Vouching for Bethlehem
Local peace activists hope to make Bethlehem and Sacramento sister cities
“Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass.” (Luke 2:15)
BETHLEHEM, PALESTINE—“Ahalan,” “Welcome” in Arabic, is the immediate greeting to foreigners who come to Bethlehem. A sacred city to Christians in an area also important to Jews and Muslims, it may soon have a more familial relationship with Northern California, if the Sacramento-Bethlehem Sister City Initiative achieves its goal.
“Because of its historic significance, the name ‘Bethlehem’ is known around the world,” says Brigitte Jaensch, a member of the initiative. “Yet many people have no idea who lives in Bethlehem, what their lives are like or how the policies of our government affect them.”
The sister-city concept grew out of a “citizen diplomacy initiative” envisioned and encouraged in the years just after World War II. Put simply, the concept holds that regular citizenry can sometimes be more effective at diplomacy and “bridge building” than their respective governments.
My partner and I are both members of the initiative. In 2007, the initiative began sending representatives to Sister Cities Council of Sacramento meetings. In 2008, a delegation with Sister Cities International hand-carried a letter from Sacramento to Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh. The mayor once resided in Sacramento and several of his children still live there.
Last fall, my partner and I journeyed to Bethlehem to experience life here and forward the sister city initiative’s goals. The mayor is an enthusiastic booster of the sister-city concept.
“Sister City relationships help people understand each other better,” Batarseh explained. “They further the goal of peace not only for the two cities but all over the world.”
Momentum to make Bethlehem a sister city began building in the international community around 2005, just as the Israeli government was finishing the section of the Separation or Apartheid Wall surrounding Bethlehem. Declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the 24-foot-high concrete wall snakes into Bethlehem, cutting it off from Jerusalem. It has had a devastating impact on the city’s business district and tourist industry.
“In a strict and literal sense, it is a ghetto wall, and Bethlehem is a prison town,” Batarseh stated in November 2005. “We have reached a final, tragic level of absurdity that a nation created to free the Jews from captivity has built a prison for Christians and Muslims.”
Referring to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the mayor continued, “We are certain that the wall around our city will also fall. Until that day comes, we need to find a new energy within ourselves, to transcend our ghetto and connect to the world.”
Helping connect people from different cultures is one of the sister city project’s primary missions. With the help of the people of Bethlehem, other internationals and our fellow Sacramentans, the initiative now includes e-mail pen pals, a community garden and composting project, a Bethlehem artist exhibit that’s coming to Sacramento in May, and an informational signboard for tourists.
“Relating to Bethlehem as a sister city gives Sacramentans a chance to connect to people in a part of the world that is too often misunderstood here, often with tragic consequences there,” says Palestinian-Sacramentan Riad Bahhur, professor of history and coordinator of the international studies programs at Sacramento City College.
Like most immigrants, Palestinian-Sacramentans share their culture, foods and customs with their community. That includes bringing the Ibdaa Dance Troupe from the Dheisha refugee camp in Bethlehem to perform in Sacramento in 1999, 2003 and 2005.
In 2004, a Sacramento-based scholarship fund was established to help Palestinian students study at universities in the West Bank and Gaza. More than 70 students, including a number from the Bethlehem area, have been awarded scholarships.
Pen pals, a time-honored form of cultural exchange, have now morphed into e-mail pals. Currently, junior-high school students in the Sacramento area are e-mailing with seventh- and eighth-graders in Bethlehem. Teachers supervise and assist the students in the classroom during the activity.
“Having an e-mail pal helps my students with their English,” says Jizelle Salaman, an English teacher at a local Bethlehem school. “And it gives them another reason to study hard, not just for good marks, but so that they can write in understandable English to their new friends in Sacramento. You know, they have so many questions about life in America; they are curious, is life really like what they see on the TV?”
Bethlehem high-school students are also very curious about life in the United States, but the Initiative is still searching for a Sacramento high school to support this activity.
When the Bethlehem high-schoolers are asked what they want people in America to know about their lives, they are quick to respond. The occupation controls virtually every aspect of their teenaged lives. If they are bored, that can’t go someplace to have fun. They can no longer go to Jerusalem. They’ve been cut off from the sea. Water and electrical service, controlled by the Israelis, is intermittent. Sisters and brothers and cousins have been killed by occupation forces. What most Americans take for granted, they can only dream about.
“My uncle lives in America,” says one student. “In Flint, Michigan. How far is that from Sacramento?”
In Sacramento, my partner and I are avid gardeners, so finding a way to get our hands dirty here was a must. Fortunately, one of our connections was a young woman I had met when she was studying at UC Davis. Today she works in Bethlehem at the SOS Children’s Village, a home for children coming from difficult situations.
On our first visit to the SOS, we met Abu Mahmoud, who was in charge of the landscaping. On the site were old terraces which had been gardens at one time. It didn’t take much to get Abu Mahmoud interested in starting a garden. Using Sister City Initiative donations, we funded a three-bin composting system. The village is also undergoing renovation funded by international donors which will include innovative water-conservation measures and increased use of solar power.
Before we traveled to the Middle East, Sacramento artist Janice Nakashima asked us to solicit paintings from Bethlehem artists to be included in her next show, which opens May 9 at the Axis Gallery, 1517 19th Street.
“The reason I want to display some work by Palestinian artists is that I have known of their isolation and some of their difficulties for years,” says Nakashima. “I invited these artists, none of whom I know, to put their artistic expression on a small card. The theme they were asked to respond artistically to was ‘My Life.’ I was very pleased with the pieces I received, and I hope someday to meet these artists.”
One of the many things damaged in the 2002 Israeli invasion of Bethlehem was a large signboard in front of the Bethlehem Peace Center on Manger Square. We offered to renovate the board and install a display to educate tourists about the occupation. “A Tourist’s Guide to the Occupation,” written in seven different languages, is now being read by tourists from around the world. The signboard and accompanying brochures were funded by donations from people in Sacramento.
We hope one day to bring a delegation of Sacramentans to Bethlehem, including teachers, health-care providers, lawyers and even students. Plans for a future Palestinian film festival in Sacramento are under discussion. Bethlehem currently has 52 sister cities in 24 countries. We hope to announce Bethlehem’s 25th sister city, Sacramento, sometime in the near future.