JCRC, Oakland mayor agree Palestinian town no sister city

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Brewing efforts to build a sister-city relationship between Oakland and a Palestinian village met with disfavor at a recent meeting of Jewish community leaders and Mayor Jerry Brown.

To qualify as a sister city for Oakland, an overseas municipality ought to be ethnically diverse, similar in population to the East Bay city, located in a nation currently enjoying diplomatic relations with the United States and, if possible, be a port.

Deborah Louria, director of the East Bay region of the Jewish Community Relations Council, sees attempts to establish a relationship with the Palestinian town of Deir Ibzia as a politicization of the sister-city concept and an opportunity to import stridently anti-Israel speakers to Oakland on the city’s dime.

Louria attended a late December meeting with Brown, along with JCRC President Natalie Berg, Rabbi Mark Bloom of Oakland’s Conservative Temple Beth Abraham and other Jewish leaders. Brown supported the JCRC position, noting he saw no need for Oakland’s City Council to engage in foreign policy.

The sister-city proposal — which also seeks to create a sister-city relationship with the experimental Israeli Jewish-Arab town of Neve Shalom — was originally written by pro-Palestinian activists Judi Hirsch and Wendy Kaufman and passed to Oakland Vice Mayor Nancy Nadel in early 2003.

Louria “heard through the grapevine” that Nadel will introduce the proposal to the city council sometime this spring.

Brown’s press secretary, T.T. Nhu, confirmed that the mayor feels the Middle Eastern towns are “not the right venue for a sister city … Usually we partner up with large cities, ports.”

According to Louria, “We basically feel, and Jerry Brown supported this, that the sister-city concept is designed to develop cultural bridges between two cities and not to be used for political ends.

“And very clearly this proposal does just that, politicizing something that’s meant to be a cultural exchange. If the city council wants to create dialogue, there are many other venues for that.”

Nadel did not return calls.

Hirsch, who coordinates math programs at Oakland schools, accused “Jews on the right [of not] supporting anything Palestinian.”

“What can I say? I thought [the proposal] made a lot of sense. We wanted to say something about our frustration with what’s happening. We thought it’d be a really nice balance to take two small, peaceful villages. That’s not like adopting Haifa and Ramallah. These are basically small, children-centered villages,” she said.

Neve Shalom, also known by the Arabic name of Wahat al-Salam, runs conflict-resolution programs for Israelis and Palestinians, though young people from as far off as the Balkans and Northern Ireland have also attended. This, says Hirsch, would be a fitting “cultural exchange” for Oakland’s troubled students.

But, counters Louria, Neve Shalom isn’t a city — it’s hardly even a hamlet. Made up of roughly 50 Arab and Jewish families, it’s a planned experiment in coexistence. In addition, when the JCRC called Neve Shalom town leaders, they apparently expressed discomfort at being paired with Deir Ibzia in a sister-city proposal.

Oakland’s Jewish community members also expressed misgivings about Web sites such as “Friends of Deir Ibzia” (www.deiribzia.org), which they claimed contain unabashedly anti-Israel viewpoints.

That Web site is maintained by the International Solidarity Movement, and the “Friends of Deir Ibzia” movement is sponsored by the anti-Zionist Middle East Children’s Alliance, based in Berkeley.

“I think it’s an unbalanced proposal and could bring people from a Palestinian village to come and criticize Israel in a public forum in our city. I think that’s pretty much what it is,” said Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham.

If the city were to consider a relationship solely with Neve Shalom, “That’s OK with me. Who doesn’t support an experimental community like that? But to have a combined Israeli-Palestinian city and then a Palestinian city, there’s no balance, there’s nothing from regular, everyday Israel.”

The JCRC has received support from council members Henry Chang and Ignacio De La Fuente in addition to the mayor. But, when it comes to predicting what will come of the proposal, Louria said she has “no crystal ball.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.