Divisive Rhetoric, Unanimous Vote – STP City Council Passes Ceasefire Resolution

Over the course of its Wednesday meeting, several St. Paul City Council members harshly criticized Israel and its war against Hamas in Gaza before unanimously passing a non-binding resolution calling for “an immediate and permanent mutual ceasefire” in the region.

“My Korean ancestors revolted against Japanese occupation and U.S. imperialism because they deserved liberation – Palestinians deserve the same,” said member Hwa Jeong Kim. “It’s not surprising that this genocide of Palestinians has been funded funded, backed, and shielded by the U.S…we must immediately stop selling weapons to Israel.”

Said member Anika Bowie: “We should not expect children to distinguish bread from bombs. And in the same way, growing up in St. Paul, I should not have grown up having to distinguish gunshots from fireworks. Violence anywhere is unacceptable…I think all of us understand the gruesome crimes against humanity we have witnessed [in Gaza].”

Despite the members’ comments, the St. Paul resolution itself was a departure from the harsher and more chaotic resolution process that Minneapolis endured when its city council passed a ceasefire resolution in January. The Minneapolis City Council was divided by factions that already were hostile toward each other.

By contrast, the St. Paul City Council, which made history for being the first all-woman council in a major U.S. city, was notably more civil about the resolution, with members attempting to reach a consensus for the language to represent the diversity of views members heard from constituents.

“Time is actually OK to take when you’re developing [responses to] issues…that so often end in divisiveness,” said Cheniqua Johnson, who introduced the resolution. “I’m really excited to be able to do my job today, which I think is taking a chance, having tough conversations…being willing to take feedback. I find that to be the sole job when it comes to being a public servant.”

The resolution recognizes “the horrific attacks…perpetrated by Hamas” that killed nearly 1,200 people – mostly civilians – in southern Israel and resulted in 250 Israelis being taken hostage to Gaza on Oct. 7.

It also cited a recent United Nations report that says there is credible evidence of Hamas sexual violence against Israeli civilians and hostages; calls for “the immediate release of all Israeli hostages taken by Hamas and the release of thousands of Palestinians unjustly imprisoned or held by Israel”; and takes a stand against both antisemitism and islamophobia, which have dramatically increased in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.

Rather than call for a blanket end to U.S. aid to Israel, the resolution advocates conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel on “clear guarantees for civilian safety,” an increasingly outspoken priority among Democrats in Congress.

The process around the resolution was, in part, about setting the tone for how the still relatively new city council wants to work: with respect and consensus. Part of that for Rebecca Noecker, the only Jewish member of the council, was – despite disagreeing with much of the rhetoric of her colleagues – working on the language in the resolution and agreeing to vote for it.

“To be a unifier, not a divider, involves being willing to support the language that is landed on, and that’s the way that you build good faith and you build trust among your colleagues,” Noecker told TC Jewfolk after the vote. “We all got to a point where we could live with the language that was in front of us, and that kind of compromise is what governing is all about.”

Noecker, in the middle, speaks about her complex feelings toward the ceasefire resolution and the events in Israel and Gaza during the city council meeting (Lev Gringauz/TC Jewfolk)

But deciding to support the resolution was not easy for Noecker. Before the vote, she spoke about having to tell her children that their favorite teacher was killed on Oct. 7 by Hamas. She also is against the city council making statements on foreign policy.

“But again, at the end of the day, I have to think about what the formal statement from this council is going to be and how that’s going to resonate with the city as a whole,” Noecker said. She recognizes that some in the Jewish community, looking to her as a Jewish voice against this resolution, may not be happy with her vote.

“By withholding my vote from this, it would have gone forward in a very divisive way,” Noecker said. “And I had to [stop] that from happening, even though that may lead people to question me or to feel dissatisfied with how things went.”

The resolution does not comment on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor does it use the terms “genocide,” “apartheid,” or “ethnic cleansing” when describing Israel and its actions toward Palestinians. In many ways – short of no resolution – it was the best that pro-Israel Jews could have hoped for.

