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Jeff Rubin
A writer in the Baltimore-Washington area.
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When Hamas hit suburbia

A local response to the war in Gaza laid bare the fault lines in a well-off Maryland county that prides itself on civility
Bumper sticker with Howard County’s unofficial seal “Choose Civility” (Courtesy)
Bumper sticker with Howard County’s unofficial seal “Choose Civility” (Courtesy)

On February 5, as Yahya al-Sinwar, a mastermind of Hamas’s October 7 massacre, was holed up in an underground bunker considering the latest ceasefire deal, the County Council of Howard County, Maryland, met to consider a far less consequential issue.

On the docket that night was a resolution “demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza; calling upon the Biden administration to facilitate certain humanitarian assistance into Gaza; and urging certain elected officials to take immediate action to use their position and influence to end this humanitarian crisis.”

Dozens of resolution supporters and opponents filled the plaza outside the Council building for the vote, confronting each other with megaphones and the flags of Israel and Palestine. Supporters of the bill ranged from babes in arms to senior citizens. Some had painted their hands red to symbolize blood. A Muslim prayer service preceded the demonstration.

The opponents, fewer in number and largely middle-aged and older, held Israeli flags, signs proclaiming “Oppose Resolution 22-2024,” and placards bearing photos of Israeli hostages.

Cries of “Bring Them Home! Bring Them Home Now!” were all but drowned out by “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free!”

One pro-Israel demonstrator remarked, “We should have had more bullhorns.”

Located between Washington and Baltimore, Howard is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, with suburban homes to the east and farmland to the west. Unique in its demography, the suburb is nevertheless representative of campuses and communities across the United States that have been roiled by blowback from the Hamas-Israel conflict.

The unincorporated town of Columbia, with its diverse population of 100,000, dominates the county. Visionary developer James Rouse founded Columbia in 1967 to bring together people of all backgrounds and classes. Built on land where plantation owners once enslaved Black Americans, the planned community was a slap in the face to Maryland’s Jim Crow segregation and the restrictive covenants that barred Jews from certain neighborhoods. Today, Howard continues to be a magnet for people of all backgrounds. In this liberal, Democratic stronghold, Joe Biden captured nearly 71% of the vote in 2020, while garnering just 65% statewide.

The county’s official seal depicts a plow and a sheaf of wheat, but its unofficial symbol is the ubiquitous bumper sticker “Choose Civility: Howard County.”

Howard offers fertile ground for Jewish life. With an estimated 25,000 Jewish households, it boasts 11 synagogues of all denominations, a federation, a Jewish clergy council, and even an independent preschool. In the wake of the 2018 mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, residents of all backgrounds turned out to support the Jewish community, filling a synagogue beyond capacity and spilling into the parking lot. Jews returned the favor in 2019 when they attended a vigil in a local mosque to decry the 2019 attack on Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. But a display at a public library in 2016 denouncing the birth of the State of Israel and promoting “Israeli Apartheid” sponsored by the Committee for Palestinian Rights indicated that all was not sweetness and Kumbaya.

Hamas’s October 7 massacre pushed the Middle East to the forefront of the county’s consciousness in difficult and uncomfortable ways. A local rabbi said that she had long avoided discussing Israel in her congregations because it was a no-win issue: one would inevitably be either too pro-Israel or not pro-Israel enough for her members. Faced with questions from her congregants and community members after October 7, she had to come up a steep learning curve, and fast.

An October 11 Jewish Federation-sponsored solidarity rally brought together Jews of all denominations and community allies in a standing-room-only denunciation of the horrors of the terrorist attack. The Israeli embassy sent a representative and the Jewish Agency shelicha brought down the house as she recounted the murder of a close friend at the Nova festival near Gaza. The event was attended by Rep. Sarbanes (D-MD), representatives of county elected officials, and members of the Muslim community.

Anxiety and vulnerability

On October 21, however, Imam Mahmoud Abdel-Hady of the local Maryum Islamic Center (MIC) gave a lecture in which he called the October 7 attack “a victory” for Muslims. When the speech was posted on YouTube it provoked a firestorm and the mosque issued a clarification that “victory… meant finally there is global attention to the Palestinian cause.” The statement added, “The MIC remains steadfast and committed to upholding moral values and building safe and cohesive communities across multicultural and inter-religious groups. MIC and millions of people across the world, including many Jews in both Israel and the United States, have been demonstrating for a ceasefire. We believe that every human life is sacred.”

Despite the statement, the speech contributed to the Jewish community’s sense of anxiety and vulnerability in the wake of the worst single-day loss of life in Israel’s history. Meanwhile, County Executive Calvin Ball dragged his feet in denouncing the massacre. Ardent pro-Israel advocates began mobilizing to make their voices heard.

Jewish leaders were disappointed by the tepid support from interfaith community partners and the political establishment. “It wasn’t that they were insensitive to our pain,” said one rabbi. “They calculated that anything having to do with Israel was problematic. We felt abandoned: We had always stepped forward when others were in need.”

