Duluth City Council Narrowly Rejects Israel-Hamas Ceasefire Resolution

The Duluth City Council rejected a non-binding resolution “supporting a permanent ceasefire to prevent loss of human life in the Middle East” at its March 25 meeting. The vote was 5-4, perhaps emblematic of the more moderate politics at play in Duluth since last year’s election

During the pre-vote discussion, council members who voted no cited their belief that a resolution about international issues, like the Israel-Hamas war, was outside the work of the city council. 

“I do not feel that this resolution is in the local purview of the council,” said Council Member Lynn Marie Nephew. “We are an underfunded, understaffed city, we are part-time councilors. Today, I’m reminded of what I’m actually here to do: [address issues like] snow removal, homelessness, housing shortages, opiate deaths, dealing with violence [in the city].”

Hearing from Jewish community members who worried about the resolution boosting antisemitism locally also contributed to the no vote. But another prominent issue raised by members was the alleged harassment they faced from ceasefire advocates, adding an aspect of personal frustration and backlash to the no votes.

“We have been told that we are indecent humans by people calling for peace…that if we don’t pass this resolution, our own child’s lives have no value,” said Council Member Tara Swenson.

“The impact that those words have on us, by voting on this resolution, to me do not bring peace,” she said. “They do not bring safety to our community, and they do not make me feel safe as a mother raising my children here.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, a leading Jewish communal voice against ceasefire resolutions, was encouraged by the outcome, though it did not participate in the Duluth process.

“JCRC continues to maintain that these kinds of resolutions are not appropriate for city councils, we’ve all along argued that these resolutions are divisive, and set people within communities against each other,” said Ethan Roberts, the deputy executive director of the JCRC. “Obviously we are relieved that by a 5-4 vote the city council opted not to pass this resolution.”

The council discussion and vote was preceded by over two hours of public comments, during which roughly 45 people spoke. The overwhelming majority of the speakers were in favor of the resolution and were supported by a packed council chamber of ceasefire advocates who turned out despite a snowstorm.

Speakers harshly criticized Israel, accusing the Jewish state of committing genocide and ethnic cleansing against Palestinians. A common refrain was that the Israel-Hamas war is a local issue because taxpayer money, supporting military aid to Israel, could otherwise be invested back into Duluth (though that’s not really how federal spending works).

But a primary focus was addressing a common complaint of municipal ceasefire resolutions: that they are a waste of time, and ultimately useless, given that city councils in the U.S. have no bearing on the Israel-Hamas war. The resolution instead was framed as a local referendum on whether Duluth would be a safe and welcoming place for non-white residents.

“I’ve always wondered, is Duluth a safe place for me, a woman of color, to continue to live and grow and work and thrive?” said Cory Maria Dack, referencing her Ecuadorian background. “And when I have children, my brown children, will it be safe for them to be fourth-generation Duluthians? Or should I do what many other people of color have done and move to Minneapolis?”

Dack said she looks to elected leaders in Duluth to show that they care about justice and the protection of all people through this resolution.

“Can [leaders] do the bare minimum in the face of a genocide and call for a ceasefire?” she said. “If we do the right thing here tonight, I will know…that it is really safe for me and other people of color to raise our children in Duluth.”

Several Jews urged the city council to pass the ceasefire resolution, including Leah Karmaker, who referenced how the antisemitism her mother faced in the Soviet Union made the family attached to Israel. She also drew a direct comparison between her grandmother’s Holocaust survival story in Belarus, and the humanitarian crisis Palestinians are facing.

“I understand why Israel seemed like the ultimate safety for [her family] with landlessness, hunger, and death so fresh in their memory,” Karmaker said. “But I know there is no safety built on the death and displacement of Palestinians. There’s no safety in inflicting on the people of Gaza what was inflicted on my grandmother, and in her memory, I call for a ceasefire now.”

Danny Frank addressed members of the Duluth Jewish community who feared that the ceasefire resolution would increase antisemitism. 

“I can say unequivocally that in my lifetime, I have never felt so much antisemitism as I have since Israel began mounting its relentless attack on the Palestinian civilians of Gaza,” he said. “To me, this resolution seems much more likely to act as a pressure release for those sentiments, rather than to reinforce or strengthen them.”

Another Jewish community member, Michael Grossman, said that he was committed to Israel’s existence, and personally agreed with the call for a ceasefire, but did not think it was the city council’s place to pass such a resolution.

“Nothing that happens in Israel or Gaza will affect whether the snow gets plowed tomorrow, the lead gets out of Duluth’s pipes, or my property tax rate,” he said. “Practically, the resolution as written is an exercise in feeling good about doing something when you feel powerless. Passing it today will have zero effect on what happens in Gaza.”

Despite the simmering tension between ceasefire advocates and council members, the Duluth resolution discussion and voting process was markedly more civil than the 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 were already hostile toward each other.

The Duluth resolution, sponsored by three of the nine members of the council, avoids wading into the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, names Hamas for its attack against Israel on Oct. 7 that sparked the current war in Gaza, and emphasizes the humanitarian crisis that Palestinians in Gaza are experiencing as a result.

The resolution is critical of Israel while remaining relatively toned down in its rhetoric. Rather than accuse Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians, for example, the resolution instead references the International Court of Justice’s assertion that Israel’s committing of genocide is “plausible.”

At the same time, the resolution recognizes “the right to self-determination and peaceful, safe futures for both the Israeli and Palestinian people,” and calls for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas and “Palestinian civilians being administratively held without charge” by Israel. 

Rather than call for an outright ban on aid to Israel, the resolution calls for “key guardrails” on aid so that “U.S. tax dollars do not contribute to further civilian casualties and violations of international humanitarian laws.”

A growing number of U.S. cities have called for a ceasefire, including St. Paul, Minneapolis, and other Minnesota cities.

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.