When the Sacramento City Council proposed making Bethlehem a sister city in 2009, local Jewish groups were initially opposed to the idea of pairing California’s capital city with the historic Palestinian town. Eventually, the Jewish community agreed to support the measure after the city council made a commitment to add an Israeli sister city in the future.

The State Capitol Building of California in Sacramento (photo credit: Courtesy wiki commons)

The State Capitol Building of California in Sacramento (photo credit: Courtesy wiki commons)

That future is here and Sacramento city leaders are set to vote on a resolution making Ashkelon its 10th sister city next Tuesday, August 14. But pro-Palestinian activists and supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel have mounted an offensive against the proposal, claiming the coastal Israeli town is a symbol of discrimination against Sacramento’s Palestinian-American community.

“We’re concerned about Sacramento as a city establishing a relationship that might be in agreement with discrimination,” said Adeeb Alzanoon, a local representative for the Palestinian American Congress, one of a half dozen local groups that sent a letter to all nine city council members opposing the measure.

Among other things, the letter cites the presence of the Shikma prison, which holds West Bank and Gazan prisoners, and claims that Ashkelon was “was built on the thriving town of Majdal Asqualan…home to generations of Palestinian families until 1948 when the army of the newly declared state of Israel began its ethnic cleansing campaign, terrorizing the native Palestinian population and forcing them to leave.”

We’re concerned about Sacramento as a city establishing a relationship that might be in agreement with discrimination

The pressure campaign against the proposal has also taken the form of emails to city council members, phone calls, plans to show up en masse at the council meeting and a signed petition.

Local Jewish leaders and at least one major pro-Israel Christian group are mounting a counteroffensive, accusing BDS supporters of “rewriting history” and “continuing to wage a war of delegitimization against the Jewish state at every opportunity and in every possible venue.”

Melissa Chapman, the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region and one of the drafters of the Ashkelon plan, said the purpose of a sister city “is to promote cultural and educational partnerships.”

“We’re trying to do the exact opposite of what some of the [opposition is] trying to do,” she said.

This is an important moment for Israel and Sacramento’s Jewish Community

Rabbis Nancy and David Wechsler-Azen, who preside together over Congregation Beth Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Sacramento, are urging the area’s Jewish community to show up in force at the August 14 meeting to support the Sacramento-Ashkelon pairing.

“This is an important moment for Israel and Sacramento’s Jewish Community,” they said.

It’s also an important moment for America’s Christian community, according to David Brog, the Executive Director of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), a huge pro-Israel Christian group that works in all 50 states and claims millions of supporters.

David Brog, Executive Director of Christians United For Israel (photo credit: Courtesy CUFI)

David Brog, Executive Director of Christians United For Israel (photo credit: Courtesy CUFI)

“The anti-Israel camp is trying to open up a new front in their effort to delegitimize Israel,” he says. “This is the first national campaign I’m aware of seeking to block a sister city relationship.  We believe it’s important to speak out on behalf of the overwhelming majority of Americans who support closer ties with our ally Israel.”

CUFI has set up an action alert website where more than 13,000 of its members have already sent emails directly to the Sacramento City Council expressing support for Ashkelon’s sister city status.

If those opposing the sister city relationship want to find the real practitioners of apartheid, they should look in the mirror

Brog calls the claims being made by opponents to the proposal “as ridiculous as ever.”

“Their lead complaint is that Palestinians who aren’t Israeli citizens need “special permits” to enter Ashkelon.  Wow, that sounds terrible.  Until you realize that the same applies to Americans and anyone else who’s not an Israeli citizen.  In fact, Israelis and Palestinians alike need a special permit to visit Sacramento.  It’s called a tourist visa.”

Brog also points to the fact that Sacramento recognized Bethlehem as a sister city despite the fact that the Palestinian Authority doesn’t permit land sales to Jews and has pledged that no Jews will live in a Palestinian state.

“If those opposing the sister city relationship want to find the real practitioners of apartheid, they should look in the mirror,” he said.

The latest controversy is not the first time the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has spilled into Sacramento. Last year, BDS activists unsuccessfully attempted to get themselves elected to the board of the city’s food co-op in an effort to ban Israeli-made products.

Sacramento City Council Member Steve Cohn, a supporter of the Ashkelon proposal, believes if cities had to satisfy every single concern about human rights or political problems, “We wouldn’t have a sister-city program.”

Sacramento’s nine current sister cities are Jinan (China), Manila/Pasay City (Philippines), Matsuyama (Japan), Hamilton (New Zealand), Liestal (Switzerland), Chisinau (Moldova), Yongsan-gu (South Korea), San Juan de Orient (Nicaragua), and Bethlehem (West Bank).