.”

Opponents were far outnumbered by supporters.

“I think it is a moral imperative for the Cambridge City Council to pass the policy order,” Andrew King said. “As a Jewish person, I’m proud to identify with our long history of standing up against oppression and injustice. And I’m here to say: No genocide in our name! We know what the International Court of Justice has ruled about the plausible claims that Israel has violated the genocide convention. Future generations of Cantabrigians will look back on this moment and ask how we responded. They will ask: Were we silent bystanders? Or did we speak up for peace?”

This post was updated Feb. 1, 2024, to correct the identification of Andrew King.