Mayor Ed Lee looking out over San Francisco's sister city of Haifa, Israel, in April 2016 (Photo/Dan Pine)
Mayor Ed Lee looking out over San Francisco's sister city of Haifa, Israel, in April 2016 (Photo/Dan Pine)

Shalom Haifa: S.F. Mayor Ed Lee’s trip to Israel

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At the end of his first full day in Israel, with dusk approaching, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee stood at the lookout point just above Haifa’s exquisite Bahai Gardens, which slope down Mount Carmel like a verdant waterfall. He could see the Haifa port and the the bustling city center below, and thought, “This isn’t all that different from San Francisco.”

In many ways, it isn’t. Both Haifa and San Francisco are built on hills that rise above bays, both are hubs of artistic and technological innovation, and both enjoy well-deserved reputations as oases of tolerance and diversity.

Maybe that’s why the San Francisco-Haifa sister city connection has been going strong for more than 40 years. That relationship brought Lee to Israel for a weeklong tour of Haifa, Israel and the Palestinian territories — his first visit to the region.

It was a visit the mayor says he will never forget.

Joining the mayor and his wife, Anita, on the April 8-15 jaunt were city officials from the Planning Commission, Recreation and Parks Department, San Francisco Arts Commission, the Mayor’s Office of International Trade and Commerce, as well as leaders of the Sister City Committee, including chair Arthur Wachtel, and Bay Area Jewish community leaders including JCRC executive director Rabbi Doug Kahn and Jewish Family and Children’s Services executive director Anita Friedman.

The trip was organized and largely funded by the San Francisco-Haifa Sister City Committee, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and private donors. The mayor’s office and the Consulate General of Israel in San Francisco also played key roles.

But from the start, the spotlight was trained on Lee, who appeared eager to take in the sights, sounds, tastes and diverging opinions that abound in the Middle East.

His first stop on April 10 was the 300-acre campus of the Technion, Israel’s version of MIT. The institute’s vice president, Boaz Golany, greeted the mayor, noting that 2,000 Technion alumni make their homes in the Bay Area, and that Bay Area-based Jewish philanthropists, notably Lorry Lokey and Stephen and Nancy Grand, have given generous gifts to kickstart Technion projects.

Touting Technion’s gains in the fields of photovoltaics, microfabrication, electron microscopy and water research, Golany also spoke proudly of his institution’s three Nobel laureates and its soon-to-debut campus in New York City, created in partnership with Cornell University.

S.F. Mayor Ed Lee (left) presents a gift to Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav (Photo/Francis Tsang)
S.F. Mayor Ed Lee (left) presents a gift to Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav (Photo/Francis Tsang)

“There seems to be an ongoing appreciation of talent that drives our innovation economies,” Lee later said of his visit to the Technion. “I’m struck by how modern Israel is and how fast it is accelerating.”

From the Technion, the 29-person entourage headed for Haifa City Hall where Lee signed a memorandum of understanding with Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, followed by the two trading expressions of admiration. Lee saw Yahav’s “We consider this a historic visit of the utmost importance” and raised him a sister-city relationship “from the heart.”

“I draw inspiration from Israeli resilience, diversity and innovation,” Lee said.

Added Israel’s S.F.-based Consul General Andy David, “They say diplomacy is the art of convincing people to do things they don’t want to do. No diplomacy was needed here. San Francisco and Haifa have something in common: Both are built on a dream to prosper.”

The memorandum declared that the two cities would engage in “exchanges and cooperative ventures in the fields of economy, trade, investment, science and technology, culture and arts, education, tourism, sports, health and sustainability.”

Before the ink was dry, Yahav announced the first joint project: an art exhibition launched by the Israeli art startup For Real. This fall, 3D ocular viewers will be installed in both cities. When people look through them, they will see a live panoramic view of the other city. In San Francisco the device will be mounted on the Embarcadero.

“I thought the perfect theme was art,” Lee said. “In the Bay Area we really appreciate art. Their emphasis is like ours, on art, innovation and communication.”

Later, Lee opined on other commonalities shared by the two mayors. “What drives us is we don’t have time to endlessly debate,” he said. “We actually have to get things done. People are right in front of us saying fix the pothole, get the trash picked up, make sure the streets are safe.

Mayor Ed Lee with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres (Photo/Francis Tsang)
Mayor Ed Lee with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres (Photo/Francis Tsang)

“[Yahav] and I were laughing about our transportation congestion challenges. He’s working on answers and so am I.”

Next on the agenda, the mayor toured Haifa’s 1,000-bed Rambam Health Care Campus, the largest medical facility in northern Israel. In its new nine-story Ruth Rappaport Children’s Hospital, Lee’s group met Rambam’s director and CEO, Dr. Rafi Beyar.

