Somerville’s City Council chambers were packed Thursday night with dozens of advocates holding signs behind the 11-member body. The topic at hand: whether to pass a resolution supporting an “enduring ceasefire” in Gaza.
More than 25,000 Palestinians have been killed since Israel launched its offensive, after 1,200 Israelis were killed in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7.
Ultimately, after nearly three hours of deliberation, most of the councilors could get behind it as a call for peace, passing the resolution 9-2. Councilors Kristen Strezo and Judy Pineda Neufeld voted against it.
One undercurrent running through Thursday night's meeting was whether the Somerville City Council is the right place for such a vote, given the divide it had brought to light in the city and concerns about what impact the resolution may have.
When asked why he thought it was important to bring this measure, City Council President Ben Ewen-Campen says he’s faced that question from many residents. Part of it, he said, was personal.
“As a Jew myself, I have been trapped in feelings of helplessness and grieving and trauma. And I know that I’m not alone in those feelings,” Ewen-Campen, who represents Ward 3, told GBH News. “It didn’t feel right to me that our government — our local government, of which I am an elected leader — had not really made a statement on what's happening in Gaza since October 7th, or 8th. And I think that silence was really, really hard for me, and for huge numbers of our community.”
One councilor estimated that they’d received 1,300 emails in the past two days.
But Ewen-Campen said his motivation went beyond that. City council, he says, is the appropriate venue to make residents’ voices heard.
“This is something that our city council and other city councils do to advocate for policy changes at the state level, at the federal level,” Ewen-Campen said. “This is not a resolution that we're sending to foreign countries. We're sending it to our own government, asking them and supporting a policy of ending this war.”
Some of Somerville’s councilors were reticent, worried about deepening divisions in the city — or whether it would make any difference.
“My belief is that, by bringing this resolution, the only thing that has been accomplished is to further deepen division, to make people throughout the community feel less safe, feel less welcome,” said Lance Davis, the Ward 6 city councilor. “I don’t actually think that a ‘yes’ vote or a ‘no’ vote will change one life in Palestine, in Israel. It will change lives here in Somerville.”
Ward 4 Councilor Jesse Clingan wasn’t sure about the impact it would have, either.
“I’ve been eating, sleeping, breathing this for the past four or five days,” Clingan said. “And it’s not so much the struggle as to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as much as it is to vote at all.”
At-Large Councilor Wilfred N. Mbah, a native of Cameroon, said he was conflicted about the resolution but ultimately opted to support it.
“This is simply because this resolution focuses on the sanctity of human life and recognizes the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians. And I’m all too familiar with ethnic and religious division from the country where I come from, and the terrible harm they cause,” Mbah said.
But others were upfront about their strong support for the resolution.
“What keeps me up at night is thinking about the impact of this ongoing war on our shared humanity,” said Naima Sait, the Ward 5 councilor. “What legacy are going to leave for our children? What kind of world are we leaving for them? The children in our community watch Israeli children and elderly killed and taken hostage, they’re watching Palestinian babies being taken out of the rubble. They’re watching schools being bombarded.
“Thousands of innocent lives have been lost. Thousands of them are children. In the name of our shared humanity, this must end,” Sait later added.
The resolution was passed with a few last-minute amendments that added condemnation of Hamas and condemnation of anti-Israeli rhetoric, added onto other condemnations of antisemitism, Islamophobia and xenophobic rhetoric. (The initial version of the resolution can be found here. The final, amended version is not yet available online.)
One amendment, proposed by Councilor Strezo, to add language calling for the dismantling of Hamas and the dismantling of the Netanyahu administration in Israel, failed to make it into the final version by a 6-5 margin.
“Whether there’s technically legal concerns, or at least theoretically legal concerns, about a municipal legislative branch calling for the end of elected governments in any country is probably not where we want to go — even if I agree in my personal life,” Davis said.
Somerville is the first city in Massachusetts to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire, according to the local advocacy group Somerville For Palestine. Other local governments, including San Francisco and Minneapolis, have also passed resolutions. Cambridge City Council discussed a ceasefire resolution in November but did not pass it. The council will hear a new version on Monday, and it’s expected to pass.
Ewen-Campen hopes the message is heard in higher levels of government.
“I want the war to end right now. I don't know how much it sounds naïve, simplistic,” Ewen-Campen said. “Don't get me wrong, that I think that's what happens because of this resolution. That's the hope. I want our community to feel respected and heard on this incredibly difficult and painful issue.”