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Peoria Township voters may be asked to weigh in on Israeli military funding this November

An advisory question on U.S. military funding for Israel is up for vote at the April 9 annual town meeting for Peoria Township.
Tim Shelley
An advisory question on U.S. military funding for Israel is up for vote at the April 9 annual town meeting for Peoria Township.

U.S. military funding for Israel isn't something Peorians have any direct control over — but they may be asked to weigh in on foreign policy this November at the ballot box.

The question is one of two proposed advisory questions on the agenda for the April 9 annual town meeting for Peoria Township, or the Town of the City of Peoria as it's known in clunky official parlance.

The measure is backed by Peoria for Palestine, an activist group that unsuccessfully pressed the Peoria City Council to adopt a Gaza ceasefire resolution during nearly three hours of public comment at a February city council meeting. After the meeting, Peoria Mayor Rita Ali issued a statement declaring a stance of neutrality.

"Peoria is not Chicago. We cannot afford to allow this international issue to divide our city or our communities," Ali said.

But Noah Palm, an organizer with Peoria for Palestine, said he believes the ballot question will show that the city's residents do in fact want to take a stance on the Gaza conflict.

"We've shown that Peoria does support a ceasefire, and I think this add on to the township is another part of that struggle where we'll show that Peoria supports this," Palm said.

How does this work, exactly?

Peoria Township is mostly, but not entirely, coterminous with the city of Peoria's boundaries, with some portions of the far north end of town falling outside its borders. Peoria Township functions a little bit differently than most in Illinois. The Peoria City Council's members also serve as township trustees.

The annual town meeting is a rare and obscure example of direct democracy enshrined into Illinois law in the mid-1800s. Any 15 registered voters in the township can propose an advisory ballot question at this meeting. Everyone in the room who was registered to cast a ballot in the township at least 28 days before the meeting gets a vote. A simple majority has the power to add an "advisory question of public policy" to the ballot.

Township trustees have the same amount of input as everyone else at the annual town meeting. That being said, how council members vote on Tuesday might be interpreted as a public reflection of their views on Israel.

"It would be fascinating if they abstained from voting. I didn't even think about that," said Peoria for Palestine organizer Lawrence Maushard. "But yeah, it's not the main purpose, really, to get them on the record."

In addition to the Israel question, Peoria Township voters will also be asked if they want to weigh in this November on the adoption of ranked choice voting in Illinois.

Ballot question faces strong opposition

The April 9 annual town meeting is expected to be lengthy, if the Feb. 13 city council meeting is any indication. The Peoria City Council's regular Tuesday meeting for the April 9 was canceled, perhaps in anticipation of a long and raucous night.

Hind Abi-Akar of Peoria for Palestine said she had concerns about the city's response to that last contentious meeting.

"In the February meeting, I was shocked when we left the meeting and [there were] all of this police and bulletproof vests," she said. "We are just regular civilians. No, we are anti-violence, anti-war."

Rabbi Bryna Milkow of Congregation Anshai Emeth in Peoria said she's worried about safety after February's meeting. She feels Peoria's Jewish community is being asked by some to take responsibility for what's happening in a foreign country.

"There are definitely divisions that are brewing within the clergy, and within the people of Peoria right now," she said. "And it's bordering on, you know, a dangerous situation. I don't think it needs to be."

Violent anti-Muslim graffiti was spraypainted on a Peoria bus stop in March, and Bradley University condemned graffiti spraypainted on their campus a few days later accusing a Jewish fraternity of supporting genocide. No arrests are reported in either case.

Sue Katz, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Peoria, was an opponent of the ceasefire resolution in February, and she stands against this ballot question, too.

Katz said Israel is not an "apartheid regime" as the proposed ballot question states, and she defends U.S. military assistance she said is needed to protect Israel from hostile neighbors.

"The language of this referendum is inflammatory. And it's biased. It's bordering on antisemitism, and it's just flat out wrong," said Rabbi Milkow.

Katz also questions the underlying motivations of those who are repeatedly pushing Peoria to take a stance on the Jewish-majority country.

"I don't see resolutions concerning other countries that we might have a quarrel with. And when we hold Israel to higher standards than we do the rest of the world, that's a problem," Katz said.

Abi-Akar said their measure is not calling for the U.S. to stop being friendly with Israel, or to pull its support on non-military issues, let alone "annihilate" the state, as she said is sometimes alleged by opponents.

"That's a distortion that's always thrown. And it's honestly an old, used distortion...This is not our goal. This is nobody's goal," she said. "We want a goal of peace, based on international law, and equal human rights for all."

Abi-Akar said a unified response at the local level around the country may influence the federal government to shift policy on providing weapons to a country she believes is violating human rights in Gaza. Katz characterized the effort as part of a broader campaign to delegitimize Israel.

The war began on Oct. 7, 2023 when around 1,200 people in Israel were killed by rockets fired from Gaza by Hamas. Around 250 Israelis were also taken hostage by the group, which the U.S. calls a terrorist organization.

Authorities in Gaza say more than 32,500 people have been killed since the conflict began. A recent Israeli airstrike on an international humanitarian group supplying food in Gaza sparked worldwide outrage, including from U.S. President Joe Biden. The Israeli prime minister claims the airstrike was unintentional.

What happens next?

Township officials are required by law to certify and submit advisory questions to election officials if approved by electors at the annual town meeting. The Peoria County Election Commission would then add the question to the Nov. 5 ballot for Peoria Township voters.

Noah Palm, the Peoria for Palestine organizer, said he's confident people in Peoria Township will vote yes on the advisory question if it appears on the November ballot. But Lawrence Maushard said there's value in having a recorded popular vote even if the answer is no.

"We want to put this question to the people in Peoria, city of Peoria, and we'd love to know their answer straight up," Maushard said.

Katz of the Jewish Federation said her work isn't done if this goes to the ballot in November. She said she will do her best to educate the public about why it's important to continue supporting Israel, which she calls America's strongest Middle Eastern ally.

Rabbi Milkow suggests the community should take a step back, talk, and repair relationships.

"I think that perhaps talking about the history of the Middle East, from all the different sides and having an open conversation about that might well be an important step, so we all understand each other's point of view," she said.

Pastor Marvin Hightower, president of the Peoria NAACP Branch, said he's concerned about some things happening on both sides of the conflict. But he believes the advisory question won't change minds, and will instead further divide people.

"I think if we're going to do anything, rather than put it on the ballot in November, I think we ought to see, what can we do to help the situation? Not hurt the situation?" he said.

The annual town meeting is at 6 p.m. on Tuesday in the Peoria City Council chambers at city hall.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.