Haifa mayor gets warm welcome in San Francisco

Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav has a theory as to why his city seems to be an island of Arab-Jewish cooperation. It’s because neither Jesus, Moses nor Mohammad ever set foot in the town.

“In our city,” he said, “nothing is holy.”

Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav (right) holds a key to the city presented by S.F. Mayor Gavin Newsom. photo/cathleen maclearie

Yahav was in San Francisco most of last week to celebrate the longstanding sister city relationship between Haifa and San Francisco. Standing under the rotunda of San Francisco City Hall, Yahav addressed a throng of dignitaries from the Bay Area Jewish community and government, including San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

The Nov. 18 City Hall reception included speeches from Israel’s Consul General in San Francisco, Akiva Tor, and a warm welcome from Newsom — soon to depart for Sacramento, where he will serve as the newly elected lieutenant governor. Newsom also presented Yahav with the key to the city.

Newsom visited Haifa –– pop. 250,000 –– in 2008 when he joined an Israel mission sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. He noted the similarities between the two port cities, known for their tolerance and innovation.

Yahav, elected mayor of Israel’s third-largest city in 2003, said that as Israel faces isolation in some quarters of the world, the one-on-one contacts such as those fostered by sister city relationships have grown more important than ever.

San Francisco and Haifa have been sister cities for 35 years, but there are plenty of other towns vying for Haifa’s affections.

“I have 21 sister city requests pending on my desk,” Yahav said in an interview with j. “Poland, Brazil, Italy. It takes time to make a decision. Both sides are always concerned by the revenue out of [the relationship].”

Both mayors said the connection between Haifa and San Francisco has worked out well due to a shared culture of innovation. Both regions boast world-class universities, and Haifa has a high-tech corridor similar to Silicon Valley.

While here, Yahav attended a screening at the Kabuki Sundance Theater of the Israeli film “The Matchmaker,” which was filmed in Haifa. He also spoke at the World Affairs Council on Nov. 19, discussing Haifa as a model of coexistence in the Middle East.

Yahav said one San Franciscan he would like to invite to Haifa is the city’s seismic engineer, since Haifa sits on an active fault, just like San Francisco does.

As much as he stresses mutual economic ties, Yahav said the most important aspect of a sister city relationship is bringing people together.

“These are two liberal cities,” he said, “and the fabric of the people is liberal.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.