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Debate: Should Boulder, Colorado, Become a Sister City of Nablus in Israeli-Occupied West Bank?

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As we are on the road in Colorado, we look at how Boulder is debating an international conflict. This week the Boulder City Council agreed to hire a moderator and convene a citizen panel to mediate disagreements over a proposal to make Boulder a sister city of Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. A group of residents applied to the City Council to recognize Nablus as a sister city, writing, “Boulder and Nablus have so much in common that they are natural sisters for each other. … We believe that there is no better moment for people-to-people connections that can contribute to further understanding.” But a previous effort to recognize Nablus as a sister city was voted down by the Boulder City Council in 2013. We host a debate between two Boulder residents. Essrea Cherin is board chair of the Boulder-Nablus Sister City Project, which applied for Nablus to be officially recognized as a sister city of Boulder, and Bruce Shaffer is a retired attorney who opposes the plan.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, on our 100-city tour. Today, we end today’s show with a look at how Boulder, Colorado, where we’re broadcasting from today, the state of Colorado—we’re in nearby Denver—Boulder is debating an international conflict. This week, the Boulder City Council agreed to hire a moderator and convene a citizen panel over a proposal to make Boulder a sister city of Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. A group of residents applied to the Boulder City Council to recognize Nablus as a sister city, writing, quote, “Boulder and Nablus have so much in common that they are natural sisters for each other.” But the City Council rejected a previous effort to recognize Nablus as a sister city in 2013, after a contentious, hours-long hearing.

BILL COHEN: One of the concerns we have is, number one, the scope of the human rights violations is enormous here. And this is not just based on my say-so or Israeli information. It’s based on Palestinian reports, as well, that are reporting egregious conditions in Nablus and in—throughout the West Bank, with respect to honor killings of women, with respect to persecution of gays, with respect to torture, with respect to desecration and lack of access to Jewish religious shrines, multiple, multiple times.

IDA AUDEH: For those who claim that they’re appalled by human rights issues, they should be appalled by human rights issues. It is appalling. It is appalling the way that Israel is impoverishing the Palestinian people in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip for 40-some years now.

AMY GOODMAN: So we turn now to a debate between two Boulder residents. Essrea Cherin is board chair of the Boulder-Nablus Sister City Project, which applied for Nablus to be officially recognized as the sister city of Boulder. And Bruce Shaffer is a retired attorney who opposes the plan.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Interestingly—maybe this can happen only in Colorado—you both came in on the same car, so you’ve been together for an hour debating this.

BRUCE SHAFFER: Why not?

AMY GOODMAN: But I want to start with you, Essrea. Explain why it is you have been pushing for Nablus to be the sister city to your city, Boulder.

ESSREA CHERIN: Well, the reason that I’ve been promoting and working on a sister city relationship is primarily because of my own—my own journey, in terms of having spent time in Palestine and recognizing that the people of Palestine are portrayed quite the opposite of how they are in real life, in mainstream media. I’ll not say not on Democracy Now! But in most media portrayals in the United States, Palestinians are depicted in the darkest of lights. And most people really struggle to even conjure an image of a Palestinian person who could be just like you and I, you know, sitting round a table at a TV station in Nablus. And indeed, you know, they are. And, you know, it’s in my visits to—in my visits to Palestine, it became quite evident to me that the people of the United States need to—need to have opportunities to get to know Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: So what would it mean to designate Boulder as an official sister city of Nablus?

ESSREA CHERIN: Well, you know, it’s actually a mere formality. It doesn’t signify much. It’s a procedural event. So when we apply to City Council, Council has this Resolution 631 that dictates the confines of our sister city relationships. And they’ve enlisted a bunch of criteria that they ask any group of citizens to meet. If any group of citizens wishes to create a sister city relationship, they are welcome to do so. Right now, we have seven. And these are the criteria. This is the resolution we must follow. And so, we took it upon ourselves to do as they’ve asked, and then we take it before City Council. And the procedure is, essentially, did you hit the criteria, yes or no? If you did, then boom.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Bruce Shaffer, what’s your problem with this?

