On Monday night, a coalition of concerned citizens presented a draft resolution to the Petaluma City Council calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and the return of all hostages. It was the product of work by local activists who have felt at times nervous about publicly taking on the issue that has proven divisive across the U.S.
Sam, a long time resident of Petaluma, is Jewish-American. He has also been involved in “meetings of Jewish folks who are opposed to the occupation.” Like the other activists interviewed for this article, Sam asked the Bohemian not to use his last name, choosing anonymity for safety. He said, “I don’t want this to blow back on my family.”
“We did a lot of preparation around de-escalation of any hecklers,” said Luigi, a Petaluma Italian- and Palestinian-American organizer who participates in the weekly demonstrations downtown. “But we found an outpouring of support. A couple of people shouting disagreements, but more people stopping and asking how they can join.”
The Bohemian asked Hanan, another Palestinian-American organizer, why the prevalence of Ukrainian flags in Petaluma but not the same visible support of Palestine? She said, “We see in times like this that in Petaluma people are pro-white. [I]t’s not as progressive as people want to think.”
Asked if the Hamas attacks that triggered the current conflict complicated support of Palestine, Hanan said, “[Hamas only] complicates the response because there’s a lack of knowledge of the actual current situation in recent history,” asserting that the 70 plus year conflict has often been one-sided, favoring the well-funded and internationally supported nation of Israel.
The goal of the resolution is to put pressure on federal officials who are not taking action. A similar campaign was effective in helping end the Vietnam War.
“Memories of the Holocaust hung over my family while I was growing up,” said Sam, who is in his 70s. “Most of my family, who I never got to meet, was wiped out during the Holocaust.”
“I became an activist out of a strong sense of my understanding of Jewish values and traditions,” said Sam, recalling firsthand his visit to the Palestinian territories. “It was just intolerable to me as a Jewish person to think that my people were conducting this violent occupation of another people.”
“I’ve been a civilian in a war zone,” said Luigi, “and you always have somewhere to hide.” This writer has family in Kiev, Ukraine, and for years has heard the updates of family members retreating to the apartment block basement as drones and bombs rumble. “With 2,000 kilogram ‘bunker busters’ being dropped on residential buildings, then you have nowhere to hide.”
Support for “Israel’s right to defend itself” or the “liberation movement for the oppressed people of Palestine” are issues that quickly become mired in political and social abstraction. The coalition members want to bring attention and action to address the suffering of people on the ground in Gaza, Israel, and throughout the war-stricken region.
“One of the things that our group is trying to get the City Council to understand is that representation of Jewish people should not be limited to the synagogue,” pointed out Hanan. “There are many Jewish community members who do not go to the synagogue and are not religious. Their voices should be counted as well.”
Many Petalumans have to face this double-edged sword, dealing with rising antisemitism while also facing backlash from their own friends and families if they speak out about the actions of Israel, where the horrific attacks of Hamas that killed over 1,500 in one night have been answered with a military assault that has killed tens of thousands in the continuing response.
The difficult work will have to continue; on Monday night at a contentious meeting, the City Council of Petaluma declined to advance the resolution for a ceasefire and return of hostages to a vote, leaving the effort in limbo.