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Caught in the Middle...East: Move over, Colin Powell—Burlington may have something to teach its warring sister cities 

click to enlarge DAN SALAMIDA
  • Dan Salamida

Burlington’s three-way sister-city program with Arad in Israel and Bethlehem on the West Bank was marked at birth by both contentiousness and conciliation. And so it has remained for the past 10-and-a-half years, with bitter disputes among political adversaries who have, in the process, become close friends. If only the paradoxes in the Middle East itself were played out against the same backdrop of mutual respect and good will.

The current period of rage and bloodletting in Palestine and Israel is posing new challenges that have strained fault lines within the 15-member sister-city committee and impaired its educational mission. But the modestly funded, all-volunteer group has nonetheless continued to serve as a source of inspiration simply by staying intact and holding firm to its commitment to peace in the Middle East.

No other city in the United States has managed to establish a tripartite relationship with sister communities in both Israel and Palestine. The creativity and durability of the local program should serve as a model for other U.S. cities, suggests Mousa Ishaq, chairman of the Burlington-Bethlehem-Arad committee.

Its membership is roughly balanced between outspoken supporters of the Palestinian cause and tenacious defenders of the Jewish state. That composition, however, sets the committee apart from public opinion in the United States, according to polls, strongly favors the Israeli side.

But differing from the Amer-ican political norm is nothing new for Burlington. Indeed, the sister-city committee’s makeup “fits well with the local political scene,” observes University of Vermont Middle East specialist Gregory Gause. “You’d expect them to be somewhat sympathetic to the Palestinians.”

Among the committee members sharing the Palestinian perspective is Robert Green, who describes himself as “a Jew from a very Zionist background.” Green says he sees no need for a Jewish state in the Middle East, since that region’s inhabitants were not responsible for the Holocaust in Europe. Green favors creation of a single secular state in which Jews and Palestinians would resolve differences democratically.

“I’m committed to reconciliation and restitution,” Green says, noting that when he retires from his private mental-health practice in Vermont he plans to devote his time to rebuilding Palestinian villages razed in the process of creating what is now Israel.

James Leas, once a yeshiva boy in Queens and now a Burlington attorney, also dissents from the mainstream Jewish-American perspective. “There’s a strong hesitancy on the part of some Jewish people to criticize the Israeli government,” Leas notes, adding, “but the best way to support the safety and security of Israel is to speak out against this government.”

Its policy of continuing “35 years of horrendous military occupation puts Jews all over the world at risk,” Leas adds. The sister-city committee is determined to show, he adds, that “the real debate is between the people for peace on both sides and the people for war on both sides. And the people for peace are saying, ‘end the occupation.’”

Joseph Bornstein, a retired University of Vermont professor and agricultural engineer, is probably the group’s most pugnacious champion of Israeli policies. “This harping on ‘occupation, occupation, occupation,’ without mentioning why the occupation occurred in the first place, amounts to telling just half of the story,” he asserts. But Bornstein, who is vice-chair of the committee, does favor creation of an independent Palestinian state that can coexist peacefully alongside Israel — although, he cautions, “We have to see indications from the Palestinians that they’re willing to live in peace.”

Burlington Rabbi Joshua Chasan, a co-founder of the sister-city committee, also takes issue with the term “occupation” in describing the Israeli military presence in the West Bank and Gaza. “I used to call it ‘occupation,’ too,” he explains, “but I’ve come to see how that word fits into expressions of fear and even hatred of Jews.” Besides, Chasan continues, “the underlying problem is not the occupation but the acceptance of Jews in the Middle East.”

Despite their expressed concerns about anti-Semitism, the Vermont Jews interviewed for this story all say they have felt no threat locally. Mousa Ishaq, the Christian Palestinian-American who chairs the sister-city committee, also says he feels at ease and at home in Vermont.

Ishaq comes from the village of Aboud, situated on the West Bank about 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem. One of his cousins currently serves as mayor of the village. Ishaq, an engineer at IBM, came to Vermont 24 years ago with his American wife.

“My vision is of peaceful coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians based on equality and justice and with no need for armies,” says Ishaq. But he also leaves no doubt about his view that the Israelis are to blame for the current crisis. He says Israel, “a very powerful nation subjugating a very weak nation,” has established an “apartheid situation whereby it controls the skies, the aquifers, the borders and the bypass roads, and the other side controls nothing.” Ishaq identifies Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands as “the root cause of this unfolding evil.”

Although he faults both sets of current leaders — “There’s no Mandela on the scene” — Ishaq believes that the Palestinians and Israelis have no long-term option other than to make peace. “Their destiny is intertwined. There’s no escape from one another.”

The same formulation might be applied, loosely, to the Burlington sister-city committee. The emotionally charged debates of today are not all that different from those of 1991, when the program was launched in tripartite form, says Burlington attorney Sandy Baird, another founding member.

