Twisted sister

When it comes to sisterhood with Sacramento, Bethlehem is a lady in waiting

I’ve never been to Bethlehem, but I kind of like the music. “Away in a Manger,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings.” Believe me, when I was a kid, they not only drilled these songs into us, they forced us to stand up and sing them in front of a live audience, or at least bang a tambourine along in time, every Christmas from the age of 5 till adolescence.

These melodies ringing in my marrow continue to inform the image of Bethlehem in my mind’s eye: an ancient Middle Eastern village with white adobe buildings and stables made out of wood, at the center of which stands a group of awestruck shepherds, visiting dignitaries and a little drummer boy, all gawking at the baby Jesus on his little bed of straw.

Possessed with this admittedly naive and idyllic image—after all, Bethlehem sits on the eastern edge of the West Bank, right next to the “Israeli West Bank barrier” that marks Israel’s eastern border—I was disappointed when I learned the Sacramento-Bethlehem Sister City Initiative was derailed earlier this month. It seems that members of the local Jewish community are concerned that declaring sisterhood with a city situated in the Palestinian Authority might send the wrong message, and could even be dangerous.

“While we are not opposed to having Bethlehem as a sister city, we strongly suggest that you also consider adopting a sister city in Israel,” reads a mid-October letter to the mayor and the city council signed by Congregation B’nai Israel senior Rabbi Mona Alfi. “This action would go a long way in preventing unnecessary controversy and providing a proper level of balance regarding an issue that could easily be extremely volatile.”

A second mid-October letter signed by Barry Broad, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council, made the same demand, in the same quasi-ominous tone:

“In order to avoid unnecessary controversy and to provide an appropriate degree of balance regarding an issue of extreme sensitivity, the Jewish community of Sacramento is requesting that the City of Sacramento adopt a sister city in Israel at the same time as it adopts one in the Palestinian Authority.”

The hearing for the initiative, originally scheduled for November 10, was subsequently shelved.

It appears to be the first such demand in the Sacramento Sister Cities Council’s 50-year history. I can find no record of, say, the Dalai Lama’s minions demanding that Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, be recognized at the same time as Jinan, which is in the communist People’s Republic of China and became Sacramento’s sister city in 1984.

That’s most likely because the Sacramento Sister Cities Council isn’t about politics, it’s about promoting trade, tourism and friendship. According to its own statement, “The mission of the Sister Cities Council of Sacramento is to develop mutually beneficial cultural, educational, social, and/or economic relationships between the citizens of Sacramento and its Sister Cities.” Any group of citizen volunteers who want to establish a sister city can take advantage of the program, which is precisely what the proponents of the Bethlehem initiative have been doing, in the light of day, for more than two years.

There’s no doubt that some of the folks behind the Bethlehem initiative have a political motive, at least in part. They want peace in the Middle East, view Israel as the primary aggressor in the region and hope sisterhood with Bethlehem will help reduce hostilities. However, Alfi and Broad have even stronger political motives for denying Bethlehem sisterhood.

Alfi formerly worked for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; the JCRC is closely affiliated with AIPAC. As one of Washington’s most powerful lobbies, AIPAC has successfully limited the national debate about our role in the Middle East to simple terms: “Israelis good, Arabs bad.” At the local level, the JCRC presents AIPAC’s myopic view as the singular voice of the Jewish community in cities across the country, including Sacramento. The idea isn’t so much to influence decisions as it is to prevent any debate from happening at all. So far, Alfi and the JCRC have succeeded.

I could go into a tit-for-tat list of atrocities perpetrated by both sides during six decades of conflict, but I’d rather call attention to the Bethlehem I feel in my bones, that we hear in the music of the season. It is the birthplace of both Jesus Christ and King David of Israel. It has been the center of conflict between Jews, Christians and Muslims for more than two millennia, yet the Church of the Nativity remains. It is a city standing outside time.

You can’t ask much more than that from a sister. Bethlehem belongs to all of us. The Sacramento City Council should at least have the courage to vote on the sister-city initiative, instead of caving into one special-interest group. In the meantime, AIPAC is hosting its annual Sacramento membership lunch on Sunday, December 13, at the Radisson Hotel. Perhaps someone in attendance can get the ball rolling on finding Sacramento a sister city in Israel. I hear Tel Aviv is pretty nice.