A Holocaust survivor who was a Somerset village’s councillor for 16 years returned to his former council this week to urge them to back a ceasefire in Gaza.

Despite concerns from some councillors on North Somerset Council that it would be stepping outside of its local remit by weighing in on the issue, councillors voted to support a motion resolving to make representations to the government in support of a “sustainable ceasefire” in the conflict in Gaza.

Tom Leimdorfer represented Congresbury on the council from 2003 until he stood down in 2019, and used to lead the opposition on North Somerset Council. At a full council meeting on January 9, he returned to the council chamber as one of three public speakers urging the council to add their voice to those calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

He told councillors: “Some of you know I was a Holocaust survivor as a young child, with close relatives killed in Auschwitz, in forced labour units, or shot into the Danube. So, as you can imagine, the horrors of the murderous attacks of the seventh of October had a deep horror and revulsion effect on me.

“And every day since then we are reminded of the unimaginable pain that has been caused, as for a child whose mother was murdered on that day and father taken hostage. For the last three months, we have seen thousands of children killed and maimed and thousands more who have lost their lives or lost their parents.

“A population nine times that of the whole of North Somerset has been displaced, their communities destroyed, their homes destroyed, dependent now for basic food, shelter, rudimentary medical help on whatever aid can still get through. The UN agencies are warning of the danger of starvation.”

The motion expresses sympathy and support for those affected in the conflict, and resolves the council to write to the prime minister, foreign secretary, and local MPs Liam Fox and Jon Penrose stating that the council backs a ceasefire.

Mr Leimdorfer said: “None of us have any illusion that a motion passed in this chamber will achieve what UN General Assembly votes or UN Security Council motions have so far not been able to achieve. However, I would like to put it to you that doing nothing increases a general feeling of helplessness, indeed, possibly even a loss of faith in humanity.

Weston Mercury: Tom Leimdorfer, former councillor for Congresbury, speaks of his experience as a Holocaust survivor in urging North Somerset Council to support a ceasefire in GazaTom Leimdorfer, former councillor for Congresbury, speaks of his experience as a Holocaust survivor in urging North Somerset Council to support a ceasefire in Gaza (Image: North Somerset Council)

“There are people in North Somerset who may be directly affected by having friends, relatives, colleagues in the area or people who may have experienced an increase in hate speech, whether it is antisemitism or Islamophobia. And certainly I know there are many parents worried about the effect on young people of seeing indiscriminate violence on children.”

He added: “Supporting the motion is partly a symbolic act to show that as representatives of North Somerset residents, you stand with those who want the killing to stop and with those who want the hostages released. You are asking our government and our politicians to do what they know in their hearts is right and to stop the killing and to start the hard process of finding solutions for a lasting peace.”

Banwell and Winscombe councillor Joe Tristram, who tabled the motion, said he had been initially hesitant about whether it was a matter for the council, but he said that it had come from a request from residents. Speaking before the meeting, he said: “It’s part of our role as representatives.”

Just under 700 people signed a petition calling on the council to back a ceasefire.

Tabling the motion at the meeting, Mr Tristram said: “Many other local authorities have put forward similar motions or resolutions. It occurred to me that while our government does not notice what North Somerset thinks, I imagine, when we become part of a significant number of authorities, each representing a significant number of residents, it begins to have some meaning at the highest level.”

He said: “It may not be worth much but it is worth doing.”

Deputy council leader Catherine Gibbons praised the work of local organisations such as Race Equality North Somerset and Refugees Welcome to bring people from affected communities together. She warned: “Increasingly a lot of people from the communities that are affected by the conflict in Palestine and Israel are afraid to speak because of who they are and how they may be judged.”

Portishead East councillor Roger Whitfield said he supported “everything this motion is designed to support” but warned it was outside the council’s constitution. He said: “It would seem to be an act of hubris for North Somerset Council to believe that it can someway have an impact on international events that are well outside of its control and remit.”

But the council’s solicitor, Nicholas Brian, said that the wording of the statement — which had been amended since originally submitted — would be within the council’s constitution as it was not making a decision itself but making a representation to government, which it is able to do. He said: “It will not surprise you to know that I have gone through the wording of this very carefully.”

The motion was passed with no councillors voting against it, although 13 abstained.

Somerset Council backed a motion calling for a ceasefire in Gaza in December. At neighbouring Bath and North East Somerset Council, an attempt to table a cross-party motion in November failed after not enough political groups on the council supported it.

The full text of the motion as passed by North Somerset Council, which included an amendment from the Labour group, is:

“This council expresses deep sympathy for all those affected by the conflict in Israel and Palestine. For those in the North Somerset area who have been affected by this conflict, we offer our support in this difficult time. This council calls for an immediate release of all hostages and a sustainable ceasefire to allow more aid and the possibility of a peaceful resolution.

“This council believes that Muslims, Jews, and people of all faiths and no faith should feel safe in North Somerset and throughout the world and condemns the increase in antisemitic and Islamaphobic abuse and violence. Council thanks community leaders for the role they are playing in reducing tensions at this sensitive and difficult time.

“This council resolves to write to the prime minister, foreign secretary, and North Somerset’s two members of parliament stating that the council supports a sustainable and lasting ceasefire and asking them to do all in their power to work towards a viable two state-solution.

“We also ask that they recognise with additional funding the key role local authorities play in promoting cohesion and understanding throughout their communities by supporting the many voluntary organisations and faith groups who work together to help those affected by this and other conflicts.”