Montgomery delays partnership with Israeli city

February 11, 2012

This is not what Montgomery County officials expected when they started signing sister-city agreements.

After arranging the first one last year, county officials have been busy finalizing another pact, this one with Beit Shemesh in Israel.

But recent controversies in the city, which is west of Jerusalem, have put the agreement with the county on hold.­­

In recent months, news reports of the city’s ultra-Orthodox population skirmishing with Israeli police and assaulting some Israeli women have made their way around the world and into living rooms around Washington.

The confrontations followed the posting of a sign outside a row of Beit Shemesh synagogues directing women to walk on the other side of the street. In one ensuing incident, an 8-year-old girl was spit on and called a prostitute, according to Israeli news reports. In another, a woman was surrounded and pelted with stones, according to the reports.

Israeli cabinet ministers and moderate Orthodox leaders denounced the actions of the ultra-Orthodox.

A city of about 86,000 people, Beit Shemesh has maintained close cultural and economic ties with a number of prominent Jews in Montgomery County. In 2007, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) visited Beit Shemesh, and it was then that talk of a sister-city partnership began.

But now Montgomery Sister Cities, the nonprofit group that was set up by Leggett after his 2007 visit to coordinate the partnerships, is turning its attention elsewhere and looking to the historic Ethio­pian city of Gondar as the county’s next prospective sister city.

The sister-city program, which in this case is more of a sister-county program, encourages cooperation between municipalities through educational, cultural, social, economic, humanitarian and charitable exchanges. Montgomery’s first partnership, with Morazan, El Salvador, was signed in July.

City’s ‘systemic’ issues

Beit Shemesh, and the surrounding county of Mateh Yahuda, was expected to be second in line.

Instead, it has become a hot-button issue in Montgomery. Susan Kerin, a Derwood resident and a human rights activist, said the county has “dodged a bullet” by delaying the process.

Kerin said the city has had a “systemic” issue with segregation and hate violence. She said that since 2009, she has been telling the county of her concerns. In October, however, she was told by members of the Montgomery Sister Cities board that the agreement with Beit Shemesh was a “done deal.”

Bruce Adams, one of the board members contacted by Kerin, said she is “misrepresenting basically everything” about the meeting. He said he told her that the board was intending to finalize the agreement, but “it was not over till it’s over.” Adams said Kerin told board members that human rights violations were occurring in the city but she could not provide any specifics.

“And then in December,” Adams said, “some things happened that, you know, raised concerns, and so we were able to get a better understanding of what she was talking about.”

Kerin said that she and fellow activists met with Leggett on Jan. 10 and that he told the group the decision was “not a done deal.”

Public meeting planned

Leggett said that he makes the final decision and that the nonprofit board has not yet issued a recommendation to him concerning Beit Shemesh.

Adams, a political ally of Leggett’s, said the nonprofit board has proposed a public meeting on Beit Shemesh in late March. The board is also inviting the Middle Eastern American Advisory Group, a county committee that was contacted by Kerin’s group and expressed concerns in December about the sister-city agreement.

Meanwhile, the county’s Commission for Women and the Commission on Human Rights are meeting in upcoming weeks to discuss the sister-city agreement. On Wednesday, the county’s Committee on Hate/Violence, of which Kerin is a member, held a conference call on the issue.

The Rockville-based Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has pushed the county to forge the sister-city agreement.

In an interview, Ron Halber, a spokesman for the organization and the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said Leggett and the nonprofit board are right in taking more time to hear public opinion as a result of the recent attention.

County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) said “good judgment is prevailing.”

“I really support efforts to build bridges, but we have to be practical . . . ,” said Leventhal, who is Jewish and visited Beit Shemesh in 2001. “The deeper you get into issues like this, the greater risk you run of getting your own constituents really mad.”

Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who is also Jewish, said people would never imagine something like this happening with a prospective sister city — “or else you wouldn’t enter into these discussions.”

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