Boulder City Council formally recognized Nablus, a Palestinian city in the West Bank, as its eighth sister city in a 7–2 vote on Tuesday evening, after a long and contentious process that has spanned nearly three years.

In 2013, the Council voted against the project (6–3) after an emotional, four-hour hearing, in which accusations of racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism were leveled by both sides. The Council urged advocates to address the divisiveness of the project before resubmitting the proposal for consideration.

Since then, the Boulder-Nablus Sister City Project (BNSCP), which was formed in 2011, has worked to assuage opponents’ concerns that the project would contribute to anti-Israel or anti-Semitic sentiment in Boulder. In April, the group ducked out of their second City Council hearing in favor of committing to a city-funded, professionally mediated, public dialogue between the parties. In this mediation, proposers, opponents, and a few neutral Boulder citizens were selected to discuss their thoughts about the potential partnership in a series of public meetings.

BNSCP supporters maintained that forming person-to-person friendships in misunderstood or demonized parts of the world (in this case, Palestine) could help overcome misconceptions and foster peace. Opponents, on the other hand, felt the project carried too much risk of politicization to warrant a formal seal of approval from the city’s government.

While the mediation did little, if anything, to change the minds of those on either side, some said the process helped to reset the polarizing conversation and make it more respectful. At Tuesday’s hearing, Council members unanimously praised the calm and thoughtful nature of the discourse, which was a dramatic departure from the vitriolic 2013 hearing.

“I do feel like the civility of the dialogue tonight and the [more than 800] emails we’ve gotten is a reflection in part of the work that [the BNSCP] did to bring the community together,” said Councilman Sam Weaver. “I know that they did not agree on everything by any means, but I feel that all the effort they’ve poured into things has made a real difference in the tone.”

Council members also cited a commitment to opposing both Islamophobic and anti-Semitic sentiments amidst an increasingly volatile national political climate in their support for the partnership.

To create a formal sister city partnership, Boulder requires a nonprofit group, such as the BNSCP, to initiate activities, such as pen-pal campaigns or other cultural exchanges, to demonstrate their functionality as a group. After establishing their programming, a hopeful sister city group can bring their proposed partnership before the City Council to request formal approval. Per Sister Cities International, a global organization created by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, the highest level of government in each municipality must formally approve the partnership for groups to be eligible for the full benefits of sister city partnership, which can include legal and administrative support and enhanced legitimacy when applying for grants for cultural exchange programs.

Nablus, now Boulder’s eighth sister city, joins the city’s other politically charged partnerships: Dushanbe, Tajikistan (formed when the city was under Soviet control during the Cold War); Yateras, Cuba (formed before President Barack Obama’s efforts for normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations); and Jalapa, Nicaragua (formed during the war between U.S.-funded Contra forces and the Sandinista government).

Essrea Cherin, chair of the BNSCP board of directors and one of the project’s co-founders, said formal approval allows the group to augment the cultural exchange programs they’re able to create.

“It opens doors that were previously closed to our project, and I think, ultimately, it’s going to mean that our dreams will no longer be limited by what’s possible without the official recognition,” said Cherin. “We’ve got this incredible group of people who are working on this project, and we’ve got really big dreams for what we can create in this friendship.”

Haley Gray
Haley Gray
Haley Gray is a Boulder-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in 5280, Roads and Kingdoms, Boulder Magazine, and the Albuquerque Journal.