Boulder Split Over a Proposal to Pair With Palestinian City of Nablus

In the spring of 2014, two Palestinian women from the West Bank landed in Boulder. They’d come for yoga training, though not instruction in sun salutations or Bikram technique. Instead, they were working with Calming Kids Yoga, a local organization recognized by the American Medical Association that uses yoga to address the physical and emotional effects of trauma in children. The hope was that the women would take what they’d learned in Colorado back to their home cities of Ramallah and Nablus, where they might provide comfort for kids growing up in a violent part of the world.

Their trip was sponsored by the Boulder Nablus Sister City Project; a year later, the BNSCP collaborated with the Boulder-based Give Back Yoga on a trip to the West Bank, to train thirty more teachers in therapeutic yoga. The BNSCP also arranged for 100 copies of the Calming Kids Yoga book to be translated into Arabic and distributed in Palestine, and it plans to send the director of Calming Kids to Nablus to keep teaching the method.

The BNSCP doesn’t limit its activities to yoga, however. The group is behind film screenings, festival appearances and a speaker series in Boulder; a pen-pal exchange program between elementary-schoolers in Boulder and Nablus; and the donation of 100 soccer balls to kids in Nablus through One World Play. It sponsored a Fulbright fellow from Naropa in Nablus and hosted a Nablusian dean of education here. It supports a senior center in Nablus, hopes to help build a rock-climbing center there, and connected substance-abuse counselors and early-learning experts in the two cities. It also sent Boulder artists to participate in an arts-and-culture festival in Nablus, and plans to bring a troupe of Palestinian dancers to Boulder.

While the BNSCP works to encourage cultural exchanges between the two cities, it also wants to make the relationship more permanent: Later this year, the BNSCP will go before the Boulder City Council and ask it to name Nablus one of Boulder’s official sister cities. If that request is approved, Nablus will become Boulder’s eighth sister city, joining the ranks of Dushanbe, Tajikistan; Jalapa, Nicaragua; Kisumu, Kenya; Lhasa, Tibet; Mante, Mexico; Yamagata, Japan; and Yateras, Cuba. The official Nablus-Boulder connection would join an international roster of sister-city relationships intended to foster people-to-people connections in disparate parts of the world, all with the lofty goal of achieving world peace through mutual understanding.

But just as peace seems elusive in the Middle East, it may also prove elusive in Boulder.

According to Beth Hendrix, executive director of Denver Sister Cities International, cities have been partnering to encourage cultural exchange and peace since at least 836 A.D., when Le Mans, France, and Paderborn, Germany, forged the first known sister-city alliance. In America, the practice gained popularity after World War II, when cities began forming cross-Atlantic relationships to heal rifts generated by the conflict. The first such partnership was between Toledo, Ohio, and Toledo, Spain, Hendrix says; Denver’s partnership with Brest, France, was the second, and the Mile High City is now part of ten such alliances.

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower founded Sister Cities International, a D.C.-based national nonprofit, to some extent modeling the citizen-diplomat network he hoped to build on Denver’s partnership with Brest. Today Sister Cities International encourages partnerships related to arts and culture, youth and education, business and trade, and community development and technical exchange, and any of those factors can provide the impetus for a relationship. Some Sister Cities pairings are simple cultural-exchange platforms; others involve long lists of cross-community projects.

Whatever the catalyst for bonding, Sister Cities International supports the pairings because it believes that genuine interaction between cultures helps break down barriers of otherness and fosters world peace. In other words, you’re less likely to go to war with your friends. “The idea is that direct, person-to-person relationships increase understanding and reduce conflict,” says Hendrix. “People-to-people relationships are and will be the basis of world peace.”

Such pairings must be officially approved by the two communities’ governments, but after that, the relationship falls under the Sister Cities International umbrella; the organization commits to supporting the connection, giving the paired partners access to resources and information.

Many cities create a special department to manage both Sister Cities requests and approved relationships; others, like Denver, funnel all arrangements through one nonprofit. Boulder relies on independent nonprofits to first lay the groundwork for any potential pairing, then present their request to the Boulder City Council, which evaluates whether the relationship meets the requirements of Resolution 631, Boulder’s guidelines for Sister Cities approval that was adopted in 1992 and amended in 2001.