BRUCE SHAFFER: The problem, Amy, is, first of all, that the project is essentially political, in that it serves the purpose of advocating for Palestine. And one may do that as a private organization, but under the city’s resolution that establishes the sister city framework, the sister city relationship may not be political. That’s one objection. The second one is that the resolution requires that the sister city emphasize human rights. And in this case, the project turns a blind eye to some very severe human rights abuses in Palestine. The third is that, in fact, this sister city relationship fails the common interests and characteristics test required under the resolution. And I would add, fourthly, that the conduct of the sister city project, to this date, does not demonstrate that they’d really be a good ambassador for Boulder.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to some of the letters written by Boulder students and their pen pals—to their pen pals in the West Bank as part of the Boulder-Nablus Sister City Project. In one letter, Boulder student Ellie wrote to pen pal Misk in the West Bank, quote, “I am glad to hear from you again! Your summer sounded a lot like mine.” Another student, Hannah, wrote to pen pal Masa, quote, “Will you tell me about Eid? I like to learn about other holidays.” And Misk, a Nablus student, wrote, quote, “Dear my friend in America … When I will be big I want to be an eye doctor, so I can help people.” Can you talk, Essrea, about what Bruce Shaffer just said and what it means to formalize—you’re already operating as a sister city informally?

ESSREA CHERIN: Yes, we’re operating exactly as all the other sister cities currently do. And so, to his point about this being a political organization promoting, you know, whatever, a Palestinian perspective—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, he said it’s political.

ESSREA CHERIN: It’s political. OK. And so, it’s difficult to separate out politics from life, you know, and so our goal is—and this is why President Eisenhower established Sister Cities International. His political aim was to foster a more peaceful world. And so, in encouraging cities to reach out to each other, and perhaps even the more challenging cities, to reach out and create relationships will promote a more peaceful world, which is a political outcome. But what I would clarify, though, is that there’s a difference between political realities and political advocacy. So, Mr. Shaffer has enumerated all sorts of examples of when we’ve sent volunteers to Nablus, and they come back, and they talk about their experiences. And their experiences include—they’re not completely, but they do include discussing the political realities of the citizens of Nablus. And the project itself—the project itself stays out of politics. So we engage citizen-to-citizen opportunities.

AMY GOODMAN: Boulder has an interesting history with sister cities. Bruce Shaffer, in the '80s, when President Reagan was supporting the Contras in Nicaragua, yes, you had a sister city from Boulder to Nicaragua. Could you see a moment—now there's mediation that’s been set up—where you could accept Nablus as a sister city? What would Essrea’s group have to do that would satisfy your concerns?

BRUCE SHAFFER: Sure. And, Amy, let me make clear, I express only my own concerns. I don’t sit here a representative of any group or organization. They would have to gut the program of the political advocacy that they engage in. The mayor, in establishing this relationship, said, “Go home and advocate for Palestine.” Project Hope, which is the destination for their volunteers, say, “Go home and advocate for Palestine.” Essrea Cherin is on record of saying, “We’re in this to present a one-sided perspective and to end the occupation.” And back home, that’s exactly what we hear from the volunteers. That’s our end of the exchange, is tales of the occupation—

AMY GOODMAN: Bruce, let me ask you something.

BRUCE SHAFFER: —and “Oh, I did teach a bit.”

AMY GOODMAN: Would you be for the end of the occupation? Would you support the end of the occupation?

BRUCE SHAFFER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And, well, let me end with Essrea. How many other—

BRUCE SHAFFER: It depends how it ends.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me end with Essrea. How many other cities in the United States are sister cities with Palestinian cities?

ESSREA CHERIN: There’s four cities in the United States that are sistered with Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: They are?

ESSREA CHERIN: Yes. They are—

AMY GOODMAN: Among them?

ESSREA CHERIN: Yeah, there’s Gainesville, Florida, that also has a sister in Israel. And there’s Cambridge, Burlington, Sacramento. They’re all sistered with Bethlehem.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to leave it there.

ESSREA CHERIN: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s an interesting discussion. We’ll continue to follow it, because it’s being mediated in Boulder, and it’s clearly going to go on. That does it for our show. Thank you so much to Essrea Cherin, board chair of the Boulder-Nablus Sister City Project, and Bruce Shaffer, attorney and opponent of the proposal.

That does it for our show. We’re on our 100-city tour. I’ll be speaking at Colorado College in Colorado Springs tonight, then Eagle; Carbondale; Paonia; Salida; Taos, New Mexico, on Saturday and Sunday. Check our website at democracynow.org. We’ll be in Albuquerque on Monday and Santa Fe on Tuesday.

Special thanks to Amy Littlefield, Denis Moynihan.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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