As Tuesday night's meeting of Boulder's City Council kicked off at 6 p.m., constituents spilled out of the chambers and into an overflow area in the lobby, where a crowd sat tensely, glued to the live TV proceedings. These people had come to either speak in support of or against Nablus, Palestine, becoming one of Boulder's official Sister Cities, and they queued up for two minutes at the microphone during which they planned personal pleas and impassioned defenses.
The meeting was the culmination of a process set in motion over three years ago, when the Boulder Nablus Sister Cities Project (BNSCP), the organization behind the application to make Nablus a Sister City, first went in front of Council — and was rejected. In 2013, the Council worried the project was driving a wedge in the community, and it asked the BNSCP to continue its activities fostering personal connections via yoga, a pen-pal program, artist exchanges and the like, and come back with another application once it had attempted to heal the divide.
The BNSCP was prepared to return in April of this year, but fearing the same opposition, it asked council to send it and its opponents to a mediation process instead, so that both sides could attempt to work out differences and provide some sort of recommendation to council as to how to proceed. As we reported in October and in the lead-up to this meeting, though, the two sides were unable to come to a consensus as to whether Nablus should be an official Sister City. And so its final report represented a summary of its work, with concerns and possibilities highlighted. Both sides knew that they'd ultimately face each other before council again, and they'd discuss themes similar to that meeting three years ago — whether sistering with Nablus has an inherently political bent, even if the intent of Sister Cities relationships is to foster cultural exchange; whether the coupling provides the BNSCP with a license to tell a one-sided version of a complex global issue; and whether taking on Nablus as a Sister City would cause a devastating rift in the Boulder community.
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Passionate defenders on both sides of the issue spoke at the hearing; Mayor Suzanne Jones noted as public comment kicked off that over sixty people had signed up. Opponents took issue with Nablus's politics, the fact that Jewish people may feel unsafe visiting Nablus, and the creation of a city-sponsored outlet to present the story of Israeli Occupation in the West Bank without providing the rest of the conflict's context. Several said they supported the outreach BNSCP did, but not the official stamp of approval. Supporters detailed their own experiences in Nablus, begged for inclusiveness on behalf of a marginalized Palestinian and Muslim community in America, and urged the council to uphold Boulder's reputation for openness. They pointed to the organization's statement of commitments, which expressly forbids the BNSCP from engaging in political advocacy or allowing others to do so via the organization.
Four hours later, the council voted 7-2 to approve Nablus as Boulder's eighth official Sister City. "What we’re saying yes to tonight is the power of the Sister City relationship," Jones said just before the council took it to a vote. "I want to say 'yes' to the power of relationships and power of what can be. This Sister City is going to be held to tough standards, but that’s the nature of what we’re getting into here."
BNSCP executive director Essrea Cherin said before the meeting that should the project be approved, the organization will continue trying to reach out to people from the other side to heal the divide over the project. Council will review the partnership once a year to make sure it's in line with its responsibilities. Meanwhile, the BNSCP will now operate under the official umbrella of the Sister Cities International organization, giving it access to resources and connections provided to official Sister Cities.