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Activists demand City Council resolution endorsing Gaza ceasefire

Nick Silveri-Hiller speaks to Lancaster City Council in support of a resolution supporting a Gaza ceasefire on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Immediately to his right is CeCe Sadek. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

City residents and representatives of activist groups made an impassioned plea to Lancaster City Council on Tuesday to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Doing so would make Palestinian refugees who resettle here feel safer, said Ashley Novalis, reading from an open letter, and would “signal upward” to state and federal governments that constituents are calling for an “immediate and permanent” cessation of hostilities.

“Ceasefire is the welcoming standard,” she said, alluding to Lancaster’s designation as a Certified Welcoming city and to the ordinance passed in February that codifies its welcoming policies.

The letter was signed by 10 organizations, including those that have been rallying weekly in Penn Square to show support for a ceasefire and Palestinian self-determination.

Novalis was followed by eight other speakers during council’s first public comment period, for which people must sign up in advance. A dozen more spoke during the second comment period, which is open to any meeting attendee. A Palestinian flag was held aloft behind the audience seating area and several speakers wore Palestinian keffiyeh scarves.

Critics of ceasefire resolutions have argued that they can encourage antisemitism, frequently fail to condemn Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack; and that a ceasefire is impossible due to Hamas’ intractability and ideological commitment to destroying Israel.

The local activists spoke emotionally of the brutal death and destruction in Gaza and exhorted City Council to stand “on the right side of history.” The issue is local as well as international, they said: American tax dollars support military aid to Israel and families living here have relatives in the war zone. They cited the example of other municipalities that have passed ceasefire resolutions, such as Erie and State College.

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The Party of Socialism & Liberation – Lancaster has posted the open letter presented to City Council on its Facebook page. It is endorsed by the following organizations:

  • Lancaster Palestine Coalition
  • Lancaster Democratic Socialists of America
  • Lancaster Stands Up
  • Mennonite Action Lancaster
  • Lancaster Changemakers
  • Party for Socialism and Liberation Lancaster
  • Lancaster Abolition Group
  • Franklin & Marshall Coalition for Peace and Justice
  • Peace Action Network of Lancaster
  • Millersville University Students for Justice & Peace

“In retrospect, it’s always easy to claim that you would have stood for justice,” said Nick Silveri-Hiller of the Party for Socialism & Liberation. “But the moment while injustice is happening is the only moment when it matters.”

Ira Weisberg, a Jewish city resident, said that through reading and learning he has come to see Israel as a deeply dysfunctional regime, akin to apartheid South Africa or the Jim Crow South, and one that sees its persecuted minority as expendable.

“Zionism is not Judaism, and to hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world it has nothing to do with Judaism,” he said.

Palestinian native CeCe Sadek said she moved to Lancaster County after the 2008 Gaza war and that she treasures the “immense support and love” she encountered here after so many months of fear and trauma in her homeland. That contrasts starkly with City Council’s inaction on a ceasefire resolution, she said: It’s the bare minimum, she said, and should have been passed months ago.

“You cannot promise a safe place of refuge for people in need, but not do everything you can to make the space safe,” she said. “I implore you to please set the standards for what is right, to please stop looking away from the murder of thousands of innocent civilians.”

City Council President Amanda Bakay told One United Lancaster she was made aware in mid-March of a draft resolution submitted by the activist organizations, but has not seen any subsequent drafts and no City Council member has proposed taking action. The draft calls for a ceasefire, the end of U.S. military aid to Israel, the release of all hostages and the lifting of all barriers to humanitarian aid in Gaza.

Addressing the activists after the first public comment period Tuesday evening, Bakay condemned the violence in Gaza and the loss of innocent life but said a formal resolution may not be the best response.

“A resolution from Lancaster City Council may put our Muslim and Palestinian neighbors in the line of fire of hateful rhetoric,” she said. “We have unfortunately seen this play out recently, after we passed our city (welcoming) ordinance.”

That ordinance indeed prompted a backlash, with Lancaster County government and multiple municipalities passing resolutions pledging cooperation with Immigration & Customs Enforcement and declaring themselves “non-sanctuary” jurisdictions.

As an alternative, Bakay said she will draft a letter in her capacity as City Council president to Lancaster’s federal elected officials (U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, a Republican, and Democratic Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman) expressing her personal support for a ceasefire. Other council members would be invited to sign on.

The activists made it clear that in their view, that was not an acceptable substitute.

“The time for writing letters is over,” Sadek said. Moreover, Bakay should not presume to second-guess a Muslim Palestinian like Sadek herself as to what does or does not serve her community best.

“We have chosen to fight for a resolution despite any of the potential consequences,” Sadek said. “Your inactions are more harmful than any words or actions other community members can say or do to us.”

Other speakers accused City Council of cowardice. Inaction, they said, will merely embolden prejudice that already exists.

“Calling for a ceasefire during a genocide will not cause Islamophobia,” Novalis said. “Racial supremacy and colonial violence causes Islamophobia.

“What a shame it would be not to say what is right because of those who do wrong,” she continued, or for a representative body like City Council “to trade in communal demands for individual recommendation.

“Ceasefire now and free Palestine,” she concluded.