Voters achieved an historic victory in Cambridge and a section of Somerville, Massachusetts, on November 8, 1988. By a margin of 53 to 47 percent they endorsed Question 5, a non-binding public policy question that called on elected officials to work towards a just settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. (See below.)

The Coalition for Palestinian Rights (CPR), a Cambridge-based organization formed in December 1987, initiated the referendum drive in June 1988. The first priorities of the campaign were drafting the text of the referendum and assuring its place on the November ballot. The law required the signatures of 600 registered voters; CPR collected more than 1200. CPR used large mailings, public speakers and slide-shows on the Palestinian uprising to generate support for Question 5. The response was very positive: the campaign raised over $33,000 (the opposition raised about $60,000).

CPR began with simple flyers. As money became available, it published posters and brochures and placed newspaper ads. Press releases and fact sheets provided the media and voters with information both on the campaign and on events in the Israeli-occupied territories. CPR also helped organize several debates, including one which pitted James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute against Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.

Another Middle East initiative appeared on the ballot in a district of the town of Newton, an area with a large, conservative Jewish population. This resolution, sponsored by the Newton Committee for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, called for Palestinian self-determination and security for both Israel and a Palestinian state. The Newton referendum went down to defeat, 69 to 31 percent, but the Newton Committee regards support from three out of ten voters in a constituency long supportive of Israel as a sign of change.

Given the defeat of the Newton referendum and two similar initiatives in California raises an important question: what made the difference in Cambridge? All four campaigns were waged after nearly a year of press reports of violent Israeli attempts to repress the Palestinian uprising. The uprising raised new questions for many in this country about the occupation and US and Israeli policies. What set the Cambridge initiative apart was the wording of the referendum statement: it directly addressed Israeli abuses of Palestinian human rights and the rising numbers of Palestinian dead, wounded and imprisoned. It called for an end to US financial and political support for Israel’s occupation with taxpayers’ dollars — a crucially important issue. Finally, the statement called for an independent Palestinian state. Recent polls show that a growing number of Americans believe the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will not be resolved without the creation of such a state. Question 5 seems to have tapped into public sentiment that US and Israeli policy towards the Palestinians is, at the very least, ill-conceived, and that a resolution to the conflict must provide for Palestinian as well as Israeli needs.

A second factor in Question 5’s success had to do with what the opposition did wrong. The campaign against Question 5 was headed by Americans for Peace in the Middle East, an organization chaired by Joe Kennedy II and Barney Frank, both liberal congresspersons from Massachusetts. Supporting the effort were local Jewish organizations, among them the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston and the local chapters of the American Jewish Congress and B’nai B’rith.

Their unimpressive campaign placed great weight on the impact of Kennedy’s and Frank’s names, a cynical approach that failed to convince many voters. Their arguments were, for the most part, negative in tone and irrelevant in content: Question 5 did not address human rights violations by Arab regimes or the use of terrorism, they said; it was one-sided; it was aimed at the destruction of Israel; finally, local referendum questions should not address international issues.

The Question 5 effort also demonstrated the importance of planning. A campaign of this kind requires different activities — literature, media contacts, and fundraising. CPR delegated these tasks to committees, which proved effective. Good fundraising and careful use of funds were critically important. Only when funds began to come in was CPR able to produce the posters, leaflets and newspaper ads that reached many voters. Donations continued to come in up to election day, allowing for a city-wide mailing of a campaign brochure and the continued production of newspaper ads and other forms of publicity in the crucial final weeks before the vote.

CPR learned that with knowledge of the issues, deep dedication and the proper resources, a small group can accomplish a lot. Election day work was especially important: many voters do not decide how they will vote on a referendum until they are at the polling station. CPR had volunteers at each of the stations in Cambridge throughout election day.

Despite the recent US decision to talk with the PLO, the need for grassroots pressure on Washington to reassess its policies remains as great as ever. The victory of Question 5 has demonstrated that US policy towards the Middle East lacks broad popular support and can be successfully challenged. The four local referenda of 1988 followed the unprecedented debate at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta and the passage of resolutions dealing with Palestinian self-determination at 10 state Democratic conventions.

CPR is planning new campaigns in the Cambridge-Boston area. These include meetings with elected officials, among them Rep. Joe Kennedy, to urge them to respond publicly to the passage of Question 5; participating in a new sister-city project between Cambridge and the West Bank town of Ramallah; holding talks, slide-shows and other events in local high schools and churches; and publishing a newsletter.


Question 5

Shall the representative from this district be instructed to vote in favor of a resolution calling upon Congress and the President of the US to achieve a just and lasting peace in the Middle East by demanding that Israel end its violations of Palestinian human rights and its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; stopping all expenditure of US taxpayers’ money for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; favoring the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with peace for all states in the region including Israel.

How to cite this article:

Matthew S. Gordon "Cambridge Voters Challenge US Policy," Middle East Report 157 (March/April 1989).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This