A group of activists had originally proposed that Burlington form a sister-city relationship solely with Bethlehem. That led to protests from a number of local residents, who argued that twinning with a mainly Palestinian city would imply that Burlington had chosen sides in the Middle East conflict. Through the leadership of two city councilors at the time — Arab-American William Aswad and Jewish-American Gene Bergman — it was eventually agreed that Burlington would also adopt Arad, a town in Israel’s Negev Desert, as a sister along with Bethlehem.

“There’s no animosity based on ethnic heritage,” adds Ishaq. “More than 10 years ago we started this committee across a great divide, but now I can call everyone on it my friend.”

Rabbi Chasan offers a similar testament. Although he has resigned from the committee to focus on the affairs of his synagogue, Ohavi Zedek, Chasan says that during his years with the group he “grew to love all the people involved, including those who seemed to be one-sidedly against Israel. It’s a group of people with deep convictions who have been involved in good causes for the last 30 years or more,” he adds.

This flowering of fellowship doesn’t prevent Chasan from terming the committee’s posture “flagrantly one-sided.” He asserts, “It’s not being totally true to the tri-partite arrangement with which it started.”

Most of the sister-city committee’s energies are focused now on humanitarian relief in Bethlehem, which has suffered major damage as a result of Israel’s military operations there. Nearly $12,000 has been contributed in the past few months — but Joe Bornstein and Rabbi Chasan are not among the donors.

Both men say they recognize the validity of the effort to help repair damage in Bethlehem. But Bornstein suggests that contributing to the fund would contradict his view that Palestinians “have to recognize that they have some responsibility for why this has happened.” And Chasan says he has doubts about how the money would be used by at least one of the intended recipient organizations in Bethlehem. He declines to identify that organization.

Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, a sponsor of the Bethlehem fundraising drive, says all the groups are reputable and secular nonprofits, including a university and a medical center.

Many Burlingtonians with an interest in the Middle East — including Chasan — say Clavelle has demonstrated political courage by undertaking a fundraising effort on behalf of Palestinians at a time when U.S. public opinion is solidly aligned with Israel.

“I don’t view it as politically courageous,” Clavelle says. “It’s just the right thing to do and it’s entirely in keeping with the nature of a sister-city program. If Arad was in crisis now, I think the reaction would be the same.” In the past, the committee has raised money to support Israeli after-school programs.

The Bethlehem relief initiative is currently tapping most of the committee’s modest resources. The violence in the region has also made it difficult for the committee to carry on with its other main tasks — bringing speakers from the region to Burlington and arranging Vermont-Middle East cultural exchanges. A Bethlehem city councilor was invited to take part in a local weeklong program in April, but she was not able to obtain a U.S. visa.

In the past, the group has sponsored several educational events, and it is planning to arrange visits by West Bank and Israeli dance troupes once the fighting subsides. Many committee members have also visited Bethlehem and Arad.

The Burlington group assesses its own work as effective, and attendance at some of its events suggests that they interest a significant number of Vermonters. But the sister-city’s purely educational — and supposedly nonpartisan — approach has led to the formation of another group seeking to engage in advocacy efforts in support of Palestinian positions.

Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine-Israel was launched a little more than a year ago, with a membership that partly overlaps that of the sister-city program. Robert Green, for example, belongs to both groups. He explains that the Just Peace organization is able to take positions — such as a call for suspension of U.S. military aid to Israel — that the sister-city committee cannot.

“The sister-city group is about people-to-people diplomacy, and it’s also focused on just two towns — Bethlehem and Arad,” says Green. It has “developed a culture that does not involve taking partisan political stands.” Vermonters for a Just Peace, on the other hand, “takes the issues of the entire region as its scope… It’s all about taking partisan political stands.”

Participation in the Burlington-Bethlehem-Arad program involves gaining as well as giving, its supporters say. Clavelle, for instance, finds that “in many respects we in Burlington have benefited more than they have in Arad and Bethlehem. I know I personally have gained a much deeper understanding of the complexity of the situation. I appreciate that the Israelis are living daily in fear of their lives, and I also recognize the oppression that the Palestin-ians are subjected to.”

Working with Vermont’s three-member congressional delegation is another key undertaking, note several sister-city committee members. Those supportive of the Palestinian cause say they have found some sympathy from both Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and Independent Senator James Jeffords. But both men recently voted in favor of a nonbinding Senate resolution that endorsed Israel’s military operation in the West Bank. Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders voted “present,” which essentially amounts to an abstention. None of Vermont’s three Congress members seems especially keen on making the Middle East a focus of his work in Washington.

Sanders includes no position on the issue on his Web site. Jeffords’ site features a bland exhortation for President Bush to become more involved in ending the violence. Only Leahy confronts the crisis head-on, saying, “Israel has a right to defend itself. The suicide bombings are appalling and outrageous and are never justified under any circumstances. But the answer is not to fire missiles into densely populated areas or to purposefully destroy peoples’ homes. As long as Israeli settlers continue to occupy Palestinian land, the extremists will win and the bombings and retribution will continue.”

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


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