The city set up those guidelines in part because residents of the People’s Republic tend to forge relationships with communities in the eye of political storms: Boulder partnered with Jalapa, Nicaragua, amid the Sandinista crisis of the 1980s; with Yateras, Cuba, despite the American embargo; and with Dushanbe, Tajikistan, when that country was part of the Soviet Union. The latter pairing was particularly contentious; opponents were only persuaded to accept the deal after the Boulder City Council approved a resolution stipulating that nonprofits pushing Sister Cities relationships must include a statement of commitment to human rights. As a result of that partnership, Boulder gained its most famous symbol of a Sister City: the Dushanbe Teahouse, shipped piece by piece from Tajikistan.

Via Resolution 631, the city can distance itself from sticky political situations: In addition to requiring that Sister Cities relationships be mutually beneficial, it emphasizes that they must include person-to-person contact and be built around “educational, cultural, recreational and technical exchanges.” The rule also notes that a Sister Cities relationship does not mean that the City of Boulder endorses the politics of a partner.

Even so, Hendrix says, “There are real politics involved. Sister City relationships are not meant to be political, but agreements are mayor-to-mayor. The whole point is to eliminate conflict.”

Eliminating conflict is exactly what drew BNSCP president and co-founder Essrea Cherin to consider a Sister Cities relationship with Nablus, Palestine.

Cherin, who works in conflict resolution, had been doing projects in the Middle East for years, over that time building an affinity for the Palestinian people and a desire to help them deal with “the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves living,” she says. In 2010, a longtime friend, Guy Benintendi, made a trip to Palestine and fell in love with the region, too; when he returned to Boulder, he proposed forming a relationship between Boulder and a city on the West Bank.

“It took me aback,” Cherin recalls. “I hadn’t really heard about Sister Cities; the Dushanbe Teahouse was my only connection. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I loved the idea. It was a positive way of contributing. So many people think of contributing in opposition to policies, or via an activist approach. My field is conflict management: When you approach something in an oppositional way, you get an adversarial response. I didn’t want to do that. Sister Cities [is] about creating opportunities to befriend people who are wonderful and have so much to teach us.”

The pair focused on Nablus because Benintendi “was really struck that that was the one,” Cherin says. The town sits between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, about thirty miles north of Jerusalem in the West Bank, the Palestinian territory that hugs the border of Jordan and the shore of the Dead Sea. Officially founded in 72 A.D. by the Roman Emperor Vespasian, the city was built on top of a Samaritan village called Mabartha, near what are thought to be the ruins of the biblical town of Shechem, home to such important religious sites as Joseph’s Tomb and Jacob’s Well. During its long history, Nablus has been under the control of the Byzantine Empire, an Islamic caliphate, the Christian Crusaders and the Ottoman Empire.
Its architecture dates back to before its official founding. “There are ruins that are 5,000 years old,” says Hakim Sabbah, director of Nablus-based organization Project Hope and one of the point people for the Sister Cities partnership.

Today Nablus is considered a commercial and cultural hub; it’s home to An-Nanjah University and the Palestinian stock exchange. It manufactures soap and olive oil and is famous for its kanafeh, a sweet cheese pastry.“You can’t get kanafeh anywhere here,” says Paul Karolyi, a Denver-based researcher who works with the Journal of Palestine Studies. “I would make a special trip to Boulder for that.”

Cherin and Benintendi saw several similarities between Nablus and Boulder, too. “Both are university towns,” says Cherin. “Boulder has the largest university in Colorado, Nablus has the largest in the West Bank. Both are a similar size: Boulder has 100,000 people; Nablus has 130,000 people. Both are nestled into foothills, and both have a thriving pedestrian shopping area.”

“The energy is probably more like Boulder than other Palestinian cities,” agrees BNSCP boardmember Brenda Mehos, who has traveled throughout the region. “There are foothills and pine trees. It’s a university town and has the same energy that we have with higher learning and the focus on that. There’s a medical school and a lot of focus on arts.”

