Williamstown Select Board Urged to Sign Resolution on Gaza Cease Fire

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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A grassroots coalition of concerned residents, many of whom participate in weekly standout protests at the town's Field Park, presented the board with a two-page resolution to affirm the town's "Solidarity with the People of Palestine" and call for a "an Immediate and Permanent Ceasefire in Gaza."
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board Monday heard impassioned pleas to take a stand for peace in the continuing war in Gaza and resulting humanitarian crisis.
 
One of the many residents who turned out for the board's biweekly meeting talked about the horror they felt on Sunday evening as they watched a video of a young girl hanging from the side of a bomb damaged building in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza.
 
"And at that moment, there were cheers downstairs because the Chiefs had one," the Williams College student told the board over a Zoom link.
 
"We live in a time when we are blessed and cursed with such advancements in communication. We can watch the Super Bowl on one screen and a live streamed genocide on the other screen."
 
A grassroots coalition of concerned residents, many of whom participate in weekly standout protests at the town's Field Park, presented the board with a two-page resolution to affirm the town's "Solidarity with the People of Palestine" and call for a "an Immediate and Permanent Ceasefire in Gaza."
 
Most of the resolution recounts the deaths and displacement of Palestinian people in Israel's retaliatory war following the Oct. 7 attack by the Hamas militant faction.
 
The resolution calls on the town's elected representatives to support "an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza" and call on Washington to "commit to diplomatic efforts towards a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Israel and Palestine, emphasizing the self-determination of the Palestinian people."
 
Benjamin Grimes, who first approached the Select Board on the issue in November and submitted the resolution prior to Monday's meeting, told the board that the deaths of civilians in a conflict thousands of miles away is very much a local issue.
 
"The United States sends billions of dollars in military aid to Israel each year," Grimes said. "That money is used to buy weapons made in every congressional district, including the Massachusetts 1st. This is a local issue."
 
Another speaker noted that one of Berkshire County's largest employers, General Dynamics, makes weapons and Williamstown's largest employer, the college, has investments in weapons manufacturing.
 
As the Select Board heard testimony about atrocities being committed in the Middle East, the U.S. Senate was considering a $95 billion aid package for Israel, Ukraine and other allies that passed early Tuesday morning. Both Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey of Massachusetts voted in favor of the aid package.
 
A resident told the board that, as taxpayers, every American is complicit in what advocates repeatedly termed a campaign of "genocide" against the Palestinian people.
 
Although the state of Israel has defended itself against a charge of genocide in the International Court of Justice, no one at town hall on Monday defended Israel's conduct in the war that has claimed the lives of more than 27,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
 
One resident did tell the board that not all of their constituents might agree with everything in the resolution on the table, including its call for "immediate and permanent ceasefire."
 
"Within the small Jewish community in Williamstown, there are varying perspectives," Rabbi Rachel Barenblat told the board. "Some think Israel's reaction [to the Oct. 7 attack] began as a just war, and there are a variety of opinions on whether it still is. … Some think destroying the tunnels Hamas uses in Gaza is a necessary precursor [to lasting peace].
 
"We don't all agree with each other."
 
Barenblat made the point that local resolutions on international issues can divide, rather than unite, a small town. And she indicated that divisiveness can be particularly concerning to groups like Jewish residents.
 
"It is known that when a community condemns Israel when other countries are not called out or called in, Jews can feel less welcome," she said.
 
Barenblat also emphasized her empathy for civilians killed and harmed in the current Israeli campaign and the "tremendous suffering in Israel, in Gaza and the West Bank and in the extended diaspora communities with connections to that beloved land.
 
"Our Williamstown community includes members of both of those diasporas," Barenblat said.
 
Tamir Novotny, who read the resolution into the record on Monday evening, identified himself as an "Israeli-born, Orthodox-raised child and descendent of Holocaust refugees" who was speaking to the board "in solidarity with the people of Palestine."
 
And the proposed resolution itself specifies, "that the Williamstown Select Board condemns all forms of bigotry, including antisemitic, anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, Islamophobic, and all xenophobic rhetoric and attacks."
 
"We must not conflate anti-Semitism with valid criticism of the Israeli government," Grimes told the board.
 
The board ultimately took no action on the resolution, in part because it did not receive the resolution in time to put the item on the agenda posted for the meeting.
Chair Jeffrey Johnson made that point at the outset of the 7 p.m. meeting, though most of the residents speaking to the topic and holding homemade signs calling for a cease fire arrived closer to 9 p.m., in time for the "public comment" portion of the agenda.
 
During the public comment period of the meeting, Andrew Hogeland reiterated to those in the room that the board was not at liberty to hold votes on items not posted as part of the agenda.
 
He also told the advocates that he would be disinclined to vote in favor of the board adopting the resolution or any national or international topic outside the scope of for which the board members were elected.
 
"It would be grossly arrogant of us to say we five people speak for the town on international issues," Hogeland said.
 
"We are blessed with a town with 7,500 bright articulate people, including all of you. … It's not for us to say the entire town stands for anything other than the boring details that go into what town government is all about."
 
Hogeland recommended that the resolution would be a more appropriate question for town meeting, where all registered voters are free to participate. That sentiment was reiterated by both Johnson and Randal Fippinger.
 
"You'll have a more powerful response if you get a resolution through town meeting," Fippinger said. "We all want to speak to [the issue] as citizens. But I agree with Andy that it's not our place as a board."
 
The Select Board members did not say that the issue at hand is not a local matter, just that it was outside the board's purview. Clearly, for a number of their constituents who packed the meeting room, the war in Gaza is both local and personal.
 
"I am a human who has been fundamentally moved by the moral crisis we're facing here," Katherine Lee-Cohen told the board.
 
"Would genocide be a local issue if it was in Canada? In Vermont? Would we feel comfortable speaking out if there was a genocide happening in New Ashford?"

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Summer Street Residents Make Case to Williamstown Planning Board

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Neighbors of a proposed subdivision off Summer Street last week asked the Planning Board to take a critical look at the project, which the residents say is out of scale to the neighborhood.
 
Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity was at Town Hall last Tuesday to present to the planners a preliminary plan to build five houses on a 1.75 acre lot currently owned by town's Affordable Housing Trust.
 
The subdivision includes the construction of a road from Summer Street onto the property to provide access to five new building lots of about a quarter-acre apiece.
 
Several residents addressed the board from the floor of the meeting to share their objections to the proposed subdivision.
 
"I support the mission of Habitat," Summer Street resident Christopher Bolton told the board. "There's been a lot of concern in the neighborhood. We had a neighborhood meeting [Monday] night, and about half the houses were represented.
 
"I'm impressed with the generosity of my neighbors wanting to contribute to help with the housing crisis in the town and enthusiastic about a Habitat house on that property or maybe two or even three, if that's the plan. … What I've heard is a lot of concern in the neighborhood about the scale of the development, that in a very small neighborhood of 23 houses, five houses, close together on a plot like this will change the character of the neighborhood dramatically."
 
Last week's presentation from NBHFH was just the beginning of a process that ultimately would include a definitive subdivision plan for an up or down vote from the board.
 
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