Four panel image showing four people
Pro-Palestinian speakers address the Alameda City Council on Tuesday, Jan. 2. (Screenshots)

Cease-fire letter falls flat in Alameda after a tense 5-hour meeting

A letter drafted by the mayor of Alameda demanding an immediate cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war failed to earn the support of the city council on Tuesday night after a five-hour marathon meeting with public speakers sharply divided and some in attendance reporting they felt unsafe.

The meeting was plodding and arduous, as discussion of the four-paragraph letter consumed the entirety of the agenda. About midway through, the five-member city council reduced the amount of time allotted to speakers. One member left before the vote to care for a sick child at home.

Since November, pro-Palestinian activists have been showing up at Alameda City Council meetings to express their views on the war during segments open to public discussion, Vice Mayor Tony Daysog told J. 

Those appearances were in part what led Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft to compose the letter to send to federal officials. The letter noted its intention to “amplify the voices of our constituents from across the city” who had been “demanding that the U.S. government pursue an immediate ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.”

The letter did “unequivocally condemn Hamas for its barbaric attack on October 7” and recognized “Israel’s desire to ensure the safety of its citizens.” But it added that the “ongoing destruction of Gaza and escalating humanitarian crisis does nothing to achieve that objective.”

Daysog told J. that harsh criticisms of Israel have been common at recent meetings, including accusations of ethnic cleansing, genocide and apartheid. Though many public commenters on Tuesday spoke calmly and without vitriol, Israel was accused of genocide more than 30 times. The Israeli government was equated with Nazi Germany and the plight of the Palestinians was compared to Jews in the Holocaust on numerous occasions. A couple of the speakers shared conspiracy theories about the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

In late December, Rabbi Cynthia Minster of Temple Israel of Alameda told congregants in an email that she was experiencing the “hardest week of my rabbinate.” She had just attended a city council meeting on Dec. 19 “to observe and challenge the speakers” from a group called Alameda Families and Friends for Ceasefire.

“I am heartbroken at the loss of life in Israel and Palestine,” her email said. “Yet, I have also been a peace activist long enough to understand that the only thing these local efforts do is make communities less safe for Jewish residents.”

More than 180 speakers signed up to address the council Tuesday as interest groups, community organizations, synagogues, churches and other institutions encouraged their members to participate. 

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre, local government chambers across the country have become ideological battlegrounds as intense debates about the Israel-Hamas war, Zionism and plight of Palestinians pour out in sessions lasting for hours.

The Bay Area has been at the center of this phenomenon, with cities including Oakland and Richmond passing cease-fire resolutions and San Francisco introducing one —  all amid grueling, bitter public comment periods. Three competing measures circulated among city councilors in Berkeley, but none passed. A meeting on a resolution in Vallejo was interrupted by shouting matches and clearing of the chamber. Marin County supervisors have so far avoided discussion of a resolution. One measure was proposed in Foster City, but the council did not pass it after a heated debate. The list goes on, across the Bay Area’s nine counties and more than 100 municipalities.

The resolutions have won the support of some progressive Jews, including vocal support from the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace and activists affiliated with IfNotNow.

Meanwhile, the resolutions have raised concerns among many legacy Jewish organizations, synagogue leaders and Israel supporters who defend Israel’s right to protect itself after the Oct. 7 massacre and who worry about language that they believe unfairly demonizes the Jewish state.

“There is no consensus within Alameda on how the U.S. should respond to Hamas terrorism,” Minster said during public comment at Tuesday’s meeting. “Rather than a substantive, informed conversation about why our ally is fighting Hamas terrorists, Alamedans have been inundated with claims that Israel is committing genocide and apartheid. This rhetoric is divisive and anti-Jewish.”

Ashcraft argued that the letter was not about politics but about “humanity.” 

“We unequivocally condemn Hamas for its barbaric attack on Oct. 7,” the mayor said, reiterating the letter’s message. 

The letter is focused on “tomorrow, and all the tomorrows after that,” Ashcraft added.

“It is heartbreaking what has happened. But there has to be a way to say ‘no,’” she said. “You can’t kill every last Hamas terrorist. But you can cut off their supplies, you can cut off their resources. That’s what I’m calling on the U.S. to do.”

Many supporters of the measure viewed it as a common-sense document that called for an end to the violence. Scores more accused Israel of genocide, settler colonialism, and apartheid — terms that are heavily disputed in large segments of the Jewish community. 

Some speakers made extreme statements. 

A speaker named Ashley said the Israeli government “views every single Palestinian person as inhuman.” She described herself as a mental health professional and a member of Alameda Families and Friends for Ceasefire (AFF4C), whose website offers meeting talking points and “Palestinian martyr posters” to print.

A caller named Roseanna falsely referred to the events of Oct. 7 in Israel as having been “debunked,” referring to an internet conspiracy theory that the evidence of Hamas’ brutality on that day was manufactured. “Meanwhile we are watching an actual genocide in real time,” she said.

Another speaker affiliated with AFF4C said most “of the Israelis killed” on Oct. 7 died at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces, echoing another false conspiracy theory. He said defenders of Israel were “telling lies like Pinocchio.”

Speakers on both sides said they felt unsafe in the room, while a number of pro-Palestinian individuals had their statements read by others, saying they stayed away for fear of being doxxed. Many speakers wore masks to conceal their identities.

In the end, Ashcraft won little support from her colleagues, who either disagreed with the substance of the letter or said it was outside the purview of the city council.

“I don’t agree with the characterization of Israel as an apartheid state. I don’t agree with its characterization as a genocidal state,” said Daysog, who announced last summer that he is running for Congress on a progressive platform. The letter did not use those specific terms though it did state the intention to “amplify” the voices of those who have addressed the city council, which would include people who have used such language.

“That is not a voice that I believe this city council should be amplifying,” Daysog said.

Daysog added that the “city council must continue to always strive to be a neutral arbiter. We can’t take one side over the other.”

Councilmember Trish Spencer said the letter was beyond the scope of what the council was elected to do.

“There is no place within our city charter that speaks to foreign policy, international matters,” she said.

When it became clear around midnight that there was no support among council members for Ashcraft’s letter, she consented to a proposal from councilmember Tracy Jensen to instead support a congressional resolution calling for a cease-fire. That proposal failed, too, however, after Daysog and Spencer voted against it.

After the vote, protesters gathered outside City Hall, chanting “Free Palestine” and “There is only one solution. Intifada revolution,” a video posted on social media showed, using the Arabic word for “uprising” that has been associated with terrorism in Israel.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.