Talking Sense

Two St. Paul council members reveal how they overcame deep divisions to pass cease-fire resolution

People talk in a chamber
The St. Paul City Council on March 6.
Melissa Olson | MPR News

Cities around the country have been taking a stance on the Israel-Hamas war. Earlier this month, the St. Paul City Council joined them, unanimously passing a resolution that calls for an “immediate and permanent mutual cease-fire in Israel and Gaza.”

Despite its unified support, St. Paul’s resolution didn’t come without substantial strife between members of the City Council. 

“The issue was just about as important as how we tackled it,” said council member Cheniqua Johnson, who was lead author of the resolution. 

Taking time to find common ground and listening to each other without trying to change minds were key to ultimately approving a resolution that everyone on the council could stand behind, she said. 

Among those who voted for the resolution was council member Rebecca Noecker, who is Jewish and who lost someone during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

“We had an honest conversation about what I could and couldn’t accept in a resolution like this,” she said. “I feel extremely respected.”

As part of Talking Sense, an MPR News project which aims to help Minnesotans have hard political conversations, correspondent Catharine Richert sat down with Johnson and Noecker, who both played key roles in finding agreement. Their responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Talking Sense is a partnership between MPR News and Braver Angels, a nonprofit that has been working to bridge political divides since 2016. You can find their guide for a conversation on the Israel-Hamas war here.

Council member Johnson, you were the lead author of the resolution. Why was it important to you to tackle this issue?

Johnson: “Our community has been organizing over the last few months surrounding their connectivity to not just a cease-fire resolution, but what is actually happening to Palestinians and Israeli people. And I think that was really important. But the reactions and the impact has been hurt, has been pain, has been trauma — things that often are rooted in not bringing people together.”

Johnson told MPR News that she wanted a resolution to reflect what she was hearing from constituents, community leaders and from other council members, even though there were already enough votes to pass. 

“It was also important that we all got on the same page and actually pass something that we could, at the end of the day say, ‘Hey, this is truly where the consensus is in the council. We’re not saying this because someone’s asking us. We’re doing this because this is something that all of us could stand by,’” said Johnson.

Council member Noecker, you said last week that you don’t think it’s within the purview of a city council to address international issues. You are also Jewish, and shared that you lost someone on Oct. 7 when Hamas attacked Israel. This is really personal for you. Given all of that, how did you come around on supporting the resolution?

Noecker: “I’ve been very vocal about the fact that I don’t think this is the role of city councils generally, it’s not what we’re elected to do. That said, politics is about consensus. It's not about what one person wants. There are seven people on the St. Paul City Council, not one, and that’s the way it should be.”

“When it became clear that there was a majority on the council that wanted to pass a resolution — and again, I understand why there was a lot of demands for that, a lot of people feeling very unheard by the federal level that were coming to us because we’re the level of government they can talk to — I switched focus to making sure that the resolution was as balanced, as fair and as unifying as it possibly could be.”

You called the conversations you were having with fellow council members in the days leading up to the vote personal and honest. What did you hear and what did you say that helped pave the way for agreement?

Noecker: “As a Jewish person, I’ve always felt like an outsider and as a minority. There are very few of us in the world, and I think we’ve felt more alone since Oct. 7 than I certainly ever have in my lifetime. Being one Jewish person on a council where all of my colleagues are not Jewish, and all of us come with our own diverse backgrounds, I was very cognizant of the fact that I was one voice among seven.”

“It would have been very easy for my colleagues to say, ‘We all want to do one thing and we have the votes to do that thing.’ Instead, what happened was that Council member Johnson reached out to me, other colleagues reached out to me and we had an honest conversation about what I could and couldn’t accept in a resolution like this.“

“Something that was very important to me, for example, was to condemn the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7. A resolution that didn’t do that in my mind just wasn’t fair, and wouldn’t unify our community. I felt comfortable saying those things and working with my colleagues and working with community members to craft better language. And I was heard, even though I’m one amongst seven.”

Council member Johnson, you talked at the last meeting about the importance of focusing discussions around common ground. What areas of common ground did you find that the council did have in these discussions? 

Johnson: “The biggest common ground is we recognize that thousands and thousands of people have died since Oct. 7 and in a brutal way. And it’s not just what’s happening to Israeli and Palestinian people, because the off-branch of that is also that actual United States citizens are also being impacted by what’s going on.”

