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Three days after Hamas launched an attack on Israel that left more than 1,200 dead and an estimated 240 people taken hostage, many of Texas’ most prominent elected officials gathered at a synagogue in Meyerland to show support for the country and the local Jewish community.

Among their ranks were state Sen. John Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who advanced this month to a runoff in the Houston mayor’s race. Along with the vast majority of their colleagues, the Democratic legislators have voted in favor of pro-Israel resolutions.

While few Houstonians expect their next mayor to play a role in resolving the conflict, leaders in the city’s large Jewish, Arab and Muslim populations said they care about the positions the candidates take on a conflict thousands of miles away.

They also say it is important to hear how the candidates will ensure the safety of communities troubled by antisemitic, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim incidents at home.

On the conflict

Nationally, the war has sparked deep divisions among Democrats. Young progressives have split with party leaders, including President Joe Biden, who has spoken about his steadfast support for Israel.

While calling for a short “humanitarian pause,” Biden has continued to support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. In contrast, a small but growing group of Congressional Democrats are calling for a full-on ceasefire, including U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, and three other representatives from Texas.

The war also is figuring into the Democratic primary in Houston’s 7th Congressional District, where challenger Pervez Agwan is taking aim at U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher’s pro-Israel stance.

Jackson Lee and Whitmire have taken positions typical for Democratic legislators. Jackson Lee voted in favor of an Oct. 25 resolution standing with Israel that Green voted against. He cited the growing death toll in Gaza, which health officials in the enclave controlled by Hamas said earlier this month has topped 11,000.

Jackson Lee has not signed onto a ceasefire resolution cosponsored by many fellow members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. In a statement, she supported Biden’s call for a humanitarian “pause.”

“I think the president is right for emphasizing the humanitarian passage and pause to protect innocent families and babies in Gaza and those taken from Israel. We demand for all the hostages, including Americans, to be returned immediately. I offer my concern and sympathy to all the innocent who have lost their lives. There must be an immediate response for the protection of humanity,” she said.

Whitmire also has weighed in. Last month, he was one of a handful of legislators to speak when the Texas Senate unanimously passed a resolution expressing “its support for Israel's right to pursue without interference or condemnation the elimination of Hamas until Hamas is permanently neutralized and public safety is assured.”

Whitmire, who did not respond to a request for comment, thanked the resolution’s sponsor and said he looked forward to leading a delegation to Israel as Houston’s mayor.

Looking for leadership

As two legislators among many, Whitmire and Jackson Lee have little influence on the course of the conflict. Nancy Sims, a University of Houston political analyst, said she has not seen the issue flare on the campaign trail.

“I have not really heard it come up, either from the candidates themselves or from people in the audience. I think that people are probably pretty aware that the mayor of Houston can't really engage in a big way,” she said.

Still, members of Houston’s Jewish and Muslim communities said the stances the candidates take send important signals.

Before the first round of the election, the action arm of the national Muslim advocacy organization Emgage had endorsed Whitmire. That endorsement has not “rolled over” to the runoff, according to Palwasha Sharwani, the executive director of Emgage’s Texas chapter.

“The runoff is a new election, and we’re living in a new world now. We’re living in a new Houston, ever since the attacks of Oct. 7,” she said.

Pointing to the images of children in Gaza injured and orphaned by Israeli bombing, Sharwani said she worries many Muslim voters in Houston may simply sit out the race.

“If you can’t be moved into calling for a ceasefire or demanding a ceasefire from your president or your senator or whoever, then it makes us wonder: Who are you?” she said.

The war has sparked a wide range of reactions from Houston’s diverse Jewish communities. Renee Wizig-Barrios, president and chief executive officer of the nonpartisan Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, said she did not necessarily expect mayoral candidates to weigh in on foreign relations.

Jackson Lee, however, is in a unique position, said Wizig-Barrios, who opposes a ceasefire.

“In her current role as a congresswoman, we do think it is important to know where she stands,” Wizig-Barrios said. “These are women, children, elderly, babies who have been ripped from their homes. We think it’s nonsensical to talk about a ceasefire when we still have all of these hostages held by Hamas.”

Wizig-Barrios said she was grateful Whitmire backed the Texas Senate resolution.

Fear at home

Thousands of Houstonians have personal connections to Israel and Gaza, but the war also has sparked concerns about hate crimes and hate speech in the United States.

Muslims across the country were alarmed when a Muslim pediatrician was stabbed to death last month outside her apartment in Conroe.

Police said earlier this month they still were seeking answers as to why Talat Jehan Khan was killed. Sharwani said many Muslims fear it was a hate crime.

“They were disturbed because she had been very active in the masjid and the community,” Sharwani said. “She had a story, and that story resonated with all of us.”

When combined with the candidates’ positions on the war itself, Muslims are feeling increasingly isolated, she said.

“We have a lot of things to worry about, and we need them to reach out to us and check in on us,” she said. “We’re always having to advocate that we’re people and we’re human beings.”

Despite Muslims’ concerns about their personal safety, Sharwani said she was skeptical of the idea of increased police presence, pointing to the surveillance of mosques and Muslim student groups after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Security has been ramped up at synagogues around the region in response to antisemitic incidents and threats. Wizig-Barrios cited a survey that found 70 percent of Jewish Americans reported feeling less safe than before the war began.

“The level of antisemitism, and the level of fear in the community, is extremely significant, very troubling,” she said.

Both Whitmire and Jackson Lee have longstanding relationships with the city’s Jewish communities, Wizig-Barrios said. She was heartened by gestures like their appearance at Congregation Beth Yeshurun.

“When you think about this in the context of a mayoral race, I think one of the things we definitely want from our mayor is someone who will stand with us, who will speak out against antisemitism,” she said.

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Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...