In 2011, Benintendi met in Nablus with a professor at An-Najah University to explore the possibility of an alliance; that professor introduced him to then-mayor Adly Yaish, who extended an invitation to Boulder’s mayor to join in an official relationship.

Back in Boulder, Benintendi and Cherin explored what they’d need for city approval, poring over Resolution 631 and setting up the framework of the BNSCP. They applied for 501(c)(3) status, which was granted in 2012, then initiated projects meant to foster cultural exchange, activities that were essential to proving to the Boulder City Council that the bonds between the two cities were meaningful, culturally oriented and long-lasting. They created a network of Palestinian counterparts through people like Sabbah, who’d coordinated projects between Nablus and Sister Cities in Europe, and forged alliances with Nablusian educators, yoga instructors, senior-center owners and artists.

By 2013, they thought they were ready to make it official. “When we submitted our application in 2013, we believed that once you’ve hit the requirements, you come before the council and they’ll make it official,” remembers Cherin. Thinking that their proposal would sail through the hearing, the BNSCP put out a press release declaring that it was about to attain the city’s seal. But neither Cherin nor Benintendi had anticipated that a very vocal contingent of community activists would vehemently oppose Nablus becoming a Sister City to Boulder.

When the upcoming council hearing was announced, opponents began digging into the application. They were most concerned with the political underpinnings of a Boulder-Nablus relationship, though nowhere does Resolution 631 explicitly say that Sister Cities organizations must be entirely apolitical. In fact, while many of the other Boulder Sister Cities organizations specify that their activities are not political, some are not shy about their political motivations. For example, the Boulder Jalapa Friendship City Project’s website says that the relationship was formed in 1983 “to expand local understanding and knowledge of Central America and Nicaragua, during the CIA-sponsored Contra War, as a gesture of people-to-people solidarity with Nicaragua, and specifically with the war-torn mountainous region of Jalapa in the north.”

But Resolution 631 does emphasize that cultural exchange is the primary reason for forging a Sister Cities bond, and stipulates that the relationship must be beneficial and desired by the people of Boulder.
Opponents seized on that to argue that the BNSCP proposal didn’t fulfill those requirements. A relationship with a Palestinian city would invariably wade into the complex politics around the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Golan Heights, they argued; it would effectively serve as a city endorsement of the Palestinian side of a live conflict playing out in the court of global public opinion.

And this was different from a Sister Cities relationship with a Cuban or Nicaraguan city, they said, because hundreds, even thousands of Boulderites had a personal stake in this issue. (In contrast, Boulder’s Cuban community comprises around .13 percent of the city’s population.)

Objections focused most intensely on Benintendi’s role; community members had uncovered information linking him to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The BDS campaign had been initiated in 2005 by 170 Palestinian community leaders and NGOs, with the goal of pressuring Israel economically to re-evaluate its policy of occupation. “It’s about ending occupation of Palestinian land and establishing equal rights for Palestinians in Israel,” says researcher Karolyi. “Palestinians represent 20 percent of the population of Israel, but they effectively wield no political power, even though Israel is ostensibly a democracy.”

BDS is a lightning rod for supporters of Israel, who link it to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and say it calls for delegitimizing international law. Critics also charge that it disincentivizes Palestinians from negotiating with Israel, because it lays down a hard set of demands: ending occupation, giving equal rights to Palestinians and allowing displaced Palestinians to return home. While Karolyi concedes that many BDS supporters want a one-state solution, he says the movement has fractured, with offshoots boycotting just settlement products, for instance, because they believe in a two-state outcome.

Benintendi was “a man who was quite outspoken about his opposition to Israel,” recalls Sarah-Jane Cohen, an early opponent. “He had Facebook posts of him holding a sign saying ‘Zionism is racism,’ or words to that effect. I considered that pretty vicious.” Others worried that under Benintendi’s leadership, the organization would become a city-endorsed megaphone for anti-Israel advocates.

