MONTGOMERY COUNTY • SARAH KRAUT
The Montgomery County Sister Cities board held a public hearing at the Executive Office Building Tuesday, March 13, to allow local residents input on the potential twin city relationship it is considering forming with the Israeli city of Bet Shemesh. The meeting brought a lot of heated debate and strong opinions were expressed on both sides.
As chairman of the board William Hudnut repeatedly emphasized, no decisions were made based on that evening’s dialogue, and all opinions will be weighed carefully before any action is taken in the matter.
“I thought it was an excellent discussion on both ends, and that’s what we were looking for,” said Bruce Adams, Director of the Office of Community Partnerships. “I’m proud to live in a county where you can have such a civil conversation about such a difficult subject.”
Leading the opposition of the partnership was Susan Kerin, representing Human Rights Matter!—the nonprofit she founded specifically to combat the Bet Shemesh partnership—and Samira Hussein on behalf of the Middle Eastern Advisory Group to the county executive. They raised important humanitarian concerns such as the institutionalized segregation in the school system, the glaring lack in numbers of Arab Israelis living in the city, and most recently in the news, the hate violence from ultra Orthodox Jewish men, such as that against 8-year-old Naama Margolese.
“What are the benefits to us as residents?” asked Kerin. “What do we lose by not having this relationship? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?”
Rabbi Jack Luxembourg, on behalf of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), brought many facts and figures regarding the diversity and strengths of the Mateh Yehuda region, where Bet Shemesh functions as the urban center. He said the JCRC encourages this regional approach, as it is consistent with other initiatives the community has established, or is considering, with the Morizan region in El Salvadore, and the Ghondar region in Ethiopia.
“This cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, its richness and its challenges, mirrors our experiences here in Montgomery County,” said Luxembourg of the Mateh Yehuda region.
Luxembourg’s suggestion raised a lot of confusion from all parties, as to whether it is the city of Bet Shemesh or the greater Mateh Yehuda region, which encompasses 57 different municipalities that is a candidate for partnership. The Montgomery County Sister Cities members continuously referred to Bet Shemesh as the area in question, and the JCRC representatives were defending the Mateh Yehuda region as a whole as a potential partner.
When the floor was opened up for comments and questions, it seemed there were many locals in attendance who shared the same human rights concerns as Kerin and Hussein.
23-year-old Jozi Zwerdling, a Jewish woman from Silver Spring, said she felt the partnership didn’t properly represent what she wants to see in a sister city.
“I would like to see us be twin cities with a place that I really feel represents the way I’ve grown up in Montgomery County,” she said. “And I don’t think what I’ve heard about Bet Shemesh represents my experience, and it certainly doesn’t represent the experiences of people that have been victims of hate violence.”
Some questioned the sister city system at large, wondering why Montgomery County should partner with any city and make their problems this county’s problems.
Alan Kolnik, a 22-year resident of Montgomery County, declared that the same standards should be applied to all cities across the board. He posited that Ghondar, Ethiopia—another candidate city—is known for 70% to 90% of women undergoing the brutality of female genital mutilation. In the same light, he said, a Ukrainian city is being looked to as another prospect, and women demonstrate there to attract attention to the oppressive nature of the way in which they are treated there.
“The whole sister cities program is a bad idea,” said Saqib Ali, a political activist and former state legislator from Gaithersburg. “I don’t understand what it accomplishes except pandering one national group in Montgomery County to another.”
“The world is a messy place and when you start picking and choosing favorites, you start importing those conflicts to Montgomery County,” he added.
Many of those for the partnership claim that this is an opportunity to help another community in need. They say we should help Bet Shemesh to become more accepting and unified like Montgomery County is.
“Anywhere you go in the world there are going to be things going on that folks don’t like, but that doesn’t mean that we just turn our back on things,” said Adams, after the meeting. “If perfection is the criterion then we’re not going to have any sister cities, so I think all of these things are legitimate and potentially a sister city relationship would help move things to a more positive relationship.”
“In the time I’ve worked with Bet Shemesh and Mateh Yehuda, I’ve met hundreds, thousands of people who want to engage in conversations,” said Anton Goodman, a Jewish Israeli and Community Shaliach and Israel Engager for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. “They’re not looking to agree, but they’re looking to build a joint future together and they’re looking to listen. I think that is the best basis for any sister city.”
“There are many other cities within Israel, and in other parts of the world, that are more representative of the population than Bet Shemesh,” said Ali. “So if they’re going to pick one, they should pick one that’s not simply made up of one ethnic group.”