Three and a half years ago, the organizers behind the Boulder-Nablus Sister City Project (or BNSCP) first went before Boulder City Council to ask the city to establish an official Sister City relationship with Nablus, Palestine. The organization had fostered several outlets for exchange between the two cities, connecting yoga teachers and artists and hosting delegations of Boulderites in Nablus. But some Boulder constituents worried that there was something less honest in the BNSCP's motivations. They were concerned that organizers were using the partnership to drive an anti-Israel political agenda, or at least doing a disservice to the Boulder community by not acknowledging the full context of the complicated politics of the region.
That June 2013 meeting saw hours of testimony on both sides of the issue, and it devolved at times into a verbal brawl. Council denied the BNSCP's request, asking the group to return after it attempted to heal the rift the potential pairing had created in the community.
Tomorrow, Tuesday, December 13, the BNSCP will do just that: Council will again take up whether it should or should not make Nablus an official Sister City — and it looks as though it will, once again, preside over a spirited and emotional fight.
When we reported on the BNSCP in October, opposing and supporting parties had just wrapped up a months-long facilitated dialogue at the request of council; the process was meant to carve out common ground between the two sides and end with a recommendation as to how to proceed, endorsed by the entire group and provided to council. But even before the final report was published, it was clear that common ground was elusive. "A number of people came in knowing their answer and not wanting to change,” BNSCP boardmember Stan Deetz said at the time.
Opponent and pro-Israel activist Ken Toltz agrees. "Everyone retrenched back to their corners and proceeded to say, 'You didn’t hear me the first ten times I said this,'" he says. And he points out that as a result, the same concerns the opponents took up in that first meeting three years ago were still very much at play. Opponents worry that this Sister City relationship would be expressly political rather than cultural, and that the coupling could, per the report, be used to "push an anti-Israel agenda in Boulder and beyond."
Moreover, Toltz says, "The divisiveness didn’t get resolved, but exacerbated. The working group is aware that no matter what decision council makes, some members of the Boulder community will feel angry, frustrated, devalued and disenfranchised. They worry that any council decision could be viewed as a preference by council of one part of the community over another. Some are concerned that denial of the application will reinforce a destructive belief that Palestinians are fundamentally political or dangerous. Others are concerned that denial of the application will reinforce a destructive belief that there was undue influence on council by Jewish residents in Boulder."
BNSCP executive director Essrea Cherin acknowledges that opposing concerns were not tempered in the dialogues. "We had all sorts of discussions over the summer, and while we reached greater understanding, we know people still hold concerns about the project and will be opposing it," she says. But she also says that the BNSCP has done everything council has asked. "There's absolutely no reason why we should not have Sister City approval. We've met and gone above and beyond the requirements. We're doing every single thing other Sister Cities do." There's enough concern from the opposition, however, that by the end of last week, according to Cherin, the city council had received two letters of opposition for every letter of support.
Come Tuesday, the BNSCP will try to convey its efforts to build bridges with its detractors over the last three years and its intentions of continuing to reach out to opponents to try to soothe fears about the anti-Israel agenda. "We want the Sister City to work for everyone in the community. That’s why we created the statement of commitments [which expressly commits the BNSCP from becoming a political organization or advancing a political agenda]. We wanted to help allay the concerns that people have about our project being anti-Israel or political. We want to assure everyone in the community that none of our projects are or ever will be considered anti-Israel."
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No matter what happens at council, says Toltz, "this is a terrible way to start a Sister City relationship. We shouldn’t put council in a position to vote on something that’s outside of their purview or expertise. They're in the middle of a foreign policy, cultural and religious tornado, and it will not quit spinning." And he says that should the Sister City gain approval, opponents will likely contact council every time they see anti-Israel violence unfolding in Nablus.
Cherin says that if the application goes through, the BNSCP will continue its outreach to worried community members, and that it will be bound to make sure its activities remain non-political or risk losing its status. "Council reviews relationships once a year. If we do not live up to what council asks of our Sister Cities, we could lose our status. We've been working very hard for this, so we have every intention of measuring up."
And if the application is denied, the BNSCP will not likely go away. "When we didn't get approved in 2013, it was quite devastating," Cherin says. "I was emotionally in not a great place for a couple of weeks. But we had a board meeting, and we had conversations about whether we should go back [before council] or not, and it was unanimous to continue. We started to plan for the next meeting. It took about three years, but we finally got here. I imagine the same will be true. We'll likely return until we get approved."
The public meeting takes place at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, December 13, at 1777 Broadway in Boulder.