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Both votes split April 10; commission later this month may consider support of warrant article for Special Town Meeting

UPDATED May 6: The Arlington Human Rights Commission voted late Wednesday, April 10, to compile a report on comments received at the four April 4-8 "listening sessions" and via email that together represent more than 100 residents' ideas about the ongoing situation in Gaza.

Commission Cochair Drake Pusey clarified the commission's actions via a lengthy email to YourArlington the afternoon of April 11, following the late-night meeting whose actions were at times nearly indiscernible via Zoom.

That vote, at about 10:02 p.m. April 10, specified that a small team of commissioners would synthesize the material into a report that first would be submitted to the co-chairs (Pusey and Griffin Jones) for approval, then made public and also be provided to the Arlington Select Board to help inform future decisions. Laurie Key abstained; Rajeev Soneja voted no; the others (minus Crystal Beauchemin and Kevin Bryant, absent that night) voted yes. 

At about 10:15 p.m. the commission took another vote -- this one to co-sign a statement earlier created by the Hingham Human Rights Commission about supporting Arab/Palestinian neighbors and later to have a small team of Arlington's commissioners create an addendum to that statement. This addendum, upon approval by the co-chairs, would be shared with the Hingham counterpart. Kristen Bauer and Sharon Grossman voted against the motion: Key, Pusey, Soneja, Griffin Jones, Christine Carney, Gary Horowitz and Scott Jones voted for it.

Pusey has not said who would be on the two small teams nor when the report or the addendum would be completed nor the rationale for or intended content of the planned addendum.

Meanwhile, per Pusey, the text of the "Hingham statement" is as follows:

“We are doing the work to learn about our Arab and more specifically our Palestinian American community. We want to acknowledge the pain they are experiencing while honoring the multitude of ways that they show up to serve their community in schools, hospitals, shops etc., and as your neighbors. We see you and we want you to know you belong to our community. If there is anything we can do to support you at this time please do not hesitate to reach out through our human rights commissions and/or unity and inclusion organizations. We want you to know that you are safe here.”

This is different from a longer, earlier statement from the Hingham commission also concerning Gaza and listed from November on this website.

About another matter mentioned April 10

Pusey noted in his email to YourArlington that the commissioners have expressed willingness to review a recent proposed warrant article for Special Town Meeting -- one created by others -- when its final version is ready and to possibly decide whether to support it.

At the meeting itself, this reporter heard the topic referred to variously as a declaration, a resolution or a warrant article, without its nature ever being specifically described.

"When the detailed wording is provided to us, the co-chairs will schedule a special meeting of the [commission] (with the usual 48-hours notice per Public Meeting Law). The goal is to hold this meeting before the Select Board reviews the warrant article. This did not require a vote," Pusey said Thursday.

YourArlington on Thursday had inquired who created this warrant article and where its draft content may be found; on Friday, Pusey confirmed that it is indeed Article 5 -- the fifth and final article in the warrant posted on the town website at 3 p.m. Wednesday (five hours before the commission meeting) for Special Town Meeting, currently set to begin at 8 p.m. May 8 -- seeking a proclamation advocating an immediate permanent ceasefire in Gaza, the release of all hostages and other actions.

Warrant articles typically go to the Arlington Select Board, the Arlington Redevelopment Board or other town entities for their review. However, whether to adopt or reject any warrant article is solely up to the members of annual Town Meeting  (to begin at 8 p.m. April 24)  or to those same members at any Special Town Meeting.

Differences of opinion: on commission, in community

Though the actions Wednesday night, at least to a newcomer, were confusing, what seemed clear was the commissioners' interest in the well-being of people in the Middle East and also those in Arlington, especially public-school students subjected to verbal harassment by their peers for being Jewish or Muslim -- an issue that has not been discussed significantly in public to date.

Also clear were strong differences of opinion, both among those who spoke up during the listening sessions and among the commissioners themselves, on the best course of action after conclusion of the sessions -- the likes of which apparently had never previously been convened since the commission was formed more than three decades ago.

