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Monday, April 15, 2024

Gainesville mayor to send letter to Biden administration advocating for ceasefire in Gaza

Jewish Voice for Peace members attended the City Commission meeting urging for a ceasefire resolution in Gaza

With only three minutes for each public comment, 16 Gainesville community members, including those a part of the Jewish Voice for Peace organization, urged city commissioners to adopt a resolution in support of an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.

Although the City Commission did not pass a resolution as JVP members urged, Mayor Harvey Ward said an alternative would be a written letter to federal government officials since resolutions are not traditionally added at the last minute.

“This is about human life. This is about peace. I don’t have a problem with sending a letter saying please stop shooting each other,” Ward said.

After listening to many personal stories, experiences, scenarios and anecdotes of Jewish individuals and local residents, Ward motioned to vote whether he should send a letter to the Biden administration.

All of the city commissioners in attendance voted in favor. Commissioners Desmon Duncan-Walker and Cynthia Chestnut were absent. 

Jewish Voice for Peace is the largest progressive Jewish, anti-Zionist organization in the world, according to its website.

The organization made an Instagram post Nov. 15 calling for community members to sign up for general public comment, which opened at 1 p.m.

“One of the things that separates this conflict from others is the way that we’re watching it unfold,” Chris Arias, a Gainesville resident, said while speaking to commissioners. 

He said Israel has cut off fuel, electricity, food and water from Gaza and are raiding the West Bank. 

“When everyone in the world is seeing these things, including your constituents, it is imperative that we make it very clear that Gainesville condemns this and that we want a cease-fire,” Arias said.

Avila Asher, a Jewish mother, farmer and local small business owner, was raised in a large Jewish community in Philadelphia. She said her experiences growing up with an extensive Jewish family history reverberate with the echoes of collective generational trauma. 

“I feared I could be forced into ghettos by a sophisticated military power aiming for our annihilation while others stood by or even cheered,” Asher said. “These were my fears even in the comfortable Philadelphia neighborhood in which I was raised.”

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She said this conflict is challenging to understand when Western media has been decontextualizing information while dehumanizing Palestinians. 

“It is particularly confusing for many to weigh in when Jewish identity has been instrumentalized to further Western hegemonic agenda in the Middle East,” Asher said. “And by design any critical questioning of Israel’s actions is met with allegations of anti-Semtism.”

Commissioner Bryan Eastman said he has been following events from the ground level, citing the photos and stories from the initial Hamas attack and then from bombings and raids in Palestine. 

He believes in many ways, the world has been stepping backward, he said.

“I don’t know how Gainesville can be helpful in any of this, but if we can be in any way I think it’s important,” he said.

In response to Eastman, Commissioner Ed Book said what the City Commission does as local elected officials and the way people treat each other locally is how Gainesville can make a difference globally. 

Having a good protocol that doesn’t allow discrimination and mistreatment of others on the basis of different backgrounds, ethnicities, race, gender or orientation is where the City Commission can set its stance, Book said.

Commissioner Casey Willitis said UF hosts the largest concentration of Jewish students in the U.S. at any university, that isn’t a Jewish-specific university. 

He referenced Gainesville’s sister cities in Qalqilya, Palestine, in the West Bank and Kfar Saba, Israel, right across the border.

“Most of the violence we have seen, both the massacre and military response, was not in the West Bank, but it seems like our sister communities could have been in the crosshairs of this violence,” Willitis said. 

He also said ending military action is the best thing for Israelis, regarding the U.S.'s abstinence in the U.N. Security Council’s Nov. 15 resolution for extended humanitarian pauses and corridors throughout Gaza.

“Clearly what happened on Oct. 7 was horrendous, a massacre, immoral and probably against every single person’s value system,” Willits said. 

Commissioner Reina Saco said she admits she has been hesitant to speak on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because she was put on a watchlist called “Canary Mission,” nine years ago.

Saco was a member of Students for Justice in Palestine and had publicly spoken against the last bombing of Gaza, she said.

She had said children should not be bombed, and that landed her a spot on the watch list for being antisemitic, Saco said.

Ward said the cease-fire resolution letter to the Biden administration, Congress and the Senate was set to be sent Nov. 17. 

“I am mindful that there are wars around the world and human life in Sudan, Ukraine, Palestine, Israel or here in Gainesville,” Ward said. “They all have value.”

Contact Kat Tran at Follow them on Twitter @kat3tran.

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Kat Tran

Kat Tran is a second-year journalism major and is the City & County Commission reporter for Fall 2023. They are also interested in a pre-law track (entertainment law). You can find them daydreaming about rainbows, unicorns, and sunshine in their free time. Currently, they are recovering after seeing Lana Del Rey live. 

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