“This is the only place prepared to treat patients from all over the world,” Beyar told Lee, referring to the hospital’s tradition of treating Arabs from Israel, Gaza, and even war-torn Syria. He described how one Syrian patient, whose jaw had been shattered by a bomb, received a new 3D-printed titanium mandible.

The group then met with three staff doctors, one Jewish, two Palestinian.

Ramallah-born Dr. Shadi Foudeh said he does not care whether a patient is Jewish or Muslim. “I am treating him,” he said. “We can send a message to all the world: Through medicine we can have peace. Just come and do it.”

Mayor Lee asked Foudeh whether his family and friends share his optimism. Foudeh responded, “My father tells me to remember I’m a doctor, not a politician.”

The tour ended at Rambam’s ambitious $120 million fortified hospital, an underground facility located in a subterranean parking lot that can be converted to a fully operational hospital in 72 hours. It was built to protect patients and staff from Hezbollah rockets fired into Haifa from Lebanon — a necessity the Israeli city does not share with San Francisco.

“Everything is in the walls,” Beyar noted, pointing to panels hiding stored oxygen tanks. “We can hold 2,000 patients, with 100 dialysis units, a critical-care unit and surgical suites. It has never been tested in real life, and I hope it will never be tested.”

To see Haifa’s culture of Arab-Jewish coexistence in action, the group next visited Takwin Labs, an incubator for Arab Israeli tech entrepreneurs and startups. Founder Imad Telhami, a successful Israeli Christian Arab businessman, explained the large social gap between Israel’s Arabs and Jews, noting the $30,000 average disparity in per capita income. He reported that Takwin so far has provided 2,000 jobs.

“I asked why are Arabs not inspired to build their own companies,” Telhami said. “Israel is the startup nation. If Arabs are 20 percent, why are there no startups?

“I want young Arabs to go from saying, why me, to why not me?”

On day two, the mayor’s entourage bused south to Yemin Orde, one of Israel’s most well-known youth villages. Founded in 1953 to help orphans, refugees and at-risk teens adapt to Israeli society, Yemin Orde has graduated more than 5,000 students, some of whom have been elected to Israel’s Knesset.

“A lot of our kids are angry,” said Susan Weijel, the school’s director of outreach and development, noting that most of the 440 young residents immigrated with their families to escape anti-Semitism elsewhere, uprooting themselves from the lives they knew. “We try to get to the point that students say, I am worthwhile enough to invest in myself.”

Lee met with a dozen students, from Russia, Brazil, Ukraine, Ethiopia and even New York. He told them about his own upbringing, how his Chinese immigrant ancestors were forbidden to vote or own property, and how his city elected him its first Asian American mayor in 2011.

“In San Francisco, we support our children,” Lee said. “I’m proud of that and proud of our tradition of embracing diversity.”

The S.F. delegation visits Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust memorial
The S.F. delegation visits Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial

Lee later reflected on his encounter with the teens. “I think the kids are doing it,” he said. “The kids at Yemin Orde feel the environment is positive for them. They and other young people are pushing everyone to say, let’s work on things that make us modern and interactive. That’s the impression I’m getting.”

After a stop at Jisr az Zarka, a small Arab fishing village trying to climb out of isolation and poverty, Lee and the group headed east, across low rocky hills dotted with goatherds and razor wire, through a checkpoint and on to Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority.

Dodging construction projects, and slogging through nightmarish traffic on narrow winding streets, the bus finally stopped on a busy Ramallah boulevard. In a modest office the group met with former Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, as well as with Husam Zomlot, a London-trained economist and ambassador-at-large for the PA.

A former ally of late Palestinian president Yasir Arafat, Shaath is a polished American-educated diplomat, well versed in telling audiences what they want to hear. He started out by expressing his love of  San Francisco, where he honeymooned years ago, adding, “You are most welcome in our country.”

On his visit to Yad Vashem, Mayor Ed Lee placed a wreath at the memorial
On his visit to Yad Vashem, Mayor Ed Lee placed a wreath at the memorial

Shaath went on to lament that there is no peace in the Holy Land; rather, “it is in pieces.” He said he once dreamed of a binational secular state for Jews and Arabs but grudgingly came to accept the two-state solution as the most viable path to peace, something he still believes. “Sometimes you have to divide the child to save the child,” he said, alluding to the Solomonic legend.

He went on to complain that “62 percent of Palestine is controlled by Israeli colonial settlers. We are worse off now than when we started. The dream of two states in peace today is not there. Is there a chance? Yes. It has not vanished. The question is, how? You cannot negotiate land for peace while your occupier takes your land, piece by piece.”

He proffered the new thinking among Palestinian leadership that a solution should be imposed by the United Nations and the international community, rather than restarting American-brokered bilateral talks between Israel and the PA.

The younger Zomlot followed, expressing a far more aggressive posture than his colleague, referring more than once to “ethnic cleansing” perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinians.

