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Williamstown Select Board Chair: Vote Coming on Gaza Resolution
By Stephen Dravis, Sports
05:30AM / Tuesday, March 12, 2024
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. – The chair of the Select Board Monday put his colleagues on notice that a resolution on a ceasefire in Gaza will show up on the body’s agenda “sooner than later.”
After a third straight meeting dominated by public comments from residents urging adoption of such a resolution, Jeffrey Johnson indicated that the time is coming to put an amended resolution up to a vote.
“I didn't come here to be a witness,” Jonson said. “I came here to be a participant. And what I mean by that is I think enough people have spoken to where I'm compelled to have a vote -- not tonight. I'm going to consult with the town manager and my co-chair, but I believe that I asked the citizens on both sides to get together and change this, and I see language that has changed.
“I don't have a problem putting my neck out for humanity. I'm not sure where we're going to fit it in. It's going to be sooner than later, but I'm compelled to do that. When I campaigned to be on the Select Board, I had 1,100-plus people put their faith in me. Now, the seat is as hot as it ever gets, right? Only Jane [Patton] had it hotter, I think. That's what I have in my heart.”
For the third straight meeting, the resolution was not on the board’s agenda but was raised at the end of its regular business by a series of residents, most of whom advocated strongly for its adoption.
Monday’s meeting did, for the first time, see multiple residents offer a counter opinion. Four people went to the microphone in the town hall meeting room to urge the Select Board to stay with its practice of not taking a stand on matters that do not directly relate to town government.
Two speakers read statements from individuals who did not attend the meeting themselves but came down on the side of the board “staying in its lane” and resisting calls to weigh in on Israel’s campaign against Hamas in Gaza.
Steven Miller was one of the residents who said that such a resolution would put the town on a “dangerous, slippery slope.”
“We open ourselves up to the 'me too' problem of either voicing support by chiming in on an issue or, with an history of chiming in sometimes, implicitly voicing a 'No,' by staying silent,” Miller said. “Are we going to have adequate discussions of a complicated, millennial-old situation before voting? I strongly oppose this and any related statements on issues not relevant to the town.
“However, if a statement is going to be made, I suggest an amendment that we support an immediate cease fire provided Hamas recognizes the right of Israel to exist.”
The revised resolution, read into the record by Shaina Adams-El Guabli on Monday evening, calls for “an immediate and permanent cease fire,” the provision of humanitarian aid, the release of hostages and detainees held by both Hamas and Israel and “an end to unconditional military aid from the U.S. to the Israeli government.”
The new, shorter resolution also calls for U.S. leaders to work for a diplomatic solution that brings lasting peace to the region and affirms that, “the Williamstown Select Board condemns all forms of bigotry, including anti-Semitic, anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, Islamophobic and all xenophobic rhetoric and attacks.”
In response to the argument, espoused by some current members of the board, that they were not elected to speak on behalf of residents about national or international issues, proponents of a ceasefire resolution repeatedly made the case that this is a local matter and residents can expect local officials to put pressure on Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Richard Neal.
“You are involved, as we all are, whether you want to be or not,” Ash Bell told the Select Board. “Please do not continue to be silent.”
Two Williams College students representing a campus group called Asian-American Students in Action said their group stands in solidarity with Palestine and noted that the Select Board represents residents from a diverse background, including many with ties to countries that have suffered as a result of U.S. foreign policy.
“Upon arriving at Williams, we learned that some people call Williamstown and the college campus a 'purple bubble,' in which community members are, to some degree, disconnected from happenings in their corner of Western Massachusetts,” one of the students read from the group’s statement. “This causes dissonance for those whose lives here are still painfully and intimately connected to what happens outside this town.”
Anne O’Connor, who served on the Select Board from 2013 from 2021, said she appreciates the position in which the current board members find themselves. But she reiterated her long-stated belief that such resolutions are within the board’s purview.
“When I was on the board, I always welcomed citizens' right to bring resolutions of this kind, and I resisted efforts that were made during my time to limit or water down this right,” O’Connor said.
On the other hand, Ralph Hammann told the Select Board it is not part of its job to speak for the town on matters beyond the town line.
“[The resolution] simply does not speak for all of the people in the town,” Hammann said. “There are many other people who are, frankly, afraid to be here. I believe there are two sides, probably more than two sides, to this problem.”
A couple of turns at the microphone later, Williams junior Lauren Ryan told the board members that if they vote against the ceasefire resolution, she would never forgive them.
Ryan told the board that while she stood before them in Williamstown, her heart was with her family in Beit Jala, Palestine. She explained that it was “random chance” that led to her being born in Boston instead of Palestine.
“It is the random chance of which child my family chose to send across the world, wanting to save all their children from the horrors of Israeli apartheid but doing what they could with what little money they had at the time, that allows me to stand in front of you now,” Ryan said.
“If you vote against the ceasefire resolution, you vote for the continued destruction of my family. …. If you vote against the ceasefire resolution, I will never be unkind to you. I will never stoop to that level. But I also will never forgive you. If you vote against the ceasefire resolution, then you should also be prepared to look me in the eyes and tell me that you see me, my life, the life of my family as less important than your comfort.”
At the end of the meeting, Johnson made it clear that he agrees the board should finally decide where it stands on the resolution question.
“I have reservations,” he said. “But sometimes you have to do what you think is right in your heart. If you can't get behind humanity, I have a problem getting behind you. I say that because that's where I'm at. I'll let the chips fall where they may as far as me in this hot seat, but that's the role I'm taking on as chair.”
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