Cambridge City Council Fails to Approve Call for a Humanitarian Ceasefire in Gaza

Peace Advocate November 2023

Rally at Cambridge City Hall. Image: Phyllis Bretholtz

by John Roberts and Jackie King

Cambridge residents waiting to testify about the call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

In a move that stunned and angered hundreds of residents, the Cambridge City Council on Nov. 20th failed to approve a Policy Order calling for an immediate ceasefire in war-torn Gaza.  Passage of the order would have allowed Cambridge to join cities across the country – such as Detroit, Akron, Atlanta, Wilmington, Providence, and many others – that are raising their voices for an end to the violence.

The Cambridge order was introduced by Councilor Quinton Zondervan and Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, who cast the only two “yes” votes approving the resolution; the other seven councilors voted “present,” which prevented its passage. That outcome followed a maneuver by Councilor Patty Nolan that forced an up-or-down vote by the Council, with no chance for discussion or amendments. The undemocratic nature of this procedural sleight of hand left many residents feeling disrespected and dismissed.

For more than three and a half hours, following a rally outside City Hall, some 140 people at the Council meeting provided passionate testimony for and against the Policy Order.

The Order as submitted read:

ORDERED: That the Cambridge City Council calls upon President Biden to use his extensive political and financial leverage to demand an immediate ceasefire and the immediate deployment of humanitarian aid to Gaza and the immediate release of all hostages and prisoners of war; and be it further
ORDERED: That the Cambridge City Council calls on everyone to respect the rights of freedom of speech and peaceful protest, and to not retaliate against anyone for expressing solidarity with the human rights of Palestinians or Israelis; and be it further
ORDERED: That a copy of this resolution be sent to the offices of The President of the United States, Joseph Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Ed Markey, and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley.

This Order was carefully crafted to be a non-political, humanitarian call to stop the massive bombing of Gaza that, at the time of this writing, had already killed over 14,800 and wounded over 27,000 people, more than two thirds of whom are women and children.

One of the major reasons voiced for opposing the order was that it did not explicitly condemn the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. True, it did not. But neither did it condemn Israel for its role in the ongoing bombing. The Policy Order was attempting to avoid politics and blame, to whatever extent possible, and to simply cry for a stop to the slaughter of thousands of civilians with nowhere to go while hemmed into the Gaza strip.

Some people objected to the City Council taking any positions on national or international matters, saying that councilors should remain focused solely on local issues. Yet historically, Cambridge city councilors have proudly taken stands on issues of import beyond the city’s borders. For example, they have voted to oppose apartheid in South Africa, to divest from companies that produce nuclear weapons systems, and to support the Back from the Brink campaign to abolish nuclear weapons.

Not a local issue? Our tax dollars are paying for the bombs that are destroying Gaza, dollars which could be used here in Cambridge for affordable housing, education, or health care. Companies within our borders are designing some of those weapons systems. Young people in Cambridge who protest our government’s policies are being followed, doxed, threatened with losing their jobs or being blacklisted. Both Jewish and Muslim residents are feeling threatened by rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Yet our elected officials choose not to take a public stand?

Image: Phyllis Bretholtz

Local bodies of government taking positions to influence higher bodies of government is a time-honored tradition in our country. While one small city on the East Coast of the United States will not influence what Benjamin Netanyahu’s government decides to do, dozens or hundreds of cities in the US taking a stand can influence our own federal government, which up until now has provided financing and diplomatic coverage for continued violence in Gaza.

In Cambridge last week, those larger concerns were not addressed by the majority of our councilors. After hours of impassioned comment by the public, the City Council’s votes were remarkably swift. Councilor Nolan immediately called the question, six of the nine councilors voted in favor, and further discussion and amendments were blocked. That led to an up-or-down vote on the Policy Order itself. Mayor Siddiqui and Councilor Zondervan voted “yes”, Councilors Azeem, Carlone, Mallon, McGovern, Simmons, and Toner voted “present” and the order was defeated. (Later, some councilors deplored the lack of opportunity to express their views and possibly amend the document. In that case, why did they vote in favor of calling the question?)

What can one say to a City Council that will hide behind a “present” vote to defeat a Policy Order aimed at stopping the carnage in Gaza with an immediate ceasefire, delivery of humanitarian aid to a besieged people, and release of all hostages and political prisoners?

Praise be to our US Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who has been standing steadfastly with the rest of The Squad in Congress to call for a ceasefire, despite coming under intense pressure. Thanks to Mayor Siddiqui and Councilor Zondervan for their policy order. Would that our entire City Council could summon such courage.

John Roberts is a retired longtime executive director of ACLU Massachusetts. Jackie King is a Board member and newsletter editor of Mass. Peace Action. Both are Board members of the Cambridge Residents Alliance. (Organizations listed for identification purposes only.)