Johnson told MPR News that consensus is evident in the details of the resolution, including language that highlights the number of deaths so far, on both sides. A March 4 United Nations report that found credible reports of sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas against Israelis on Oct. 7 also played a role, she said.

Johnson: “The report on March 4 was actually super important to acknowledge. When Council member Noecker brought that into account, we actually had the opportunity to revisit that conversation with our colleagues.”

“It was relatively new, two days prior to when we passed the resolution. Had we passed it a week before, it may not have included that language, because there wasn’t something that we could really latch on to. But when we put that up for thoughts, we were like, ‘As an all-woman council, any forms of sexual violence towards anyone would be something that we could we could condemn.’”

For a lot of people, especially when it comes to this issue, taking a moral stance and publicizing it has become really important. I think we are all seeing this tension on our social media feeds. I’m wondering: As elected officials, is it enough to simply take a stance? 

Johnson: “I think on any issue, the beginning conversation, really, when you’re talking about life or death, when you’re talking about the safety of an individual, rape, gun violence, bombing or anything of that nature, the first thing you do have to do is take a stance, I think that that’s really important.”

“It starts with being able to acknowledge the injustice that we see. But it also calls on us to make sure that we’re putting policies together, we’re putting resolutions together, or putting ordinances in place and or doing adjustments at the local level to take resistance to how people are being treated here in the city of St. Paul.”

Taking a stance is really easy, especially on social media, said Noecker. She said she received angry emails from constituents who felt like any cease-fire resolution was a betrayal of her Jewish community. But Noecker said that even though she didn’t agree with everything said during the resolution negotiations, her job is to help pass well-considered and unifying official language.

Noecker:I think that modeling that (shows) that it’s not always easy to make peace. I remember talking to someone about Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands in 1993. I remember I was 9 years old, my whole class was ushered in to watch that historic moment at my Jewish school. We all watched that handshake. And I remember that feeling of hope that came into me.”

“And I was telling that to someone recently, and she said, ‘You know what Yitzhak Rabin said about that afterwards, when he was asked how it felt to shake Yassar Arafat’s hand? He said it felt like shaking the hand of the person who murdered my brother.’”

“And that’s what it takes to make peace. It’s easy to make peace with your friends. So I’ve really been thinking a lot about that, and about the difficulty of reaching out across differences and getting productive things done.”

There was a lot of excitement when this council was elected. It’s all women. It is young, it is diverse. And I think a lot of people naturally thought that you would agree on everything. I’m wondering, should the fact that you didn’t in this instance be disappointing to people who felt that excitement? Or should it be something to celebrate and learn from?

Noecker: “I was pleased and honored to get the attention we got when we were elected as this first all-women, extremely diverse council. But I also thought to myself, ‘OK, now we actually have to do something. It’s not just about appearing here. It’s about how we’re going to act in office.’”

“We were able to model that kind of productive disagreement towards what I consider to be a constructive end that I hope we can model for our own community and that others can follow.”

Johnson: “I don’t make promises, but it’ll happen again: We will have a disagreement. But I think one of the things that people should celebrate and continue to think about is the ‘how.’”

“When we have disagreements, just being grounded in the fact that we represent 46,000 people, each individually, along with the city of St. Paul, will continue to be at the forefront of what we do.”

Speaking of learning, in my personal life, I think this particular conflict is straining relationships between people who for many years and the vast majority of the time agree on policy and politics. What lessons are you taking away from these conversations that might help someone who is having a hard time talking to a friend or family member about the war in Gaza?

Noecker:I think it’s OK to say, ‘These are complicated issues.’ And I can see the pros and cons of both sides — or in this case many sides — and I landed here for this reason, but that doesn’t invalidate your thinking.”

“I think sometimes when we say ‘All of the pros are on my side, and obviously what I did was the right thing, and I don’t feel conflicted about it at all,’ it's almost always dishonest and it just invalidates any disagreement.”

Having conversations in person rather than over social media or email is important, too, Noecker said. Johnson agreed. She said that it helped her better understand her fellow council members’ priorities and values.

Johnson: “We were open to changing language, we were open to being proven wrong, we were open to taking new information, new feedback, but we were not going to compromise our values.”

“That would be my encouragement to you: Treat it like you would any tough decision. Don’t do it in a call-out way. Don’t do it in a group way. Do it individually. Do it one-to-one and be open to listening.”