“Is this what the JCRC would have written? Of course not,” said Ethan Roberts, the deputy executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. But what passed “is not unduly divisive, doesn’t use inflammatory language…it started off as a document that was already a difference in kind, not just degree, [better than] what Minneapolis did, and it continued to get better.”

At a post-vote rally outside the council chambers, members of the Free Palestine Coalition made clear they were disappointed with what they saw as watered-down language in the resolution.

“We want to make it clear…we’re not stupid, we know when we’re being played,” said one speaker. “We’re not going to stand for the propaganda claims being perpetuated in this new resolution…the omission of sexual violence against Palestinians.”

But the speaker said that the coalition still considers the ceasefire resolution a victory. The resolution was also tied to the successful movement to vote “Uncommitted” in the Democratic primary on Tuesday – roughly 46,000 people (19% of the vote) did so to criticize Biden’s response to the Israel-Hamas war.

“We welcome a call for a ceasefire,” the speaker said. “That is not to say that we believe it’s more important to be united in complicity than to be divided in a stand for clear justice.”

Passing the resolution was a major reversal for a council that had, until now, refused to consider a ceasefire resolution, despite mounting pressure from pro-Palestinian activists who regularly disrupted meetings. Individual council members have openly called for an Israel-Hamas ceasefire.

Last week, Council Member Nelsie Yang attempted to introduce a ceasefire resolution, but was cut off when Council President Mitra Jalali abruptly ended the council meeting. Jalali is a longtime advocate for a ceasefire, and supported the vote uncommitted effort, but viewed foreign policy as outside of the council’s purview.

Yang accused Jalali of being “undemocratic,” and the council spent the past few days hashing out the language in today’s resolution, with changes being debated and made in the hours before the vote. Yang referenced Jalali’s avoidance of ceasefire resolutions when speaking at this week’s meeting.

“I’m really proud that we can get to this moment, I knew that we could get here,” said Yang. “I want to ask for us not to have a repeat of what happened in the past five weeks, because working together collectively is absolutely important…silence doesn’t make the issue go away.”

The audience in the council chambers, mostly dominated by pro-Palestinian activists with a small pro-Israel contingent, was largely quiet and respectful as members spoke. Pro-Palestinian activists occasionally cheered for statements critical of Israel.

But Jalali had to warn that disruptive people would be removed after a few people in the pro-Israel contingent shouted down some members while they were speaking – and continued doing so after the warning.

The pro-Israel group grew especially tense after council member Anika Bowie read a post-Holocaust poem attributed to the Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller, “First they came.” The poem is about Niemoller’s failure to recognize that the persecution of Jews and other people was a precursor to his own rights being attacked, and today the poem is widely seen as a call to action against antisemitism.

After the well-known line “Then they came for the Jews/And I did not speak out/Because I was not a Jew,” Council Member Bowie added on, “Then they came for the Palestinians/And I did not speak out.” Bowie shared the poem to make the point that the resolution “is to ensure that we are standing up for everyone.”

Among the pro-Israel group, the Bowie’s add-on to the poem prompted incredulity and at least one cry of “Holocaust inversion,” a term that describes when Israel is equated to the Nazis.

After the council meeting, Bowie had a brief conversation with Rabbi Marcus Rubenstein of Temple of Aaron. “I felt in her comments, she didn’t really understand Jewish suffering and Jewish pain…so I offered myself as a resource,” Rubenstein said. “It’s easy to get angry at people, it’s easy to lash out, but…[the role of leaders and rabbis] is to continue that relationship.”

St. Paul joins a growing number of U.S. cities that have called for a ceasefire, including Hastings and Moorhead in Minnesota.

The Israeli war against Hamas, sparked by Hamas’ brutal Oct. 7 attack, has included heavy airstrikes and a ground offensive into Gaza. More than 30,000 Palestinians are estimated to have been killed in the Israeli response, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry, while a humanitarian crisis and food shortage grows. The U.S. recently started airdropping food into Gaza as it ramps up criticism of Israel’s handling of the crisis.