Interested in Establishing a Sister City With Israel? Here’s All You Need to Know

Israel Today speaks with former Portland, Oregon officials about how their ties to Ashkelon have been so mutually beneficial

By Rachel Avraham | | Topics: America
Sister City agreements foster cooperation and friendship
Author Rachel Avraham with former Mayor of Portland Bud Clark, who established a sister city relationship with the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon. Photo: Rachel Avraham

National Geographic called Tel Aviv the Miami of the Middle East, claiming that the two cities have similar characteristics like sprawling beaches, great sky-rises, and a warm climate. Yet Sister Cities of Tel Aviv include Buenos Aires, Argentina; Beijing, China; Cannes, France; Toulouse, France; Frankfurt Ain Main, Germany; Thessaloniki, Greece; Budapest, Hungary; Milan, Italy; Moscow, Russia; Izmir, Turkey and Philadelphia, USA. Miami is not on the list. This makes one ponder, if Miami is not a sister city of Tel Aviv, what constitutes a sister city and what is a sister city agreement?

Sister City International (SCI) was created at President Eisenhower’s 1956 summit on citizen diplomacy where he envisioned a network that would champion peace and prosperity by fostering bonds between people from different communities around the world. Eisenhower reasoned that people from different cultures could understand, appreciate and celebrate their differences while building partnerships that would lessen the chance of new conflicts. This is the idealism that stands behind the establishment of Sister Cities.

As we speak, the State of Israel has 534 sister city agreements to “play an essential part in creating a more peaceful world through people-to-people exchanges and initiatives,” according to SCI. Sister Cities “provide essential services, programs and resources to help members find partners as well as to expand and improve activities.” A Sister or Friendship city relationship is formally created when the mayors or highest elected or appointed officials from two communities sign a memorandum of understanding establishing the partnership.

In an exclusive interview with Israel Today, Bud Clark, who served as mayor of Portland between 1985 and 1993, spoke about how when he was mayor he made Ashkelon a Sister City of Portland, Oregon in the United States: “When I took office, we had two Sister Cities, but when I left office, we had nine. When I was mayor, citizens came forward and asked for Ashkelon to be a sister city, and I approved it. Sister cities are a relationship between people that know what the city is like. No politicians are part of it.”

According to the popular former mayor, the process works as follows: a group of civilians in a city decide that they want their city to have a Sister City agreement with another city with similar characteristics. They then petition the mayor who sets up a committee to approve the process. The former mayor explained that these citizens then set up an association with a website and host activities, which do not receive municipality funding.

Nevertheless, even though Sister City agreements are civilian initiatives, they cannot be approved without the support of politicians, and Clark has fond memories of Israel that prompted him to approve the initiative.

While he was mayor, Portland citizens planted roses in the city of Ashkelon, as Portland is known as the “City of Roses,” and the residents of Ashkelon gave the citizens of Portland gifts as well. He also noted that delegations of Israelis have visited Portland. These are the type of activities that Sister Cities are frequently engaged in.

Sister City International noted that Portland, Oregon now has 10 sister cities: Bologna, Italy; Guadalajara, Mexico; Ashkelon, Israel; Khabarovsk, Russia; Mutare, Zimbabwe; Sapporo, Japan; Suzhou, China; Ulsan, South Korea; Kaohsiung Municipality, Taiwan; and Utrecht, the Netherlands. Ashkelon is the only Middle Eastern city to have a sister city association agreement with the city of Portland.

Clark believes that both Oregon and Israel have much that they can cooperate on and the Sister City Association agreement between Portland and Ashkelon encourages this cooperation. Former Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski said that the “secret to cooperation between Israel and Oregon is Israel’s advancement in water technology and Oregon’s expertise in forestry.” Clark agreed with that assessment and also added that climate change is another arena in which both Oregon and Israel can cooperate.

“Oregon wants to do something about climate change,” Clark stressed. “We want to save the planet. We have broad knowledge on the best ways to save trees. Oregon could benefit from Israel’s knowledge on how to manage water better. I think that desalination and drip drop irrigation is an important step forward.” Clark also believes that Oregon and Israel can cooperate in the medical arena as well in the struggle against COVID-19.

In 2020, the Israeli Consulate in the Pacific Northwest together with the Oregon Israel Business Alliance hosted a panel discussion on “the health tech contributions of the State of Israel and the State of Oregon.” That same year, Oregon exported more than $330 million worth of manufacturing goods to Israel. Since 1996, Oregon exports to Israel have totaled more than $3.7 billion and Israel now ranks as Oregon’s 14th leading trade partner.

However, while the economic relationship between Israel and the State of Oregon is very strong, the Sister City Agreement has faced some challenges. Dr. Stephen Salomon, who is a member of the Ashkelon-Portland Sister City Association, noted that the activities of the association have faced challenges during the pandemic, including financial issues. Furthermore, the association has been targeted by antisemites in the past.

For example, Patrick Lumumba Fordis, one of the “Portland Seven” who was convicted for trying to join Al Qaeda to fight against the United States in Afghanistan, wrote in to the Portland Mayor’s Office to call to cut off the Portland-Ashkelon Sister City Agreement, citing Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. He also made reference to Derry Jackson, the Portland School Board member who proclaimed, “I see the Jews running everything.” The incident was reported to the Portland Police as the mayor at that time in 2001, Vera Katz, was Jewish.

More recently, this year the Oregonian reported that at least three Israeli restaurants in Portland were vandalized with “Free Palestine” graffiti and a letter to the editor published in the local newspaper called on residents of Portland to boycott Israel. Nevertheless, Dr. Salomon feels that if the Sister City Agreement between Portland and Ashkelon receives a financial boost despite the pandemic, this could better help the local Jewish community to address these challenges in the spirit of the Sister City Agreement.

This makes one wonder, if Sister City associations are an effective means in building ties between nations and struggling to face the challenges of antisemitism, then how does one go about creating a sister city association between one’s local city and a city in Israel?

According to Sister City International, this process includes:

  • A planning phase between locals and municipal authorities;
  • A research phase that determines if the sister city in question is of similar size, has similar industries, equivalent academic institutions, cultural institutions en par with that city, etc.;
  • Developing a line of communication with that city, corresponding with that city; and
  • Developing a partnership agreement, which in the end is signed between both municipalities.

Once established, these sister city associations foster cross-cultural exchanges, personal relationships, educational programs, and stronger economic ties between both cities. For this reason, it is well worth the effort to establish Sister Cities with Israeli cities from around the world remembering that “Those that bless you…”

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