Boulder’s Rebuke of Palestine

The headline in the Boulder Daily Camera, whose editorial page supported the project, read: “Boulder City Council Denies making Nablus a sister city,” and indeed that is what happened at this week’s city council meeting in that university town with a history of taking controversial, but ethical decisions for decades. Not this time…

Boulder: A history of controversial Sister City Projects that have worked

It was the Boulder City Council, which at the height of Reagan’s war against Nicaragua voted to make Jalapa, Nicaragua a sister city, a relationship that has continued for 30 years or so now (and in which my father-in-law, Lowell Fey, (once again!) actively participated). It was the Boulder City Council, which at the height of the Cold War had the moral courage to make Dushambe, capitol of Tajikistan a sister city as well. It resulted, for Boulder, in the construction of a magnificent `tea house‘, one of the city’s pearls.

It should not be surprising then that participants in the two sister city projects would be among those who attended last night’s special meeting of the Boulder City Council to defend a proposal for Boulder to develop a formal Sister City relationship with Nablus, West Bank, Palestine and to argue for the advantages of such projects. Even before formal `official’ recognition, the project has generated a number of rich exchanges between Boulder and Nablus, which will continue despite the City Council `No’ vote.

While there were a sizable number of opponents in the room, there were many others, including myself, who attended and who enthusiastically supported the project from diverse sectors of Boulder’s thriving progressive community. I was there to read a statement signed by more than 40 Denver-Boulder area Jews, some religious, some not, in support of the Boulder-Nablus Sister City Project and to speak, as I did, as a member of the Front Range Chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. Many of the proposal’s opponents spoke of how the issue is `so complex’ , controversial, that the issue would divide, rather than unify the Boulder community.

Neither of these arguments are convincing, or for that matter, new. Israel’s more ardent supporters, when faced with the facts of Israel’s 46 year illegal military occupation of Palestinian territories, try to hide behind the veil of `complexity’, and to avoid the `O’ word, ie – Occupation. But the questions posed by Boulder City Council members – and the disingenuous remarks of Boulder Mayer Appelbaum to the media after the event – suggest that the council had approached the meeting with already closed minds that logic and facts were not going to be able to prey open.

Losing Control of the Narrative…

As for the issue of establishing a sister city relationship between a Colorado city and a Palestinian one being `controversial’…what nonsense! It might be controversial within the Jewish Community, but it  isn’t particularly controversial at all among the broader the population who have over the past decade become more sympathetic to the situation, the plight of the Palestinian people, and this fact was obvious to anyone attending last night’s meeting.

The fact of the matter is that outside of bubble that Boulder’s mainstream Jewish synagogues, the ADL have long lived in concerning the Israeli-Palestinian issue, blind support for Israel – and using the pretext of the holocaust as a justification for Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people – has lost much of its steam.

Yes, it is true that the room was divided more or less evenly (I didn’t count) between the project’s supporters and opponents. But a closer look gives a different picture. With two exceptions that I recall out of some 70 speakers, a local minister and a particularly ardent pro-Zionist Asian-American woman, virtually all of the projects opponents were Boulder (or Denver) Jews with strong ties to a few of the synagogues and they came with their two rabbis (more on these two further down) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

But if anything, the meeting revealed that Israel’s more zealous supporters themselves enjoy a shrinking popular base of support. In fact, my impression was that, the vote aside,  they were rather politically isolated last night. More important, last night suggested that Israel’s defenders are losing control of the narrative as new voices come on the scene. And this has them running scared.

On the other hand, if the project’s supporters ultimately lost the vote, still, their community support is growing and my sense was that it is more, much more broad based, and this was reflected in those who came to speak in defense of the proposal. All kinds of people spoke in support of the project, suggesting, once again, that the attempt of the likes of the ADL and its supporters to control the narrative on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is breaking down. They are no longer able to monopolize the message.

There were no small number of Jews who came to support the proposal, there were four Palestinians who spoke but there were also many people who are not Jewish, not Palestinian, not Muslim who spoke as well. This is important – the issue of Palestine – of the human and national rights of the Palestinian people – is no longer confined to the main players themselves – the issue is becoming more universal.

