California cities take a stand on Israel-Hamas war. Are they brave or just inflaming hate?

Just weeks after Hamas’ invasion of Israel and in the midst of that nation’s attacks on Gaza, a few hundred Bay Area residents packed a Richmond City Council meeting to passionately debate the merits of a resolution who called for a ceasefire.

The Hamas attack on October 7 killed approximately 1,200 people and led to the kidnapping of more than 200. Since that day, Israel is believed to be responsible for at least 15,800 Palestinian deaths.

At the end of the Richmond council meeting, after six hours of intense debate, members approved a proclamation saying that Richmond’s 114,000 residents were “in solidarity with the Palestinian people of Gaza.” He also accused the State of Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and the war crime of “collective punishment.”

Richmond is not alone, as other local government entities in California (including, this week, the Santa Ana City Council and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors) are considering taking a stand on a war that has sparked violent and confrontational protests in the state, as well as in schisms in schools and divisions within communities.

Some who commented in person at the Oct. 27 Richmond meeting applauded City Council members for taking action and helping the “caged people of Gaza” with a “brave and necessary act” against the “apartheid state of Gaza.” 

Others fiercely attacked the same body, saying that accusations of apartheid, genocide and ethnic cleansing were not only “fundamentally false and inaccurate,” but also “inflammatory and biased” and “would profoundly exacerbate the trauma and vulnerability of the local Jewish community.” ”.

A question that has arisen in recent debates is whether local councils are overstepping their role.

Do they represent their constituents or are they grandiloquent? Should the local government offer an official position on foreign affairs? Do such statements have any real impact?

Like Richmond, the cities of Cudahy and Oakland recently passed resolutions.

Cudahy’s the Palestinians said had “lived in violent and dehumanizing conditions” and that the council was “mourning all the lives lost as a result of this genocide.” It was approved with three votes in favor, one abstention and one absence. Oakland was unanimous in passing a resolution that included input from Jewish and Muslim leaders and called for a ceasefire in language that mirrored House Resolution 786, authored by Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.).

The Berkeley City Council, however, opposed making statements, despite calls to do so from protesters at meetings, believing that “fan the flames of hate here at home.” Meanwhile, members of the Santa Ana council and the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors had resolutions on their meeting agendas.

The Santa Ana draft references Human Rights Watch’s definition of Gaza as “the world’s largest open-air prison” while quoting Israeli-American academic Omer Bartov, a Holocaust expert, who said the action Israel marked “a clear intention of ethnic cleansing.”

San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston was expected to introduce a resolution at Tuesday’s meeting, but he did not provide draft text. Groups, such as the Arab Resource and Organization Center, called for “massive mobilization for Gaza” in the form of supporters flooding the meeting.

A few Sundays after the Richmond City Council spoke, the Rev. Kamal Hassan, Presbyterian pastor of Sojourner Truth Church, spoke to his congregation of about 100 of his desire for “Palestine to be free.”

The 66-year-old Richmond pastor called the council’s action “a correct and somewhat courageous stance.”

“There is certainly great opposition,” he said, “to speaking on behalf of the Palestinians and the people of Gaza and naming Israel as complicit in the harm.”

Pastor Kamal Hassan

The Rev. Kamal Hassan of Richmond’s Sojourner Truth Church called the City Council’s resolution a “correct and, in some ways, courageous position.”

(Courtesy of Dr. Rev. Kamal Hassan)

Deacon Asha Weber said she had seen members of the largely black congregation and community identify with Palestinian suffering.

“Some people shout because their people are being marginalized or because they identify with marginalization,” said Weber, who is in his 30s. “And they see the consequences of structural entities having a certain amount of power, adequate access and allies, while others have none.”

Weber was referring to Israel’s alliance with the United States. The United States contributed $3.3 billion in foreign assistance to Israel in 2022, the last year for which information was available, according to USAFacts.org. Almost all of that money went to military assistance, according to the government’s fiscal watchdog.

Weber said she was concerned, however, about “acts of violence” against the Jewish community and said their “true fear is something we must hear.”

