(Originally published in The Times of Israel)
On August 14 the Sacramento City Council will consider a proposal to form a Sister City relationship with Ashkelon, a city along the southern coast of Israel. Predictably, members of the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement and others that hate Israel are opposing the proposal, which would hopefully result in greater understanding and warmer relations.
Those opposing the relationship have called for a turnout of opponents at the City Council meeting and are distributing a very one-sided “fact” sheet documenting every alleged transgression by Israel relating to the Ashkelon area and the Arab population.
Ashkelon is totally within the 1949 armistice lines. Thus, the effort to derail the Sister City relationship proves once again, as if any additional evidence was needed, that many in the anti-Israel crowd have a problem with the very idea of Jews having a nation regardless of its boundaries.
Sacramentans who support the Sister City relationship intend to also attend the meeting to thank the City Council and to encourage the members to vote in favor of the relationship.
If Sister City relationships depend on histories devoid of any conflict or controversy, it is likely we won’t be seeing many of them. In the interests of ensuring that the City Council of Ashkelon is fully informed about their proposed new relative, I wrote them a letter:
Dear Ashkelon City Council Members:
I am a proud citizen of both the U.S.and Israel. I grew up in Sacramento and love it, and I now reside part of the year in Sacramento and part in Jerusalem.
I understand that you are considering a Sister City relationship with the City of Sacramento, in the State of California, USA. I think that’s a great idea. However, I wanted to be sure that you know all about Sacramento’s history before you vote on the proposal.
The United States of America expanded into the West pursuant to a doctrine called “Manifest Destiny.” Manifest Destiny, which occurred in the 1800’s, involved the systematic destruction and dispersion of Native Americans and the settling of Europeans on their lands. In short, the Europeans occupied the lands of the Native Americans. These Native Americans were relegated to “reservations” and have been seeking fair remedies ever since.
Sacramento and its surrounding areas were home to several American Indian tribes who lived peacefully and in harmony with the land for centuries. In the mid-1800’s, when gold was discovered within miles of Sacramento, the area became the focus of intense settlement by Americans and European.
The Americans and Europeans settlers colonized the territory, setting up encampments and mining facilities with no regard whatsoever for the native populations. The Native Americans lost their land, their holy places, their grazing lands, and much of their culture.
As part of the Gold Rush, Asians were brought to California. Their labor was exploited and they were treated harshly. They had virtually no rights. When the famous Transcontinental Railroad was built, Chinese laborers were brought to California and were basically treated like slaves.
Among other areas, the Chinese workers worked on the right-of-way over Donner Pass. The elevation on the Pass is about 7,000 feet. They worked in the harshest winter conditions. They received inadequate shelter, little food, and were subject to terrible cold. Many were injured and died.
But for war, Sacramento would be part of Mexico today. The United States won a war against Mexico in the 1840’s. In the Treaty of Guadalupe, which Mexico was forced to sign after the war,California became part of the United States and was occupied by it.
During World War II, Japanese American citizens were treated like alien enemies. Despite the fact that they were loyal citizens and many of their sons bravely fought in the U.S. Army, they were rounded up and imprisoned in camps for the duration of the war.
The camps were in desolate parts of the American West, and the conditions were primitive. The internees were completely deprived of their rights as American citizens. There was a sizeable population of Japanese American citizens in the Sacramento area. They lost their homes, their businesses, and their farms.
Like Ashkelon, Sacramento today has a diverse population and a commitment to diversity, tolerance, and understanding. Occasionally, however, ethnic tensions come to the surface. Sacramento experiences occasional hate crimes. In fact, a number of years ago three synagogues in Sacramento were subject to arson attacks.
I am happy to report that, just like in Ashkelonand the rest of Israel, Sacramento’s community leaders act firmly against such bigotry.
You should know that Sacramento has Sister City relationships with cities in some countries with questionable behavior. For example, it has a relationship with a city in China, a country with a human rights record that has been condemned by many and that has occupied Tibet for over 50 years, with disastrous consequences for Tibetan freedom and culture.
I should point out the obvious: this is my version of the history of and the current situation in Sacramento. Others see the history of Sacramento,California, and the U.S.from different perspectives and with different emphases. There is always room for debate and discussion. As you well know, there is usually plenty of blame to go around in any dispute.
The bigger issue than arguing over the history is dealing with the present. The question when it comes to your decision whether or not to agree to a Sister City relationship with Sacramento is whether we should dwell on and become entangled in debates and bitterness over Sacramento’s past or whether we should reach out and try to embrace people today. The question is whether building relationships and understanding and friendships through a Sister City relationship is preferable to arguing over past grievances and alleged transgressions.
I can tell you that Sacramento today is full of warm, well-intentioned, decent people, much like the residents of Ashkelon. I am sure that Sacramento still makes mistakes. What community does not? But I can assure you that Sacramento is a beautiful city doing many positive things.
I think Ashkelon would gain much from being connected to the City of Sacramento and its people. Ashkelon would learn from Sacramento and Sacramento would learn from Ashkelon.
So, despite the fact that Sacramento’s past is not without its controversies, I strongly recommend that Ashkelon agree to a Sister City relationship with Sacramento. I think the people of both communities and the regions they are in will benefit greatly.