Sister cities has become one of Berkeley’s most popular means of expressing support for particular communities and opposition to US foreign policy. Berkeley has six sister cities, including Leon in Nicaragua, San Antonio de los Ranchos in El Salvador and the South African Black township of Oukassie. Supporters of Measure J hoped its success would provide some measure of protection to the people of Jabalya. Concern was heightened in the last two days of the campaign when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir announced that Jabalya would be the first camp to be “dispersed” after Likud formed its new government.

The campaign for Measure J dates back to January 1988, when Berkeley City Councilmember Maudelle Shirek introduced a statement of concern about the violence in the occupied territories. The city council rejected Shirek’s statement and asked the city’s Peace and Justice Commission to explore a statement of its own and to deal with the sister-city proposals also put forward at this meeting.

An ad hoc Emergency Coalition for Palestinian Rights (ECPR), with strong support from Shirek, developed a proposal to adopt Jabalya and presented it to the Commission. After a raucous public hearing, the Commission recommended adoption, which the council again rejected. Mayor Loni Hancock went to work on a resolution of her own in an attempt to prevent the issue from becoming a ballot measure. But ECPR considered the Jabalya proposal important enough to present to the electorate. ECPR formed a campaign committee, Friends of Jabalya (FOJ), and the struggle was on.

FOJ’s campaign literature emphasized the fact that 200 American cities have sister city relationships with Israeli cities and none with Palestinian communities; the need for “people-to- people diplomacy” to help bring an end to the occupation; and the great suffering of the residents of Jabalya paid for by American tax money.

Initial attempts by ECPR to broaden its base brought support from the Black religious community, the United Muslims of America, the Berkeley Black Caucus, the Oakland-Berkeley Rainbow Coalition, and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, but little from the various political groups. As in San Francisco, liberal and progressive groups worried that backing Measure J would jeopardize support for their own programs. FOJ was ultimately joined by the Middle East Children’s Alliance and the International Jewish Peace Union.

New Jewish Agenda remained neutral. Religious leaders in the Black community were highly visible supporters of the measure, along with former Berkeley mayor Gus Newport.

Larry Harris, chair of the International Jewish Peace Union, felt that some of the hesitation to become involved in the beginning came from doubts “about the wisdom of putting another measure on the ballot.” And, he pointed out, “many people or groups who were interested wanted something dealing with a two state solution, which Measure J did not address.”

Opposition was organized originally out of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), based in nearby Oakland, until the old “Coalition for Middle East Peace and Justice” (formed to fight Measure E four years previously) was revived to fight Measure J. No on J was the most heavily funded, best organized campaign in the Berkeley elecion. While Friends of Jabalya raised nearly $10,000 (a large portion of that from local Muslim businesses), the opposition received close to $120,000 (with contributions from all over the United States). The J-campaign was run without an office, with no paid staff, and delivered its election literature on foot. The opposition did at least four mailings.

Opposition to J included many active in Central America and South Africa solidarity movements, as well as the mayor’s husband, liberal State Assembly member Tom Bates. Many public figures privately expressed support for the measure, but only two elected officials, Councilmember Shirek and Alameda County Supervisor John George, along with Rent Board candidates Florence MacDonald and Chuck Idelson, publicly endorsed it. Congressperson Ronald Dellums (D-CA) took no position, which was considered somewhat of a victory by pro-J forces considering the intense pressure by the pro-Israel lobby. With the exception of emphatic support from Osha Neumann and Ying Lee Kelley of the Salvadoran sister city committee, the silence from the twin city committees was profound.

Attempts to sink the initiative took several unsavory turns. Early on, one minister was told he would lose most of the funding for his hunger project if he endorsed the measure. Slackman’s “Vietnam piece” (produced for San Francisco’s anti-Prop. W campaign) was sent to all Berkeley voters the week before election day. “If we learned anything from the tragedy in Vietnam,” it read, “it’s the futility of taking sides in a dispute between warring parties.”

In an attempt to reach the Black community, opponents of J, including otherwise liberal or progressive members of the community, allied with the very conservative Black Property Owners Association to help campaign against pro-rent control candidates Shirek and Nancy Skinner. Although both Shirek and Skinner won re-election, the pro-rent control slate lost its majority on the Rent Board and two pro-rent control measures were narrowly defeated.

How to cite this article:

Marianne Torres "Berkeley’s Sister-City Initiative," Middle East Report 157 (March/April 1989).

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