The attendee count of the first two listening sessions was not stated; the third one was said to have had roughly two dozen participants; and there were close to 75 at the last one, which ran more than 2 1/2 hours. Commonly made comments, commissioners said, were those saying that the commission ought not involve itself in international affairs; that the commission should address other world issues, not just deaths in Gaza; and that the commission should work to bridge community divides rather than do the opposite. Also said to have been expressed at the sessions were many residents' fears/anxieties about others' reactions to their identities/beliefs. 

The commission earlier had said that the sessions were intended to obtain opinions about "the humanitarian crisis in Gaza" and to address these questions: "As an impacted member of the community, how might other community members make you feel more welcome, safe and valued in Arlington? How might the AHRC itself take action to make you feel more welcome, safe and valued in Arlington?"

Residents were also encouraged to submit their views to the commission in writing. Pusey at the meeting said that the commission had received, by Tuesday night's deadline, some 70 emails and that in some cases these evidenced "a high level of toxicity" in tone compared with the generally civil input at the listening sessions. Some suggestions were to hold interfaith events; sponsor food festivals; host more listening sessions and/or conversations, preferably with paid professional moderators leading them; and to create a specific way to welcome to the town new Arlington residents, especially renters, who generally tend to be under-represented in civic affairs.

"We listened to people, and we owe them a response," Pusey said, in the form of a formal written document encapsulating the input, plus the possible formation of an ongoing working group that would concern itself with antisemitism and Islamophobia locally. Pusey mentioned briefly that he had met with representatives from the Center for Jewish Life, the only known Arlington-based Jewish institution. YourArlington also has asked that organization's  leadership to comment.

'The public doesn't even know'

Also speaking at the meeting was Jillian Harvey, the town's director of diversity, inclusion and equity, who said she frequently coordinates efforts with her counterpart at Arlington Public Schools, Margaret Credle Thomas. Like Pusey, Harvey acknowleged the existence of bigoted remarks by students occurring at APS but emphasized that how these are to be best handled depends significantly on the grade level at which they occur.

She said that starting in autumn, officials plan to institute "more education around hate."

Harvey added, "We are the ones dealing with it when the public doesn't even know. It's sad, but it's not new."

Before the motions and votes, commissioners politely debated among themselves on a direction after receipt of all the community imput. Some commented that many local residents likely would be angry no matter what they do or do not do; others said that to formally comment on the six-month Israel-Hamas war in Gaza might be out of the commission's purview altogether.

Some urged otherwise. Pusey advised against deliberately choosing "inaction as a way of sparing human feelings." Key said that standing with "all human rights is not controversial, and that is something we should support." The most vehement of all was Rajeev Soneja, who throughout the meeting had a lot to say about deaths in Gaza, saying that "it is a genocide"  and "collective punishment" as an independent expert affiliated with the United Nations described it -- and that Israel currently has "one of the most right-wing governments ever known."

The Human Rights Commission states that it was founded in 1993 "to advance issues related to the fair and equal treatment of town residents and to address complaints arising out of these issues.” 

Feb. 24, 2024: Seminar held locally on refugee situation: 'There's a need for this in this world'

This meeting summary by YourArlington Editor Judith Pfeffer was published at about 1 a.m. Thursday, April 11, 2024, noting the confusing nature of much of the meeting due to aural/visual imperfections. It was substantially reworked at about 2 a.m. Friday, April 12, based on clarifications from Commission Cochair Drake Pusey and other documents. It was updated at 2 a.m. Saturday, April 13, to note that Pusey on Friday confirmed that the document referred to variously at the meeting as a declaration, amendment or article is the same as Article 5 in the Special Town Meeting warrant. It was updated Friday, April 19, to note that Article 5 also calls for release of all hostages abducted to Gaza on Oct. 7, 2023, and other demands. It was updated May 6, to add a link to an article on a United Nations website in which an independent expert uses the term "genocide" with reference to the current situation in Gaza.