Op-ed: San Jose leaders hide behind city policy to avoid supporting ceasefire
More than 100 residents called on the San Jose City Council to pass a resolution supporting a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war on Dec. 5, 2023. Photo by Jana Kadah.

The gravity of the situation in Gaza and the West Bank is undeniable.

Since Oct. 7, 100,000 Palestinians have been killed, reported missing or wounded as a result of Israel’s indiscriminate bombing campaign. About half of those killed are children. A ceasefire is overdue and critical to stop the indiscriminate killing of civilians and ensuring that humanitarian aid, fuel, medicines, food and water can enter Gaza at the scale needed.

Yet despite the majority of San Jose residents calling for a ceasefire resolution, consistent with more than 61% of American voters, Mayor Matt Mahan and members of the San Jose City Council have hidden behind a city policy known as 0-11 that states the city cannot take positions on foreign policy.

Given sustained pressure, the council ultimately issued a letter on Jan. 16 that called for the “protection of civilians” and a need to work “toward cessation of hostilities.” This generic statement is unsurprising since San Jose City Hall closed off rows of seats, reduced capacity in the council chamber and increased police presence to prevent residents from speaking in support of a ceasefire at a December council meeting.

Further, the letter asserts a bylaw of non-involvement in foreign affairs. However, the council has an inconsistent history regarding taking stances. Is City Hall illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag not considered taking a position in a foreign conflict? This initiative was fully backed by the council to “show that (we) stand with the people of Ukraine.”

There is a loophole in the 0-11 policy that states the city will not take a position unless it “impacts the citizenry of San Jose.” In the December council meeting, multiple residents shared how the Israel-Hamas war has resulted in numerous family members killed — many of them killed in what Israel had deemed “safe spaces” and then bombed.

Residents shared instances of Islamophobic and Anti-Arab hate crimes in San Jose that have been on the rise while highlighting the profound effect on their mental well-being. Some residents detailed how they’ve had to identify deceased family members through videos on social media. But apparently, this doesn’t meet the bar for “impacting the citizenry.”

How about human rights violations that would force our city to take a position? San Jose considers itself an international city after all. Due to Qatar’s human rights record, the council blocked former Mayor Sam Liccardo from traveling there for educational purposes to learn about water conservation efforts.

The United Nations, Amnesty International, B’Tselem, numerous international human rights groups and former Israeli officials have called Israel an apartheid state. Moreover, Amnesty has documented Israel’s repeated war crimes against Palestinians, including crimes against humanity, since 1948. These human rights violations, flagged in the instance of Qatar, have not stopped the mayor, councilmembers and other elects from visiting Israel in their official capacity.

One of the many issues with the letter is that Mayor Mahan and councilmembers frame this conflict as between Israel and Hamas and even between Israel and Gaza, which deliberately decontextualizes it from the root cause of the ongoing catastrophe which predates both Hamas and the current right-wing Israeli regime. It also conflates Hamas with all Palestinians. Since Oct. 7, Israeli military raids in the West Bank, which is not governed by Hamas, have dramatically increased.

In their letter, Mayor Mahan and councilmembers emphasized the importance of “expressing (their) deep care and respect for the worth and dignity of all people” to unite the community. The letter has not brought people together. Instead, it has left individuals from BIPOC communities, Palestinians, Jews, Arabs, Muslims and those with a conscience feeling gaslit, alienated and hurt.

Unity can only thrive when we can collectively acknowledge shared struggles and see each other as human. The systemic dehumanization of Palestinians, characterizing them as terrorists motivated by antisemitism, prevents us from seeing them as human and feeling empathy which normalizes their oppression. The same tactic of dehumanization was used against Jews in Europe leading to persecution that still exists today, the Black community to justify kidnapping and enslavement, and Native Americans to justify colonization.

Contrary to anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim rhetoric, there is a rich history of mutual respect and coexistence between Palestinians, Muslims, Arabs and Jews. The Muslim rule in Spain, Yemen, Morocco, Jerusalem and other Muslim lands provided protection and fostered prosperity for Jewish people during European persecution. This should not and cannot be forgotten. The enduring affection between these communities persists today.

Criticism of Israel is not antisemitic. Conflating Zionism with Judaism hurts Jewish communities everywhere. Jewish trauma is being exploited and weaponized to dismiss what genocide experts agree is a genocide against the non-Jewish Palestinians.

We expect our elected officials to show empathy and courage by using their influence to support human rights and justice for all. Instead, the loud and clear message they have sent is that rules and a concern for human rights are exclusive to whomever they deem worthy. Otherwise, the city council sends its “thoughts and prayers.”

Donna Wallach is a Jewish San Jose resident who lived in Israel for 15 years in the 1980s and 90s. Malalai Olomi is a Muslim San Jose resident and political social worker.

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