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City Council is under pressure to take a stance on the conflict in Israel and Gaza. What effect could they have?

Cincinnati City Council chambers was standing room only on February 14, 2024, as hundreds of residents addressed council for four hours.
Becca Costello
Cincinnati City Council chambers was standing room only on February 14, 2024, as hundreds of residents addressed Council for four hours.

Emotion and tension filled Cincinnati City Council chambers for four hours of public comment Wednesday.

"I'm done listening to anyone say this problem is far away," one Palestinian resident said. "My humanity doesn't care about mileage, doesn't care about a border, and certainly doesn't stop at a city limit."

It was the latest in a weeks-long campaign asking City Council to pass a resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza and Israel. More recently, several prominent Jewish organizations have joined public comment to ask Council not to support a ceasefire.

NPR Coverage: Middle East crisis — explained

"As a lifelong, fourth-generation Cincinnatian, a Jew, a rabbi and a community leader, I want this war to end," said Rabbi Meredith Kahan of Kehal Kodesh Bene Israel Rockdale Temple. "And as a lifelong Cincinnati and a Jew, a rabbi and a community leader. I do not believe we will accomplish the end of this unwelcome tragic war with a ceasefire resolution in this body. What we will accomplish with such a resolution is creating further painful divides and an already suffering Cincinnati community."

Several other Ohio cities have considered (Columbus, Cleveland, Athens) or passed (Akron, Dayton, Yellow Springs) a resolution that includes calling for a ceasefire.

What is a city council resolution?

This much engagement is rare, but Council considers resolutions nearly every meeting — about 80 were introduced just in 2023.

A resolution is a statement from City Council, and often includes the mayor as well. It holds no legislative weight or power.

They’re most often used to honor a local resident, like during Black History Month and Pride Month.

It’s also a way for Council to publicly support or oppose state legislation that will effect Cincinnati — like a few resolutions passed last year decrying bills that ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth. The intention is partly to influence state lawmakers to vote a certain way.

"I'm not sure that it has that much of effect on the legislature," said Stephen Brooks, professor emeritus at the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "I think the legislature is pretty well stuck in on what they are going to do. And they 'listen' to all of those that are expressing opinion, but I'm not sure it is terribly influential."

And yet, Brooks says over the past decade, it’s become more common for local elected officials to weigh in on state, federal, and even international debates.

"Councilmembers and the school board members find themselves spending an awful lot of time on things that in some instances have very little to do with what their job is," Brooks told WVXU. "But they need to address them because constituents want to express their opinions about them, [and] they want to find out what those elected officials attitudes are about them."

What residents want City Council to do

It's clear a resolution from Cincinnati isn't going to end the deadly conflict. Those who spent hours crowded among their neighbors at City Hall know that. They came because the debate sends a message to this community.

"I'm a part of a small interfaith coalition asking you to vote for a bilateral, humanitarian ceasefire resolution so Israeli hostages can be released and Palestinians can receive the humanitarian aid they desperately need," said Dena Cranley, wife of former Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley. "Some say the resolution is divisive; but the failure to call for these things is divisive to us, your Arab constituents, who will conclude that you believe that the suffering of Arabs is unworthy of your concern, that the worth of innocent Palestinian lives is inferior to others."

Cincinnati City Council chambers was standing room only on February 14, 2024, as hundreds of residents addressed council for four hours.
Becca Costello
Cincinnati City Council chambers was standing room only on February 14, 2024, as hundreds of residents addressed council for four hours.

Several Palestinian-American residents spoke of family and friends killed during the conflict, or trapped in Gaza. Others say it is the responsibility of all Americans to demand a ceasefire, since the U.S. sends significant financial military aid to Israel using taxpayer funds.

Many Jewish residents say a ceasefire resolution will make Cincinnati feel unwelcoming and could escalate already rising levels of antisemitism.

WATCH: Feb. 14 City Council Meeting (public comment + comments from Mayor Aftab Pureval)

Council has been silent on this issue for months, but there is precedent for addressing an international conflict. A few days after the Hamas attack in October, Council passed a resolution to declare support for Israel. A resolution two years ago supported Ukraine after the Russian invasion.

Councilmember Meeka Owens was the first to publicly address the issue, at a Council meeting two weeks ago. She says words on paper will not solve the crisis — but they tell the story of what Cincinnati stands for.

"To my colleagues I ask, if we can make our constituents, our neighbors, feel more supported and valued, why would we not? If we can be an added voice calling for peace, why would we not? If we can set a strong example for other leaders around the state and the country, why would we not?"

Only Owens and Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney have publicly spoken in favor of a ceasefire resolution. Kearney says she hasn't had the five votes necessary to pass a resolution, and that she hasn't given up on finding language all councilmembers agree on.

"Meanwhile, I want you to know where everyone here stands," Kearney said two weeks ago. "We want the killing to stop; we want the hostages returned, we want humanitarian aid immediately."

WATCH: Feb. 7 City Council Meeting (public comment + comments from several council members)

Three other members say there are good reasons not to pass a ceasefire resolution, including Council’s only Jewish member, Mark Jeffreys.

"Expecting Cincinnati City Council to take a position advocating for one specific solution to an incredibly complicated and long standing dispute — when there are heads of state, ambassadors, the Biden administration working to resolve it — is misplaced," Jeffreys said two weeks ago. "Our role needs to be to advocate for our entire community and focus our energy especially on solving problems at the local level in our city. That includes unequivocally condemning the rise of Islamophobia and antisemitism in our city. The way forward for our city is not to divide our communities even more with a resolution but rather to encourage both communities to come together to dialogue a path forward."

Jeffreys is joined by councilmembers Seth Walsh and Reggie Harris, whose Jewish husband has family in Israel. The three released a joint statement (see below); many commenters urged the mayor and other councilmembers to sign on to that statement instead of voting on a resolution.

Read the full statement below (story continues after):

What does Mayor Pureval think?

Mayor Aftab Pureval says he and councilmembers have been meeting with local Jewish and Palestinian leaders to try to draft a unified statement.

"I hoped that we could get there — that we could find a collective message centered around peace, humanitarian support, and an end to the deaths of innocent civilians, particularly children," Pureval told the public at Wednesday's meeting. "But it's become clear that at this time, that consensus language doesn't exist for an issue that is among the most nuanced and complicated in international affairs."

He says local leaders should continue the dialogue.

"If we have consensus, we will be here to listen and to engage," Pureval said. "But at this time, I do not believe Council should take up this issue."

Although the mayor does not vote with Council, he sets the agenda for meetings and can decline to allow a resolution to be brought forward. No councilmembers have officially asked for a resolution on the agenda, according to a member of the mayor's staff.

Many local leaders say they are working together despite overwhelmingly different perspectives. And they will likely continue to pressure city officials for public support.

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.