Its unanimous: Sacramento, Ashkelon now sister cities

sacramento  |  After more than 60 minutes of impassioned debate, following weeks of acrimony, the Sacramento City Council voted unanimously Aug. 14 to name Ashkelon, Israel as Sacramento’s 10th sister city.

The resolution passed after weeks of rising tension between the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian communities.

Ashkelon was proposed as a potential sister city for Sacramento in 2009, part of a compromise when the council voted to adopt the Palestinian city of Bethlehem into its sister-city program. The program is generally considered ceremonial, though delegations from Sacramento and its sister cities do make occasional trips to visit one another. Other sister cities include Jinan, China; Chisininau, Moldova; and Liestal, Switzerland.

State Sen. Darrell Steinberg speaks to the Sacramento City Council Aug. 14. photo/emma silvers

More than 250 people packed City Hall for the Aug. 14 meeting, with attendees lining up more than an hour before the 6 p.m. start time. Some held Israeli flags. Opponents of the resolution held signs reading “No rights, no sisters” and “I am a Palestinian Sacramentan, therefore I cannot visit Ashkelon on a sister-city delegation.”

Palestinian-Americans against the resolution had argued that they would need special permission to visit Ashkelon. Pro-Israel speakers countered that such permission would be no more difficult than obtaining a tourist visa.

“There’s no reason for this resolution not to go through tonight,” said Melissa Chapman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region, before the meeting. “It was clearly stated that if Bethlehem was accepted as a sister city, an Israeli city would be as well … [Opponents] are really stretching the truth in some of the claims that have come forward … so we’ve tried to provide the City Council with as much factual, unbiased information as possible.”

A large contingent from Mosaic Law Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Sacramento, attended the meeting; the synagogue’s rabbi, Rabbi Reuven Taff, had been speaking about the resolution this past month.

Twenty-six people were chosen to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting, 13 in favor of the resolution and 13 opposed.

Adeeb Alzanoon, a local delegate for the Palestinian American Congress, said that Ashkelon, which sits just north of the Gaza Strip and was part of the British Mandate for Palestine until 1948, did not meet the criteria for a sister city — such as inclusiveness and the desire to promote friendship between nations.

Another speaker said Ashkelon was a bad choice because a prison there, Shikma, has been cited by Amnesty International for ill-treatment of Palestinian inmates.

Jewish Voice for Peace was among the most vocal opponents of the resolution. “If our neighbors and friends who are from Palestine can’t participate, then we shouldn’t have a sister city relationship,” JVP member David Mandel said.

Among the first people to speak in support of the resolution was State Sen. Darrell Steinberg.

“One great thing about Sacramento, one thing that stands out, is that no matter who we are, who we represent, in good times and bad, we stretch for one another,” said the Senate’s president pro tem. “We build bridges. We expect people with different points of view to talk to one another. That’s what the sister-city movement is all about.”

Gail Rubin, a local representative for StandWithUs, presented a petition signed by 3,000 people in support of the resolution. “What you’ve heard tonight [from the opposition] is a smear campaign, lies the likes of which we haven’t heard since the Nazi era,” she said, drawing murmurs of disapproval from some in the crowd. She added that the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon treats Israelis and Palestinian residents of Gaza, including “known terrorists” who have medical need.

Other speakers in support included representatives from Christians United for Israel, who said they organized their national network to email council members throughout the summer. A spokesman for the group said more than 22,000 messages had been sent by Aug. 13.

Council member Jay Schenirer, former president of Sacramento’s Congregation B’nai Israel, said he would work to make sure local Palestinians could be involved in a delegation to Ashkelon.

He also noted that studies have called Sacramento the most ethnically “integrated” city in the country. “As we move forward, we want Sacramento to be a great city,” he said. “We can choose to fight, we can choose to be divisive or we can choose to work together.”

When the nine-member council, minus an absent Mayor Kevin Johnson, voted unanimously to pass the resolution, the decision was met with a standing ovation and applause from more than half the room. The meeting ended shortly thereafter, around 8:30 p.m.

Taff wrote in an email the following morning that he was “delighted” with the outcome, but also “disturbed by the controversy and hateful rhetoric which is synonymous with the BDS movement.

“The baseless lies spewing forth from the mouths of the opponents (including a few Jews) of this benign initiative was shuddering,” he wrote. “Last night is a reminder that we Jews must always be prepared to stand up to bigotry, deception and remind the world of what happens when people allow hatred to guide them.”

Abby Okrent, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, said she wasn’t surprised by the decision. She said the council “didn’t really listen to our stated concern about discrimination”  that Palestinian Sacramentans will face if and when they try to visit Israel.