Utah lawmakers hold emotional debate on whether to protect both the Jewish and Muslim communities

After resolution backing Israel passes, a leader in Utah’s Muslim community says lawmakers are not listening to calls for support.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Kera Birkeland sits at her desk with a sheet of paper reading “Free the hostages!!” as the Utah House of Representatives considers a resolution to show support for Israel during an Extraordinary Session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

A resolution that started as a gesture of support for Israel from the Utah House of Representatives on Wednesday night ended with state lawmakers grappling with how to best support Jews and Muslims living in the Beehive State, thousands of miles away from atrocities that have killed countless civilians.

Republicans and Democrats wept on the House floor in the first debate since Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, took the helm of the body, some with their face in their hands as they weighed how they would vote on a “House Resolution Supporting the State of Israel.”

Wearing an American-Israeli flag pin on his lapel, Rep. Jason Kyle, R-Huntsville, read the text of the resolution at the beginning of more than 40 minutes of discussion.

" … Be it further resolved that the House of Representatives calls upon Utah law enforcement to remain vigilant in protecting Israeli Americans, Jewish Americans, supporters of Israel, and others in our community from acts of crime and unlawful discrimination that tend to manifest in such times,” the Republican lawmaker read.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Jason Kyle stands as the Utah House of Representatives considers an amendment to a resolution to show support for Israel during an Extraordinary Session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

But Utah is home to Muslims who have been targeted with hateful violence, too, Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, pointed out, asking to amend the resolution to add “Muslim Americans” to the list.

While hate toward the two minority religious communities isn’t new in Utah, it has boiled over as war erupted between Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian armed militant group. The Israel-Hamas war, and the invasion of Gaza by Israeli military forces, started after the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas. So far, about 1,200 Israelis and more than 11,500 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, Al Jazeera reports.

Earlier this month, a man was charged with a hate crimes for allegedly spitting on a Muslim mother and her 7-year-old son, telling them to “go back to your country.” Local Jewish congregations have received bomb threats and intimidating calls and emails.

Just before the debate started, dozens of protestors occupied the Capitol’s Hall of Governors in a “Die-in For Palestine.” Many of them laid on the floor in mock death and chanted “not one more” as speakers read the names of children who have been killed in the conflict.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Demonstrators lie and sit on the floor during the “Die-in for Palestine” event at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

Kyle accepted Briscoe’s amendment, saying, “I appreciate that this body understands that all lives matter,” and the majority of the body agreed with a resounding “aye” — and one loud “no.”

‘All Americans’

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, wanted to swap Muslim Americans with the words “all Americans.” Several of his Republican colleagues pushed back on that proposal because, as Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, said, “I worry that we’re diluting the purpose of the resolution.”

“While we are addressing that terrorism and brutality [against Israelis], I think if we’re then going to call out the protection of other groups, we should protect all people,” Ivory said. The amendment failed, although the voices of several representatives could be heard supporting it.

Other Republicans were divided in how they approached the issue. Rep. Ray Ward of Bountiful struggled to speak as he urged his peers to also think of the Gazan children killed when they speak about the war, adding that he was going to email them images later that night of both Israeli and Palestinian children that are “pretty hard to see” but “worthwhile.”

Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, with little on his desk but an Israeli flag, said, “We hate terrorism in all of its forms, and that’s what we are fighting against in this resolution. So I just wanted to give my support to the resolution, my support to the people of Israel and to our Jewish community, especially those in our state and across the country. And I will just leave it with that.”

And in a four-minute speech, Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, compared a lack of support for Israel to the actions of Adolf Hitler, the fascist dictator of Nazi Germany who directed the murders of millions of Jews in the Holocaust.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Sandra Hollins speaks as the Utah House of Representatives considers a resolution to show support for Israel during an Extraordinary Session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

Ultimately, the resolution passed with the addition of “Muslim Americans,” with all of the Republicans present in the House voting in favor.

But three Democratic lawmakers couldn’t bring themselves to vote for it, citing the ongoing killing of Gazan civilians and the pain the war has caused the Palestinian and Muslim members of their communities.

“My no on the bill is not because I don’t support the Jewish community — I really want you all to understand that,” said Rep. Sandra Hollins, R-Salt Lake City. “I truly support them and what they’re going through, and trust me, as a Black woman in this state, I understand it. I have been there — I have been on that other side of receiving that hate before.”

She continued, her voice breaking, “But yet on the other side, I have to stand, I have to say no. And I’m not not supporting the bill, it’s just that our state is so divided right now. It’s so divided. And I think the message that this sends if I voted yes on this is that I support that division.”

The others who cast a “no” vote were Minority Leader Angela Romero, of Salt Lake City, and Rep. Ashlee Matthews, of West Jordan. In a statement, they said, “The resolution falls short by not acknowledging the significant impact the conflict has had on innocent Palestinian lives,” adding, “Our support extends to both the Jewish and Muslim communities, and we stand in solidarity with them.”

‘No one’s listening’

Rabbi Avremi Zippel, the director of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah who has gotten close with some of Utah’s Republican leaders, was Rep. Tyler Clancy’s, R-Provo, guest on the house floor Wednesday evening.

“While I would’ve loved to see unanimous support against terror, it was powerful to see who our friends and supporters really are,” he wrote on X Thursday. The post included an image of how lawmakers voted on the resolution.

During the vote, a group of Muslim women with Palestinian kaffiyehs around their shoulders huddled together, at times crying. One, Ambreen Khan, still had fake blood smeared on her cheeks from the protest.

“We’re calling our representatives every day and no one’s listening,” Khan said. “People are protesting outside, no one’s listening. How many more voices need to be heard? This feels like a fake democracy.”

Among them was Luna Banuri, the head of the Utah Muslim Civic League. She has previously worked with state lawmakers to pass legislation that protects her community.

“Once again, the rise of hatred within our community is at an epidemic level. And are we still debating if the Muslim community in Utah is suffering? And we want to replace that with all American lives?” Banuri said.

“My response is actually toward my own community, and say that our Muslim votes matter, and that we need to talk to our representatives much more,” she said. “… I think as a community, we need to organize and have our representative hear us no matter what it takes.”