Council declines to take a position on war in Gaza

An unusually robust police presence was in place at Tuesday's City Council meeting, which was attended by dozens of protesters and activists. Courier photo/Peter Weinberger

by Mick Rhodes |

Following a tumultuous seven hour meeting during which emotions ran extremely high, the Claremont City Council voted unanimously early Wednesday to affirm its “longstanding practice of not adopting resolutions or issuing proclamations that take an official city position on social or political issues that are not local to Claremont,” essentially rejecting an alternative declaration that would have called for a cease-fire in Gaza.

The vote was preceded by several hours of passionate testimony. With public comment complete about 1 a.m. Wednesday, Council member Jennifer Stark began to explain her rationale for her vote, which spurred a prolonged and heated exchange between her and pro-cease-fire activists, many of them college students. Mayor Sal Medina called repeatedly for order as some protesters shouted over Stark. Then, as the city clerk began reading the resolution that was to go before the council that would affirm is longstanding practice of not weighing in on international or national matters, the protesters began chanting in unison over the announcement. Medina then recessed the meeting, council vacated the chamber, and Claremont Police Department officers cleared the room.

After a brief pause the council retook their seats and the public was invited back into the chamber, with most protesters opting to remain outside. The unanimous vote was then taken and the meeting adjourned.

Protesters and activists from both sides of the issue of the war in Gaza packed the Claremont City Council chamber Tuesday evening. Courier photo/Peter Weinberger

Dozens of protesters then rallied for several minutes outside council chambers, on the sidewalk, and on Second Street.

Meanwhile, several members of the Jewish community who were inside the council chambers said they were uncomfortable exiting through the front door and wading into the large group of pro-cease-fire protesters, prompting Claremont Police Department officers to escort them out of the building through a back entrance.

The mood in council chambers was charged all evening. Public comment from both sides of the complex issue, both pro-Israel/anti-cease-fire resolution, and pro-Palestinian/pro-cease-fire resolution, was pointedly emotional. Many shared personal stories of how they and their families had been directly affected by the ongoing conflict, which at press time had claimed 29,954 Palestinian lives and wounded 70,325, along with 1,139 Israelis killed by Hamas in the October 7, 2023 attack, according to Al Jazeera.

Some members of the Jewish community said just the fact that the council had placed the item on the agenda had caused them to feel unsafe. Pro-cease-fire activists countered that a lack of commitment to a cease-fire proclamation put the council “on the wrong side of history.”

Mayor Sal Medina was forced to pause Tuesday’s City Council meeting as protesters shouted over the proceedings. Courier photo/Peter Weinberger

The public comment portion of the evening went on for several hours, with impassioned pleas from both sides of the issue.

Temple Beth Israel cantor Paul Buch was among those addressing the council. “It is evident to me that given the diversity of opinions among our Claremont citizens and other Claremont stakeholders regarding the tragic current situation in Israel and Gaza, and the historical challenges in the wider Middle East, any action by the council focused on that particular situation is likely to create tension and anxiety and enmity within our city, and therefore serve an opposite purpose than the spirit of the stated priorities of this council to, quote, ‘achieve community and organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion.’” Buch said. “Our City Council chamber is not the place where these issues can be adequately or appropriately debated.”

A Claremont resident who said she had lost multiple family members to the current conflict spoke through tears. “What Israel is doing now in Gaza is the second Nakba [“catastrophe” in Arabic],” she said. “My husband’s cousin’s child was shot by [Israeli] settlers. That was before October 7th. He was 16 years old, a kid who is not part of Hamas, but they shot him dead. You say, ‘What’s the City Council have to do with it?’ The bombs that are dumped on Gaza are our bombs, made with our money. And our people, everybody should speak up against that. The people, the cities, the county, the state, everybody should be involved in speaking about that. Nobody spoke about the first Nakba, where my father became a refugee. People see what’s happening in Gaza now, and history is watching. And history is watching you, City of Claremont. You better not go down in history when you could have done something to ease the suffering of the people of Gaza, and you have done nothing. You do something about it. Send a strong message to those leaders in Washington, D.C. who couldn’t care less about the Palestinian people. You talk about antisemitism? It’s anti-Palestinianism that’s happening now.”