Against this background, Israel’s October 27 incursion into Gaza unleashed a torrent of anti-Israel activities. High school students in several schools staged “Palestine Ceasefire Walkouts” in which they left the school building during a free period. Reports of anti-Semitic incidents rose. The Maryland executive director of the Council on Arab Islamic Relations, Zainab Chaudry, was suspended from her seat on the state’s Hate Crimes Commission for inflammatory social media posts. “I will never be able to understand how the world summoned up rage for 40 fake Israeli babies while completely turning a blind eye to 3,000 real Palestinian babies,” read one #tweet. (The attorney general reinstated her a month later.)

‘This is genocide’

County Council Vice Chair Liz Walsh turned up the heat in an October 28 Facebook message when she wrote, “The October 7 massacre by Hamas cannot justify the ongoing collective punishment of the Palestinian people. This is genocide. #ceasefirenow.” Walsh, a Howard County native, is a civil engineer and Georgetown Law graduate who practiced for nearly 20 years in global firms. In the face of massive outcry from the pro-Israel community, she doubled down, introducing the resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Mirroring a measure introduced in the U.S. House by 13 members, including the self-proclaimed “Squad,” the Walsh resolution called for an immediate ceasefire and the delivery of humanitarian aid. The text referred to statements from members of the Maryland delegation — Congressmen Kweisi Mfume and Jamie Raskin and Senator Chris Van Hollen — calling for an immediate ceasefire. Unlike the Raskin and Van Hollen statements, the Walsh resolution did not condemn Hamas or call for the release of hostages. For his part, Mfume declined to co-sponsor the House ceasefire bill because it didn’t “call out by name the Hamas terrorist organization for the death and destruction they initiated on October 7.”

Jewish community members urged Walsh to amend or withdraw the resolution to no avail.

On the night of the vote, to enter the council chamber spectators passed through a gauntlet of demonstrators separated by a low barrier. As she walked down the line, a rabbi stopped to chat with a Muslim leader. “Let me introduce you to my friend who lost 100 family members in Gaza,” the Muslim leader said. “And this person who lost 50.”

A dozen police and security guards stood watch around the Council chamber as resolution supporters and opponents poured in. The audience was reminded to keep their signs and flags out of sight but resolution supporters held up their red-stained hands to make their feelings known.

When Council Chair Deb Jung introduced the resolution, the last item on the agenda, she praised the crowd for attending and reminded them to observe proper decorum. Citizens on both sides of the issue nevertheless punctuated the discussion with outbursts. Pro-Israel activists could not restrain themselves when Walsh said, “I do not understand why this is controversial.”

Jung drew a chorus of catcalls when she announced her opposition to the measure. “For the first time in many long and painful days we are learning that an agreement between the two sides is being considered,” she said. “While I sincerely hope these efforts succeed, I believe that the use of a county council resolution is inappropriate for such an issue and will likely create unnecessary division in our community without any real possibility of advancing the prospects of peace.”

The Chair’s vote, combined with the likely “no” from sole Republican member David Yungmann effectively killed the bill which only needed two votes to fail. Supporters began to angrily leave the chamber. The bill died by a vote of three to one with Member Opel Jones joining the “nays” and one member absent.

A day later, Hamas passed along its revision of a proposed ceasefire deal including new stipulations that proved unacceptable to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the offer as “delusional.” Negotiations continue.

Council Chair Deb Jung got it right. The proposed resolution did nothing but aggravate the county’s divisions and make reconciliation all the more difficult. After the vote, County Executive Ball issued a public letter to President Biden urging him “to negotiate a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war and the immediate release of all remaining hostages and political prisoners.” He recognized that “Following the brutal attacks by Hamas on October 7, 2023, we have seen a shocking increase in Islamophobia, antisemitism, and racism across our county and nation.” But Ball’s attempt to bridge the county’s divide through a new Interfaith Advisory Council hit a rough patch when its only Muslim member resigned on the day of its first meeting. Jewish leaders are understandably pessimistic about the prospects for healing the county’s wounds.

The loss of life is tragic. Promoters of the resolution put the onus of responsibility on Israel to end the war, as if the October 7 massacre didn’t happen, Hamas rockets don’t continue to rain down on Israel, hostages are free, Israelis can return to their homes in the south, and the Hamas charter does not call for the destruction of Israel.

Hamas could have prevented this bloodshed by living in peace with its neighbor. Barring that, it could have brought about a ceasefire at any time by doing three simple, decent things that people of all backgrounds could support: laying down its arms, releasing the hostages, and recognizing Israel’s right to exist.

The Howard County government, Congress, and even the White House are the wrong addresses. In the end, the only decision-makers that really matter are those hunkered down in Gaza tunnels and Gulf hotel suites. Hamas leaders launched their ghastly attack on October 7 and sent shockwaves around the world that even shattered the tranquility of a suburban Maryland county that prides itself on civility.

About the Author
Jeff Rubin is a writer in the Baltimore-Washington area.