When asked about Palestinian incitement of violence against Jews, as evidenced by the recent spate of stabbings and vehicular attacks, Zomlot said, “I am here to incite. We incite against occupation, against daily violations of human rights. It’s not a choice, it’s an obligation.”

Later, Lee took stock of what he had heard and weighed it in light of an April 6 incident at San Francisco State University where Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was shouted down by anti-Israel protesters.

“As a former civil rights attorney, I am a big supporter of free speech,” Lee said.

“I was saddened to hear that SFSU didn’t allow free expression. The mayor of Jerusalem had something to say and he wasn’t permitted to, over the shouting that went on. The protesters were able to use their First Amendment rights, but trampled on someone else’s. I don’t think that’s right.

Mayor Ed Lee greets teens at Yemin Orde Youth Village

“Israel has a lot of views and it allows those views to be expressed. No one stopped us from hearing how people feel.”

Regarding Zomlot’s comments, Lee said, “In my position as mayor, when groups meet with me, I try to understand. There are groups that take extreme positions and just sit on them, and then there are others that want to improve things. Generally those are the people I end up working with. They want to present solutions and not just describe the problem five different ways.”

The next stop that day was Rawabi, the first planned Palestinian city in the West Bank, a massive $1-billion hilltop community with towering condominium buildings, parks, mosques, stores, movie theaters and an open-air, colonnade-ringed stone amphitheater that has been plagued by years of delay, both political and economic.

The man behind the project is Bashar Masri, a Palestinian American business mogul, who met with the group at Rawabi’s luxury showroom. Speaking elegant English with all the enthusiasm of Steve Jobs introducing the latest iPhone, Masri recounted how his Qatari partners invested $500 million in the project, so sure were they that Masri’s development would resonate with West Bank residents.

“Palestinians are aware of good living, of good standards,” he said. “The vast majority is educated, speaks English and is Internet savvy. They jumped right in.”

Rawabi, which is still largely under construction, will eventually have capacity for 25,000 residents, with each family paying between $65,000 and $180,000 per unit. So far, 200 have moved in and, according to Masri, scores more have pledged to buy. But he has experienced setbacks. A dispute with the Israeli military, which controls water usage in the region, delayed installation of water resources, spooking some potential buyers, he said. Moreover, several leading global retailers that had promised to open shops in Rawabi’s malls delayed, which to Masri meant they had canceled, most likely due to security concerns.

Masri has also been under fire for buying construction materials from Israel, with some Palestinians accusing him of being a collaborator — a dangerous charge in their society. He remains undeterred.

The mayor seemed to have a good time in his hometown's sister city. (Photo/Dan Pine)
The mayor seemed to have a good time in his hometown’s sister city. (Photo/Dan Pine)

“There are so many people whose hearts are here,” Masri said. “Those who believe a nice Palestinian area is good for Israel will think this is a good project.”

Mayor Lee was impressed. “He’s trying to solidify a middle class,” Lee said. “People like Bashar Masri are trying to move forward. They can’t wait for the land disputes to resolve themselves before moving forward.”

Sponsored trips like the one offered to Mayor Lee are not vacations, but intensive learning opportunities. The itinerary this week was relentless; the group kept moving the entire day, from one meeting to the next.

“If you’re going to be a global city, you need to see things firsthand,” opined Mark Chandler, Lee’s director of international trade and commerce, who accompanied him on the Israel visit. “You need to hear from other leaders and opinion makers around the world. That’s why it’s valuable to come to Israel and see for ourselves what’s happening. One thing I’ve found is that cities all face the same challenges, and there are common solutions around the world.”

JCRC director Kahn said Lee could only benefit from seeing how Israel does things up close and personal.

“San Francisco and Haifa have so much to build upon, “Kahn said. “In addition, the Bay Area has been heavily impacted by the political issues relating to the conflict. This visit was an opportunity for the mayor to get a firsthand picture of the politics, the people, the region, the history and the geography.”

Phil Ginsburg, San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks manager, who met with his counterpart in Haifa, said later, “This is a reminder of how much we have to learn from each other.”

Speaking as a city official and as a Jew, he continued: “The trip is a recognition of the deep roots the Jewish community has in San Francisco and its respect for civic engagement.”

When it was time for this reporter to head for the airport, Lee was only two days into his trip. Still ahead were meetings with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, current Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, as well as a helicopter ride over the Golan Heights, a wreath-laying ceremony at Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and a walking tour of Jerusalem’s Old City.

But even at this early juncture, Lee said he was “re-energized” by what he had seen and heard.

“Every time I visit these places and see how vibrant they are, I go back to San Francisco and say to myself, let’s not fool around,” he said.  “Let’s keep being more inclusive, let’s work on housing, work on the homeless more intensely. Everyone else is creating answers to their problems. That’s what I look out for, and certainly this trip is energizing me even more.

Speaking once more of Israel, he added, “This country and its people want to move forward.”

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.