However, like many other locals, he did not feel the council had overstepped its role.

William Hall, an associate professor of business and political science at Webster University in St. Louis, said there was “a long-standing precedent” across the country of city councils passing resolutions on international affairs.

The Berkeley council, although not currently in favor of taking up a resolution, was one of the first to denounce South African apartheid in 1972. In Los Angeles, council members passed a resolution in 2003 opposing the Iraq War, and many cities passed resolutions showing solidarity. with Ukraine shortly after the Russian invasion.

Hall said, however, that while previous resolutions often had a “direct or significant impact,” he did not believe the resolutions currently being passed on the war between Israel and Hamas would have any effect on U.S. foreign policy.

And he noted that the reasons cities pursue such proclamations are not always noble.

He said municipalities could be making these statements “to distract or divert attention from areas where they are failing.” Or, he added, city councils could be “supporting one political interest over another” as a way to quell political pressure or choose the side they “believe will enhance their political capital.”

Jane Kemp, a board member at Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond, said in her public comments to the City Council that the resolution was a “vanity project” intended to advance “progressive politics.”

Kevin Wilk, a City Council member for the Bay Area city of Walnut Creek, implored the Richmond City Council in a letter to avoid choosing sides because of “community pressure,” which he described as “intense.”

“Whichever way you vote, you will upset the many Richmond residents you have the responsibility to represent,” Wilk wrote.

Regardless of the reason behind the decision, careful wording of resolutions is paramount to avoid additional conflicts, Hall said. The former U.S. Department of Justice mediator helped communities deal with conflicts over race, religion and other issues for more than a decade.

“The problem… is that it can fan the flames of hate,” Hall said. “When a community makes the decision to recommend a resolution, a lot of thought must be given to the impact and consequences.”

For Orinda resident Diana Honig, 58, the Richmond resolution presented a “false dichotomy between being ‘pro-Palestinian’ or ‘supporting Israel.’”

The former disability rights lawyer, lifelong Reform and progressive Jew said she does not support Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She is also against “the occupation of Palestinian territories, illegal settlements in the West Bank and the failure of the Israeli military to minimize civilian casualties.”

He said Richmond City Council is driving a wedge in the community with “triggering language.”

“Community leaders,” he said, “have a responsibility to ensure that they recognize different perspectives, engage in rigorous fact-checking, exercise caution when making assumptions, and think deeply about how best to craft messages they are using to influence the thought of the community.”

Community activist Tevina Quintana said that although there are problems in the town, residents should talk about a ceasefire.

Community activist Tevina Quintana, who received an award in May, said that although there are problems in Cudahy, residents should be able to talk about international issues.

(Courtesy of Tevina Quintana)

As in Richmond, the debate on the Oakland resolution lasted hours, with hundreds of speakers and more than a thousand messages posted online.

The discussion and resolution left Christian Hernández feeling “divided.” Hernandez worked for four years at Community Education Partnerships of Oakland, an organization dedicated to improving educational opportunities for homeless and unstably housed children.

“I can really sympathize with everything that happens abroad and it’s important to be aware of the situation,” said Hernandez, 27, a Spanish interpreter. “However, there is no need to look for problems on the other side of the world.”

Hernandez said it was jarring to see hundreds of people attend the Oakland meeting, in person and virtually, “showing no interest” in important local issues.

Months earlier, just eight people spoke out about the city’s support for the Ebony Alert bill, which establishes an alert system to help find missing black youth across the state.

“It bothers me that we are not as involved in other important issues as a community,” Hernández said.

Cudahy community activist Tevina Quintana has spent much of her life fighting the social and environmental issues that have plagued the small, predominantly Latino enclave, where about 29% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Although city issues should be “spoken about,” he said he applauded the Cudahy City Council for passing its resolution seeking a ceasefire.

Quintana said communities should be able to speak out against injustices near and far.

“Every big problem starts at the local level,” said Quintana, vice president of the Cudahy Youth Foundation. “Therefore, we should allow our people to speak because it is not just a government problem, but a society issue.”

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