City Council Approval Not To Be…

But Boulder City Council approval of the project was not to be. Times have changed as has the make up of the City Council itself. If in the past the Council chose hope over fear, this time they failed to show what was needed – just a little bit of courage.  The ethical courage of Boulder’s elected city officials has all but evaporated.

This was apparent from the  cowardly way several members of the council bought into the McCarthyite attacks on the Boulder-Nablus Sister City key organizer Guy Benintendi. These efforts were spearheaded by the ADL’s Scott Levin, Bruce Deboskey’s replacement. Levin, looking dapper and professional in his three piece suit, is the relatively new regional director of the Mountain States Anti-Defamation League.

While the ADL in Colorado has some genuine achievements under its belt – especially its exposure of right-wing Christian fundamentalism at the Air Force Academy a few years back, it has spent (or so it appears to me) an inordinate amount of time watch-dogging and actively intervening to undermine local peace groups critical of Israel or simply friendly to the Palestinian people – there appears to be no distinction between the two –  be it Friends of Sabeel, the Boulder based Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, or now the Boulder-Nablus Sister City Project.

Doing their duty to God and Zion

Supporting Levin, doing their patriotic duty for God and Zion were two local rabbis, Rabbi Saloway and Rabbi Rose, both of Boulder, both relatively young, both considered on most issues on the liberal side of the spectrum, which they probably are, that is with the usual exception…`liberal on everything but…’ the end of the sentence being `Palestine’ where their political liberalism, interestingly enough, seems to collapse, a tendency that is – to use a double negative – not untypical.

I did not get the name of Saloway’s synagogue, but Rose’s home is Har Hashem. Also playing a leading role in opposing the project and virtually any local initiative where the word `Palestinian’ might appear, was Bill Cohen, retired local lawyer, a long time defender of Zionist causes in Boulder. Combined, the four of them were `the heavy hitters’ of Boulder’s mainstream Jewish Community…except really, none of them were that profound. Just more of the same old, same old…old Mogen David in a new bottle.

Many spurious arguments were made last night in opposition to the proposal that Boulder’s city government formally endorse the Boulder-Nablus Sister City Project. In fact, the only honest comment that I saw came in letter to the editor to the Boulder Daily Camera several weeks ago where it was argued that the project was `dangerous’ because it would result in a growing sympathy among Boulderites and Coloradoans for the situation of the Palestinian people and an erosion of pro-Israeli control of the Israel-Palestine narrative that has so dominated American public life.

The writer is correct about that.

Person-to-person programs like this one – they need not be political – develop long term ties between people that break down prejudices. That is exactly what they are meant to do, and yes, it often results in sympathy. Yet this is a telling piece of logic, isn’t it: that support for Israeli policies is necessarily based on keeping the American people in a state if ignorance of the Palestinian reality, hostile to that reality – thus the importance of the mainstream Jewish Community – remaining the filter through which the Palestinian reality is understood. Independent contacts undermine this paradigm.

Maintaining a monopoly control of information on the realities of Palestinian life under occupation is at the heart of the matter, what the meeting was about.  The ADL and the synagogues want to maintain their control of the narrative; the Boulder-Nablus Sister City Project is an attempt to break down that control of information, for a more open relationship on a human level with Palestinians and Palestine. And this it seemed is what had to be prevented. In the end though, all the efforts of the ADL, the rabbis and their supporters to block the project from getting official sanction will fail. They have one the battle but will lose the war for a simple reason: justice is not on their side.

After listening to the Gang of Four, a person would come away with the impression that it is those evil Palestinians who have occupied Israel since 1967 and not the contrary.They had, planned or not – it matters little – a coordinated approach. As the ethical basis of their opposition to direct contacts between Boulderites and Palestinians becomes shakier, their logic has become more shrill. It included slandering the city of Nablus, `a dangerous place’, calling the sister city project `political’ (as though their opposition to the project wasn’t!), claiming to be moderates (which they are not) and attacking Benintendi. Their approach was empty and shallow, but well presented, even polished. It worked, at least in the sense of pressing the City Council to vote against the project.

