SACRAMENTO, Calif. (JTA) — Regardless of the outcome of the Sacramento City Council vote on extending sister-city status to Ashkelon, Israel, the unnecessary controversy leading up to it reveals much of the agenda of those in the anti-Israel community. Those lessons will remain long after this week’s vote, which we hope is in favor of the partnership.
In 2009, the City Council adopted Bethlehem — a city under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority — and resolved at a future time to partner with a city in Israel. The local Jewish Community Relations Council, in consultation with our elected officials, has now proposed that Ashkelon become that sister city. We, who are part of the Jewish and Christian communities of Sacramento, enthusiastically endorsed the initiative and urged the City Council to support extending sister-city status to Ashkelon.
Those who have expressed opposition to an Israeli sister city are the same individuals who advocate boycotting and divesting from the Jewish state. Rather than calling for Palestinians and Israelis to sit down together at the negotiating table, which the Palestinian leadership refuses to do, members of this movement seek only to vilify Israel.
What is so threatening about Ashkelon?
Ashkelon is a midsized town made up of hard-working, family-oriented individuals. Its origins date back thousands of years; in fact it is mentioned in the Bible as the city in which Delilah famously cut Samson’s hair. It exists inside Israel proper on undisputed territory. No two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would ever remove Ashkelon from Israeli sovereignty.
Nonetheless, Ashkelon has been unfairly maligned in recent weeks by Israel’s detractors in Sacramento. Seemingly motivated by blind hatred toward Israel, the arguments against extending sister-city status to Ashkelon have been misleading to the point of absurdity.
For example, Israel’s detractors argue that Ashkelon has a discriminatory visitor policy because “Palestinian-Sacramentans who have Israeli-issued ID cards are prohibited from visiting Ashkelon except with rarely-issued special permits.” This sounds discriminatory until one realizes that the “special permit” to which they are referring is in fact equivalent to a tourist visa. Every non-citizen of Israel seeking to travel there needs an Israeli visa, just as every non-citizen of the U.S. seeking to travel here needs an American visa.
If one is able to see through these deceptive arguments, a clear picture of why Sacramento should extend this status to Ashkelon begins to emerge.
In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew every soldier and civilian from the Gaza Strip. At the time, Israel’s ambassador to the United States called this disengagement “a test case for peace.” Unfortunately, the Palestinians failed: Since Israel’s withdrawal, thousands of rockets have been fired by Gaza-based Palestinian terrorists into Israeli cities and towns, including Ashkelon. These attacks terrorize, maim and kill innocent people.
People like Moshe Ami, a 56-year-old Ashkelon resident who last October was driving home to his family when he heard the air raid sirens blare. He jumped out of his car and ran for cover, but with only a few seconds to find shelter, he was hit by shrapnel from a rocket fired from Gaza by Palestinian terrorists. Israeli paramedics rushed Ami to a nearby hospital, and on the way there he was able to speak on the phone with his wife one last time. Shortly thereafter he died on an operating room table in Barzilai Medical Center.
Ami was just trying to get home to his wife and four children. He was murdered because of his religion and nationality. There is no justification for the attack that killed him or the thousands of other rocket attacks endured by Israelis.
Israel’s detractors pass off these attacks and Israel’s defense against them as a “cycle of violence.” But the rocket attacks started when Israel took a huge risk for peace and got nothing but violence in return.
There is a clear reason why Israel is among America’s closest allies. Israel is a democracy. Israelis share the American commitment to liberty and freedom. We are more than just two nations with a geopolitical partnership; we are family. And families stand together during trying times.
If the City Council approves the proposal to make Ashkelon one of our sister cities, it will send a message that this program inspires partnership, education and understanding. The Sister City program was not conceived to be about politics but rather connecting human beings from two different communities and cultures in a positive, meaningful way.
If it does not, it will show that a campaign of deception can succeed.
Sacramento cannot bring peace to the Middle East. It can, however, bring a small bit of comfort to our brothers and sisters in an embattled city, one that is under constant attack not because anyone disputes its sovereignty, but because its people share our commitment to peace – so much so that they are willing to risk their lives to realize that dream.
(Rabbi Reuven Taff leads Sacramento’s Mosaic Law Congregation. The Rev. Victor Styrsky is a regional coordinator for Christians United for Israel. Both reside in Sacramento, Calif.)