Dispatches from Williamstown on a Ceasefire Petition

By Steven Miller and Ralph Hamman / Special to the BJV

Steven Miller, a professor of mathematics at Williams College, and Williamstown resident Ralph Hamman were among the community organizers who opposed the Gaza ceasefire resolution first proposed to the Williamstown Select Board in November 2023 by members of Berkshires for Collective Liberation, a group made up of Town residents, and students from the Williams College chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). For more information the resolution and how it was ultimately voted down by the Select Board in March, please see Dara Kaufman’s “In My View” article. In this essay, Miller and Hamman write on behalf of other community members who joined together to oppose to the resolution. They share how their efforts coalesced and also some lessons learned along the way that might be useful for other communities in a similar situation. The image shows the scene at the February 12 Williamstown Select Board meeting. Photo courtesy of iBerkshires.com.

WILLIAMSTOWN – In a modern world with nearly instantaneous communication and 24/7 coverage, gone on the days of isolation. Actions half the world away quickly resonate and impact us here. In this note, we describe our experiences in Williamstown with the consequences of the inhumane actions of Hamas in early October.

Our community, like most of those around the world, was sick at the devastation, both in the initial attack and in the aftermath. Many people, many of them well intentioned, felt they could not stand by while suffering happened, and similar to many other communities around the world, groups of people organized to speak out against the crisis unfolding.

Good people can and will differ on what not only is the best response, but where it is appropriate to respond. We are just some of many voices who opposed efforts to get Williamstown to chime in on the world scene with policy demands on how to settle a centuries-old conflict. We come from diverse backgrounds with different views on many issues, but we are united in our belief that such actions are not only wrong, but set a dangerous precedent that rather than bringing us together further fragments our communities. Below we share some of our thoughts on why and how we opposed a petition brought to the Select Board to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. We commend the reader to a truly exceptional editorial in The Berkshire Eagle on March 30, “At a contentious Williamstown Select Board meeting, a critical lesson in official humility,” which mirrors many of our sentiments.

There are three key issues: Standing, Suitability, and Substance.


Before the Supreme Court takes or refuses a case there is always a discussion about whether or not the petitioner has standing; before examining the merits of taking stands (and if so which stands) on complex international conflicts, boards and towns should first determine if they can. The Select Board has a large number of pressing issues; it is dangerous to open Pandora's box as once we start taking positions on one issue, we must do so on others (or by our silence are we supporting the Russians in the Ukraine, the ethnic camps in China, the list goes on and on). The petition was not about a local issue; it is about international policy, and was not in the bailiwick of our board. This is the philosophy of the Kalven Report -- organizations have spheres where they live; it is not the job of say a custodial union to clean up the world's mess, their jurisdiction is the local ones in our buildings. We are pleased that this argument resonated with most of the board.


While a petition of this sort may be appropriate for town meeting, just because we can do something does not mean we should. We are seeing passions inflamed by this issue. One of us serves on the regional school committee; we have hours of discussion about the budget, at the sub-committee and full committee levels, with various town boards, and then with voters, where we openly discuss the how we got here, what we want to do, what resources we have to do, what will be the consequences of our choices. There was no such discussion at Select Board meetings as to the facts of a centuries-old conflict. We fear the board or town weighing in on such a complicated issue, as we are not structured to adequately discuss it. We are not holding hours-long informational meetings with advocates of both sides talking about the consequences of well-intentioned resolutions. Further, if we had a citizens’ petition, the vote would occur at a town meeting where historically we have on the order of 5% (if we are lucky) of our population present at the end of the meeting.

For those who believe a ceasefire is needed, we urge them to have an opt-in petition so those who want can sign and support. Speak in your own names – do not speak in all of ours.


We focused most of our efforts on the standing and suitability arguments, but there is another axis: the substance of the petition. Several of us met with people behind or supportive of the ceasefire petition. These were good, civil conversations, but there was an unbridgeable divide in our view on the situation on the ground. Some of us worked to try to get a better petition which would call on Hamas to acknowledge the right of Israel, wondering how you can have a ceasefire with someone dedicated to your destruction! In the end, the petition (in our view) did not adequately reflect the moral wrongs of Hamas or that the horrors are the results of a justified retaliatory war. While we were in strong agreements on the first two points, we differed greatly in how much emphasis to give here, with some of us wanting to read into the record the atrocities to balance the emotional appeals uttered by advocates of the resolution.

In numerous discussions we heard supporters of both sides say, either privately to some of us or through intermediaries, that they are terrified to speak up. To us, this is the appropriate local issue: what can we do to come together as a community to have difficult conversations without cancelling people? Given that just a few short years ago people lost friends and businesses for supporting an artificial turf at Mt Greylock High School, we have a long way to go before we can have these conversations without people being justly afraid of being canceled. Until our house is in order we should not presume to dictate to the world.