The BDS wasn’t the only obstacle. Opponents doubted that a relationship with Nablus could be non-political in nature, and they pointed to Cherin and Benintendi’s founding impulse as proof. Although the BNSCP’s early activities had been pushed as a cultural exchange, it was impossible to remove the political realities of the area from daily life, they said, and so delegations to Nablus would inevitably get a one-sided view of occupied areas of the West Bank — with no similar, Boulder-endorsed outlet for Israelis or proponents of Israel to present the other side of the story.

“Living under occupation as people in the West Bank do is very challenging; it is also political,” explains Cohen. “From my perspective, you can’t have a Sister City relationship with Nablus without dipping into things political.”

And opponents struggled with Nablus itself. The city was a center of activism and resistance during the Second Intifada, a 2000 Palestinian uprising against Israel that led to the death of 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis. Some contend that it’s still a hotbed of resistance, where the population publicly celebrates fighters and martyrs whom Israelis consider murderers.

On June 10, 2013, the Boulder City Council held a special meeting to consider adopting Nablus as a Sister City. Proponents argued that their proposal had nothing to do with Israel. Instead, the focus was on a cultural relationship with Nablus, and the humanizing of a population often ignored by the mainstream media; it was not about the politics of the region. Sixty-eight people spoke at the hearing, and 44 of those were in favor of the Sister City relationship. But in the end, council sided with the opponents, ruling six to three against granting the BNSCP request for official Sister City status between Boulder and Nablus.

The six councilmembers who voted no all said they were concerned that the proposal was driving a wedge through the city. “I am uncomfortable that our community is so up in arms over this and so conflicted,” councilmember Suzy Ageton said, according to the Boulder Daily Camera.

Then-mayor Matt Appelbaum went further, voicing concerns that echoed those of the opponents: He worried that the BNSCP was supportive of the government of Nablus, giving the relationship a political overtone that he didn’t want to attach to Boulder government.

Councilmembers asked the BNSCP to work with the community to soothe the rift, and to deepen the cultural ties of its proposal to alleviate political concerns. After that, they said, they might revisit the request to grant Sister City status to Nablus.

For the past three years, Cherin says, the BNSCP has attempted to address the council’s concerns by proving that the project has staying power and by working to bridge the gap with opponents.

"Sister Cities are about creating opportunities to befriend people who are wonderful and have so much to teach us."

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The organization has moved forward with its cultural activities, expanding projects that were already in place and adding new ones, like that rock-climbing wall in Nablus; for that, it’s collaborating with a couple of Colorado College alumni who moved to Palestine and have already built a gym in Ramallah. The BNSCP sent more delegations to Nablus, hoping to deepen relationships and build interest in the West Bank. “We easily addressed that request,” says Cherin.

Complying with the council’s other request has been more difficult. Benintendi left the BNSCP several years ago, taking with him the controversy over BDS. “He stepped down and decided he no longer wanted to be involved, partly because of pressure from community members who were virulently attacking him, but also because he found himself at odds with the board of directors of the Sister Cities project,” explains Cherin. “There was tension within the organization. After the June 2013 hearing, he didn’t want to have anything to do with us anymore.”

With that lightning rod gone, the BNSCP expanded its outreach, maintaining a presence at public events so that community members could ask questions, privately engaging outspoken opponents, and reaching out to local Jewish organizations to facilitate dialogues with their members.

At the end of 2015, Cherin decided that it was time to go before the Boulder City Council again, and the BNSCP submitted another application. The city agreed to take up the question in April. But in the lead-up to that meeting, opposition resurfaced. “About ten days before the hearing, there was an onslaught,” says Cherin. “They were meeting with our council and threatening them, saying if you vote for this, there are 12,000 Jews in Boulder, and they vote, and we’re going to make sure you don’t get back in office. There was a lot of pressure.”

So she decided to take another tack. Instead of battling to get approval for the proposal, Cherin asked the council to send the two sides of the Boulder-Nablus Sister Cities controversy to facilitated dialogue, in hopes that they could work out their differences and ease some of the tension. The council agreed.

