ITHACA, N.Y.—Dozens of people packed the chambers of the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday night to speak out about a proposed resolution to display the Israeli flag in legislative chambers.
Legislator Greg Mezey, who authored the resolution, moved to remove the proposal from the agenda ahead of public comment.
“I realized that over the last several days this conflict, situation, tragedy in the region has evolved and continues to evolve,” Mezey said. “The resolution as it’s submitted, needs to be pulled back and we need to take a moment to rethink a more nuanced resolution calling for a ceasefire from all sides.”
Legislator Mike Sigler, who contributed to the resolution, attempted to add it back onto the agenda, but the motion failed. The resolution also included language condemning Hamas’ attacks on Israel.
Nevertheless, over 20 people spoke on the topic during the meeting, with dozens of others in attendance. Legislators also said they had received numerous emailed comments ahead of the meeting.
Rassil Sayess was one of several speakers who asked legislators to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire. Sayess, who is Lebanese-American, spoke about her experience growing up during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon from 1985 to 2000 and the subsequent 34-day war in 2006.
“It’s probably hard for you all to connect and empathize with the Palestinians because you do not have that history or personal connection. You have never had to be in their shoes,” Sayess said. “I felt their struggles. The only thing that you can do is to educate yourselves on this issue.”
The legislature also heard from Cornell professor and Israeli-American Yuval Grossman, who said he lost his father and friends during ongoing conflicts in the region.
“If you are here, stating that it is only Israel’s fault, you are supporting war. It’s Hamas’ fault and Israel’s fault. It’s everybody,” Grossman said tearfully. “If you cannot stand up and say that what Hamas did was the worst thing ever, then you are not standing for peace.”
Mahmud Burton, president of the Al-Huda Islamic Center, Tompkins County’s only mosque, called the killing of civilians shocking and revolting. Burton also warned against potential Islamophobic backlash.
“The impact of a one-sided presentation of the situation, completely ignoring context, creates such things as the news that maybe you’ve heard of the six year old Muslim boy in Chicago being stabbed 26 times,” Burton said.
Burton said that members of the Muslim community in Ithaca had been harassed when they spoke out about the deaths of Palestinians.
Ethan Oliner, a member of the Zionist student group Cornellians for Israel, said his friends and other speakers who supported the resolution felt afraid to speak at the meeting.
“This is also not about both sides. Every single life that has been lost is the fault of Hamas,” Oliner said. “Israel does its very best to protect the lives of every civilian.”
While virtually all the speakers condemned violence against civilians, those who wanted the legislature to express support for Israel and display its flag were outnumbered two to one.
Audience members on both sides could be heard reacting to and at times heckling speakers, despite warnings from Chairwoman Shawna Black.
Ithacans of all backgrounds and persuasions have weighed in on the conflict over the past few days. Local leaders, including Black and Cornell President Martha Pollack, have issued statements condemning the attacks. One Cornell professor faced national backlash after he described Hamas’ initial attack as “exhilarating” and an act of resistance.
Mezey said that he drafted the resolution to include a proposal to display the Israeli flag because he was taking cues from the legislature’s decision last year to display the Ukrainian flag alongside the US, New York and Tompkins County flags.
Mezey said he disagreed with that decision, but pointed out that many county legislators also display smaller flags on their desks in support of a variety of causes, including Black Lives Matter and various LGBTQ groups.
“I keep a pride flag here on my desk because personally it has a lot of meaning to me as a gay man,” Mezey said. “It’s important that I share that and represent that. I think that our desks and our personal space are okay to make those kinds of statements. But on our main dais, I don’t think it is.”
Several other legislators, like Deborah Dawson, expressed reservations about weighing in on the matter—whether by displaying a flag or by other means.
“I don’t think anybody who has any control over this issue gives a hoot what the Tompkins County Legislature thinks. We have no control over this,” Dawson said. “We do have 14 people who are very likely holding vastly different ideas about the rights and wrongs of this situation.”
Update 10/18/2023: This story was updated to provide additional clarity on the resolution and better reflect procedural language used during discussion.
The resolution was not included in the agenda packet for the Tuesday night meeting. You can read the Ithaca Voice’s transcript of the resolution as read to the Legislature below.