We are for sister city projects…but not this one

My favorite line – repeated ad nauseum throughout the evening by the heavy hitters and their `flock’ went something like this: we are FOR sister city projects…but not this one! Yes, as if to legitimize his opposition to the project, Rabbi Saloway wanted the audience to know how he’d picked olives with Palestinians in the West Bank…but opposes the Boulder-Nablus Project because Guy Benintendi is involved. Rabbi Rose expressed concern that the human rights of Palestinian women and gays are being violated, but then said not a word about Israel’s policies of military occupation, which by omission he either supports or is two cowardly to condemn. Bill Cohen’s comments, frankly, are not even worth commentary.

Each tried to put forth their progressive credentials, how they are for women’s and gay rights (perhaps!), how they are `dialogue’ on Israel and Palestine (as long as they control the narrative). Right. They combined their assertion of progressive credentials (important – this is a Boulder ritual) with what some later speakers defined as hate speech. Nablus is a horrible place, Palestinians hate gays and engage in honor killings, …the poor Palestinian women.

Sport of the Day: Vilify `The Evil’ Guy Benintendi

Attacking Benintendi has become something of a local sport in Boulder Jewish circles. But after all Benintendi continues to use the `O’ word (Occupation) to describe Israel’s `relationship’ to the Palestinians. Levin couldn’t resist taking a cheap shot at Boulder-Nablus Sister-City spokeswoman Essrea Cherin which he described condescendingly as `a Jewish face to the project’ (or something to that effect), but most of the personal attacks of the evening concentrated on Guy Benintendi.

The anti-Benintendi campaign, the personal attacks against Guy Benintendi   had several purposes, first and foremost was to divert the attention from the Boulder-Nablus Sister City’s already positive and effective track record. It was also intended to smear the project with a `left brush’ and to claim that its people-to-people goals covered a `hidden agenda’, this in a city with a rich radical history, a history which the city council itself tried to distance itself from.

Finally targeting Benintendi had yet another purpose  – to cause dissension in the ranks of project supports, to divide its more left elements, of which Benintendi is obviously one from its more moderate supporters. I could not tell if this pressure worked. Liberals have a long history of abandoning their left companeros when the going gets tough, but my impression was that the groups internal solidarity, held. That is the important thing from where I am sitting, much more important, actually than the Council’s vote itself.

It is precisely the alliance between people like Essrea Cherin, who defended the project with integrity and honesty and Benintendi that gives the Boulder-Nablus Sister City Project its core energy. But then I am outside the group’s internal dynamics (and have no interest in getting more involved). I just hope that they can keep the project together, alive and that rather than undermining the project’s goals, that last night’s struggle will, the contrary, strengthen the effort.

The measure was voted down by a sizable 6-3 margin. For a moment I was surprised at the calm demeanor of the council itself, including Boulder’s mayor, Matt Appelbaum, who chaired the meeting. The meeting was well run in the main…both those for and against the project lined up an impressive list of speakers to defend the project.

If the council members were calm in the face of `an emotional issue’, it was most probably because, the dye was already cast before the meeting itself, that, the council members knew well how the vote would go and therefore why not let the good citizens of Boulder, both sides of the issue, blow off a little steam. It would make the council look good in the sense that they had let the debate proceed in the first place, give the trimmings of democracy without its essence – a very Boulder way of doing things. A cynical observation I admit, but until proven wrong,  I’ll stick with it.

OK… lutta continua…The Boulder-Nablus project, despite this City Council set back – maybe even because of it, will come back stronger, more vibrant, more humane than ever and its opponents exposed for the small minded bigots (sorry that precisely how I see them) that they are…

Rob Prince is a lecturer Lecturer in International Studies at the University of Denver.

Rob Prince lectures in International Studies at the University of Denver. He can be reached at