Montgomery County’s controversial plan to make Israeli city Beit Shemesh an official Sister City has hit a snag due to increasing pressure from human rights activists.
Beit Shemesh has made news as a result of increasing friction between the secular Jewish population and ultra orthodox Jews resulting in a series of violent acts. In addition the city has become notorious for its active segregation of women and several documented incidents of violence.
One particular incident caught national attention when a young girl was spit on and had rocks thrown at her on her way to school. Israeli government officials have denounced these acts as isolated incidents by extremists.
Sister City talks between Montgomery County and Beit Shemesh began in 2007 when Montgomery County, County Executive Isiah Leggett visited the Israeli city.
The issue has now become a hotbed for human rights activists.
“We are known for being a county that values human rights,” said Susan Kerin, a local human rights activist.
Kerin presented an overview of the human rights concerns in a March 13th meeting with the board attempting to formalize the process to make the Beit Shemesh a Sister City.
While she didn’t feel as though her presentation made as big of an impact as she would have hoped, she felt it was her responsibility to make the concerns known.
“Our reputation is on the line,” said Kerin.
Kerin said her argument isn’t about finding solutions for the situation in Beit Shemesh or even raising awareness but rather making sure that Montgomery County isn’t inadvertently supporting what she described as “institutionalized” human rights violations.
“We may not be the cause of it. We may not be the solution. But we won’t be contributing [to this] by endorsing [a sister city relationship],” she said.
Bruce Adams, Montgomery County Sister City board member, said that though he does not agree with incidents that occurred in Beit Shemesh regarding the young girl who was assaulted, he doesn’t think complete withdrawal from the Sister City program is the answer.
“I don’t understand how we would help the little girl by walking away,” he said.
Adams said the Sister Cities are chosen based on the demographics of Montgomery County. The county established a relationship with El Salvador because there is a large immigrant population in Montgomery County from the Central American country.
Likewise, when The Jewish Federation, who has had an informal fifteen year relationship with Beit Shemesh proposed the formalization of the Israeli city as a Sister City, Adams and the Sister City Board began discussions.
“We were moving toward [establishing the Sister City]. It was our intention to formalize that relationship by now. We were talking about late fall or this [past] winter,” said Adams.
When opposition arose regarding human rights violations the project was delayed but has not been canceled.
“I think we will keep it on hold. It’s a question on which people of good will can disagree,” he said. “Right now it’s a little too murky.”
As the opposition continues to raise questions, Adams said the argument of the city not meeting standards has its complexities.
“The world is a messy place. If you put a Montgomery County human rights standard virtually no country in the world could meet it,” he said. “All communities have variety of human rights issues...Certainly they are troubling. There are plenty of things that happen in the United States.”
While a decision has yet to be made, Adams assures that the issue is not being ignored.
“The Sister City board will set a meeting. We will discuss what we are hearing. We are watching what is happening,” said Adams.