Claremont attorney Scott Glovsky told the Courier, “Part of the core values of the city are inclusion, and the city’s had a policy for 140 years to not address foreign policy issues, or issues that don’t relate to the city. The idea that the city would consider changing that to adopt a policy that divides us instead of bringing us together will have the unintended effect of increasing antisemitism at a time when antisemitism in this country is at an all-time high.”

The public listens in as speakers line up to comment at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Courier photo/Peter Weinberger

A young Jewish speaker who grew up in Claremont said, “Nothing Israel is doing is making anyone safe, not Israelis, not Palestinians. They’ve been bombing Gaza for years. I was in Israel two decades ago. Israel was bombing Gaza then too. You could hear it everywhere. They Israeli government made the same excuses then that they make now. They think people won’t remember. But I was there. I’ll always remember those bombs. October 7th was a lot of things, but one thing it wasn’t was the beginning; Israel kidnapped thousands of Palestinians, many of them children, with no charge or trial before October 7th. Where is the public outrage?”

Jaime Gutierrez, a Pomona civil right attorney, said he was there to implore the City Council to adopt the cease-fire resolution. “Claremont is a city that encompasses some of the major educational academic institutions in the world. And we expect them to have a higher standard of consciousness, and make appropriate decisions in the face of genocide. I know there’s been discussion about presidents, but that’s the same excuse that soldiers use when they say, ‘I was following orders.’ This is unprecedented.”

One Claremont resident who recalled the antisemitism he faced growing up Jewish in a Muslim country in the Middle East, offered this perspective: “This is a very complicated issue, and it has been going on for a very, very long time,” he said. “Does the City of Claremont have the staff that has the expertise, the mayor, our city attorney, anybody here know enough with a proposal, with a proclamation to solve this problem? I don’t think so … Just the fact that this item is on the agenda has done great harm to the city.”

Jonathan Brown, a 20-year Claremont resident, had this to say: “Pandora’s box is open. You can’t help but be moved by the pain, the tears, the righteous indignation that you hear from speakers who are urging you to do two different things. Tomorrow we have to be one community again. I don’t know why we’re here. I don’t know why we’re doing this. But you have two choices in front of you right now. One choice takes a side, and one choice begins to stitch this community back together. And yes, [for] people who have strong feelings about what’s going on in Gaza, Congresswoman Judy Chu’s office is 415 Foothill Boulevard. It’s staffed. They have people there. I think that this evening has set the City of Claremont back a long, long way. It has damaged relationships. It has made this a less great place to live. And I don’t envy those of you who have to make a decision right now that is clearly going to make a lot of people very unhappy. But think about what Claremont is going to look like in the morning, based on what you heard, and I think the vote that you must take becomes quite clear.”

In the end it was. The council voted 5-0 to affirm its longstanding position of not weighing in on social or political issues not local to Claremont.

Emotions ran high at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, which stretched into the wee hours Wednesday. Courier photo/Peter Weinberger

Council member Stark, speaking to the Courier Wednesday morning, said she was still shaken by the emotional outpouring at Tuesday’s meeting.

“The issue is not who you love more or what side are you going to take in this conflict,” Stark said. “The issue is how do we best make policy to be able to affirm our core values, which are about inclusion, and are anti-racist. And so the only way that we can stay anti-racist is to not single one group out. And I know that not supporting this [cease-fire] cause is going to feel, especially for our Muslim, Palestinian, and Arab friends who were there, it’s going to feel somehow like a loss. But I think that that is really not the best lens to look at this issue from. And again, I do not want to minimize anyone’s experience. I get that this is deeply heartbreaking, and I’m feeling it too. But, the policy is created in order for us to stay consistent with our values and our priorities, not in order to push an issue farther forward. We should not use policy as an activist tool to make a statement, especially a statement that will not move … we don’t have that authority; it’s the federal government.”


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