The City of Boulder frequently uses a city-appointed facilitator to engage with community members over contentious issues, or matters that might involve some sort of staffing or budgetary shakeup. “The whole purpose is to raise some of the issues and challenges and determine whether there are opportunities to work together,” says city spokesman Patrick von Keyserling. “Folks of different interests come together in facilitated conversation to make a recommendation for the city council. Should the city consider this? What might be the steps? What might be the recommendations?”

Von Keyserling says that Boulder has been using facilitated dialogues as a tool throughout his seven years with the city, and they’ve opened conversations on everything from development issues to questions over how to serve hard-to-reach communities to how to best redo Central Park. In that time, though, he’s never seen the facilitation process used for a Sister Cities proposal.

In this case, as with other conflicts that the city puts through the dialogue process, Boulder isn’t necessarily looking for a consensus.“This is no determination as to whether Nablus will become a Sister City,” Von Keyserling says. “The working group will write a summary of their discussions — including challenges that they think would be impactful and the areas of opportunity — and that will go to the council.”

On June 9, the ten members of the Nablus Working Group convened for the first time. Meetings were open to the public, and participants quickly realized that their discussions would be scrutinized by an audience.

“City council is required by code to consider the application,” Boulder City Council member Aaron Brockett said as the meeting kicked off. “I do not want you to come up with a solution or outcome, but to have a conversation with each other so that you understand each other better. I want this process to be less divisive for your community because of your involvement.”

Fellow councilmember Bob Yates implored the group to work on healing. “There has been incivility, and motivations and judgment have been questioned,” he told the group. “Boulder is better than these uncivil conversations. City council and the community are watching carefully.”

Participants in the dialogue were volunteers; half had opposed the proposal, four were supportive, and one declared himself neutral and open to listening. Cherin and Mehos were representing the BNSCP; other supporters included Rob Schware, founder of Give Back Yoga, the organization that trained many Nablus teachers in trauma-centered yoga, and Julia Halaby, a Palestinian who said she was speaking on behalf of all “Palestinians who nurture and give,” and felt that a Sister Cities relationship would give legitimacy to people like her who feel marginalized in American society.

Opponents included Cohen and Joan Nagel, who’d both spoken against Nablus at the 2013 hearing. Rabbis Fred Greene and Marc Soloway voiced concern over the BNSCP agenda; Liz Fox, who mentioned that she’d spent time in the West Bank during the Second Intifada, echoed those fears. Most opponents said they supported the activities of the BNSCP but were not prepared to welcome Nablus as an official Sister City.

"Living under occupation as people in the West Bank do is very challenging — it is also political."

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Paul Heller, the group’s neutral member, said he’d joined the dialogue because he wanted to see the issue become less contentious and less motivated by fear. All members of the working group said they were open to dialogue.

But as soon as the introductions ended, the process got difficult. It was clear that the two sides had very different aims. The opponents “came in with the intention of discussing whether Nablus should be a Sister City or not,” Cherin recalls. “We came in hoping the question would be not whether but how. We wanted to say, ‘Given your concerns, how can we address your concerns so we can get city council’s approval?’”

But a major part of the process involved airing personal grievances about the application, which often inflamed emotions, particularly among participants with ties to Israel or Palestine.

Opponents came back, over and over again, to the issue of trust. They didn’t trust Nablusian counterparts to be non-political, and they didn’t trust the BNSCP to keep activities cultural. “I do not know the people in Nablus,” said one of the members at the July 12 meeting. “They are either Fatah or Hamas, and I do not trust any of them. It will take a lot more than a carefully worded statement that is meant to make Americans happy to make me trust them.” The opponents asked for a list of the Nablusian stakeholders, and to speak with European Sister Cities — such as Dundee, Scotland, and Stavanger, Norway — that had paired with Nablus, to determine whether those relationships had raised political issues in Europe. They called on the BNSCP to strike anti-Israel comments from its website, and to address the pre-Palestinian history of Nablus in its application, noting that the city had once been part of territory controlled by the Jewish people.

