Palestinians, Israelis face off over Sacramento’s latest sister-city proposal

No sisterly love as city council prepares to vote August 14

The Sacramento Sister Cities Council is supposed to put the capital on the world map. But local Palestinians are saying that city officials need to look more closely at a map before considering its latest proposed addition.

Activists are upset about Ashkelon, a town in Israel that may soon become Sacto’s 10th sister city if approved this week. Many are fine with the addition. But opponents of the proposal, set for a city-council vote on Tuesday, August 14, claim the Israeli town is a symbol of discrimination against Sacramento’s Palestinian community.

Adeeb Alzanoon, a local representative for the Palestinian American Congress, believes that Ashkelon shouldn’t join Sacramento’s sister-city program because, among other reasons, Israeli security officials often prevent Arab-Americans from traveling there.

“We’re concerned about Sacramento as a city establishing a relationship that might be in agreement with discrimination,” he said.

In March, Alzanoon sent a letter to all nine council members expressing multiple concerns about adding Ashkelon, such as the presence of a prison holding Palestinians and evidence of ethnic cleansing during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Since, six local activist groups have joined in opposing the proposal.

“If we do this, not only are we condoning discrimination, we’re adopting it,” argued Abby Okrent, an activist from the Sacramento chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization critical of Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories.

It’s not the first time Sacramento has become embroiled in Middle Eastern politics. Last year, pro-Palestinian activists sparked a similar fight when they tried to ban Israeli-made products at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op.

Supporters of Ashkelon as Sacto’s newest sister city claim opponents are just playing politics.

“Our intention here is to promote cultural and educational partnerships,” said Melissa Chapman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region, which helped propose Ashkelon for the program. “We’re trying to do the exact opposite of what some of the [opposition is] trying to do.”

Councilman Steve Cohn, who supports the Ashkelon proposal, said the sister-city program is simply meant to foster cultural ties. He said if cities had to satisfy every single concern about human rights or political problems, “we wouldn’t have a sister-city program.”

The councilman explained how Sacramento’s Jewish community initially opposed a 2009 sister-city proposal for Bethlehem, a Palestinian town in the West Bank. The Jewish Community Relations Council eventually agreed to support Bethlehem after Cohn introduced a resolution to add an Israeli sister city in the future.

Barry Broad, a past chairman of the JCRC, said he understood concerns about Israeli and Arab history, but thinks opponents aren’t being fair. There were plenty of reasons to oppose Bethlehem as a sister city, he said, but the area’s Jewish community ultimately supported it.

“There are prisons near Bethlehem, really, really bad ones, where people are routinely tortured [by Palestinian security forces],” said Broad. “There’s something of a double standard there.”

Both sides have swapped bitter accusations about misusing the sister-city program.

Alzanoon, who says his relatives were forced to leave Ashkelon during the 1948 war, accused the JCRC of being a pawn for Israeli propaganda. “Definitely there’s some political connection to the organization that’s proposing it,” Alzanoon said, which he believes violates the spirit of the sister-city program.

Broad said political advocacy is a “tiny” part of the JCRC’s mission and angrily rejected negative portrayals of the JCRC.

“Saying the JCRC is not appropriate, I think, in the end, just reeks of anti-Semitism,” said Broad. “They don’t even know what we do or who we are, or have ever asked to meet with us or discuss anything.”

Opponents, meanwhile, are doggedly trying everything to block Ashkelon from becoming Sacramento’s next sister city. Alzanoon, who has started an online petition against the proposal, said his main priority is making sure Palestinian rights aren’t forgotten.

“They are refugees,” he said. “They don’t have a right to go back.”