In response, the BNSCP provided documentation about whom they’d worked with in Palestine, research from European Sister Cities, and reassurances that their activities were strictly cultural. “Our group tried to listen to all the concerns, put it into a document, and talk about how we would address it,” Mehos said after an early meeting. The organization monitored its website so that it could censor comments from anti-Israel agitators and passed a “document of commitments” aimed at further ameliorating political woes by stating that the BNSCP held no political viewpoint and that it would “expressly prohibit the use of our modes of communication or resources from being used as a platform for political advocacy.”

Participants in the dialogue agreed not to speak with the media about any part of the facilitation process and will not comment today on whether the talks — which ended in August — were a success.
“There was difficulty,” says Stan Deetz, a BNSCP boardmember who sat in the audience at early meetings. “A number of people came in knowing their answer and not wanting to change.”

The meetings were public, though, and the facilitators kept detailed transcripts. From those transcripts, it’s clear that as the meetings went on, the group’s members realized they were not going to come to an agreement on whether Nablus should become a Sister City. In fact, they were headed for the same clash that had derailed the 2013 hearing. Cherin says she began waking up on meeting days with a pit in her stomach.
Despite everything that the BNSCP had done to allay their fears, opponents still struggled with the political underpinnings of the proposal, and worried about the potential for anti-Israel agitators to use any Sister City relationship as a city-approved platform to sow doubts about the legitimacy of Israel. “I strongly believe that approving this Sister City application will be seen as a victory of Palestine against Israel and will encourage the Israel-haters and the Jew-haters,” one participant said at an August 11 meeting. “BNSCP may see this as unfair, and it is unfair, but I see it as a sad reality.”

At the last meeting, on August 31, opponents said they still didn’t feel that all of their grievances had been addressed. Still, the group agreed to write the final report that Boulder City Council had requested. (It will become public sometime in the next couple of weeks.) While everyone seemed to agree that the BNSCP should be able to continue its activities, there would be no recommendation regarding an official Sister Cities relationship between Boulder and Nablus. Getting the city involved was the sticking point.

In the next month or two, Boulder City Council will consider the BNSCP’s renewed application to make Nablus a Sister City.

Opponents are prepared to argue again that the West Bank’s complexities make Nablus an inappropriate choice, particularly since the issue has caused such divisiveness in Boulder. “I oppose this specific proposal because I see it as political, and I see it as an opportunity for people who want to use it as a vehicle to attack Israel,” says Cohen. “The BNSCP organization as an organization doesn’t do that — I don’t want to be misunderstood. But letters I’ve seen, I know there are people who see this Sister City issue as Palestinians win and they are good; Israel loses, they are bad.”

But Deetz argues that rejecting the proposal again will actually do the opposite of de-politicizing the issue. “Turning it down would make it a political issue,” he says. “Accepting it makes it legally non-political. If you reject it, you feed a lot more politics into it.”

So the BNSCP plans to push its attempts to answer every concern, to make a good-faith effort to stay expressly cultural. “I asked the working group, where does it say we can’t talk about the day-to-day realities?” Cherin says. “They were not able to come up with anything in Resolution 631. You go to any Sister City in the world, you come home and you talk about what you experienced while there. If that’s political, then we wouldn’t have any Sister Cities. We should outlaw all Sister Cities if you could not talk about what you’d experienced.”

She wants Boulderites to hear what life in Palestine is like. “Palestinians are especially sensitive to being erased,” says Karolyi. “To say that Nablus shouldn’t be a Sister City is effectively carrying on that legacy of erasure.”

“It’s very important,” agrees Sabbah. “American and Palestinian people can develop partnerships and friendships, and this is a good step forward in this regard.”

As a last-ditch argument, the proponents will point out that Resolution 631 requires that Boulder officials review Sister Cities relationships every year. If they approve the Boulder-Nablas Sister Cities pairing and it proves troublesome, they can always revoke the arrangement.

“City Council is going to have to make a choice. They have to make a lot of uncomfortable choices,” says Deetz. “This is, in some sense, having a referendum on having Sister Cities. If you can have a Sister City anywhere but Palestine, what does that say?”
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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk