The Sacramento City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to name Ashkelon, Israel, a sister city.
Most of those in a packed City Council chambers stood and applauded following the vote. The council decision followed an hour of impassioned but mostly civil testimony from supporters and opponents.
It was an unusually tense hearing for a sister city program that, until now, had operated without much controversy. Sacramento has nine other sister cities in arrangements that historically have been ceremonial.
An overflow crowd of more than 250 people began gathering in the council chambers and in the main foyer of City Hall an hour before the meeting. Some held Israeli flags; others wore T-shirts reading, "Got human rights? Palestinians don't."
Supporters of the plan expressed disappointment that the proposal had resulted in a political debate over Middle Eastern policy. Opponents of the proposal criticized city officials for forming a bond with a city in a country they charge violates human rights.
Council members tried to distance the debate from politics, saying the agreement was about fostering cultural exchange.
Councilman Jay Schenirer, former president of the well-known Congregation B'nai Israel in Sacramento, said he had received several text messages during the hearing from people asking if he was "fired up."
"It's kind of sad," he said. "I'm not fired up. We are better than this. We are a city that's the most diverse city in the country."
Ashkelon was chosen as a sister city candidate following a decision by the City Council in 2009 to name the West Bank city of Bethlehem as a sister city. At the time, council members said they would approve partnering with Bethlehem in exchange for finding a sister city in Israel.
Schenirer was part of the group involved in the Bethlehem compromise and said he would work to organize a delegation to visit that city and Ashkelon.
"As we move forward, we want Sacramento to be a great city," he said. "We can choose to fight, we can choose to be divisive or we can choose to work together."
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a former councilman, received the loudest response from the audience after expressing his support for the proposal.
"One thing that stands out is that in our community, no matter who we are, no matter who we represent, we stretch for one another," he said.
"In good times and bad, we build bridges. We expect people with different points of views to talk to one another. That's what the sister city movement is all about."
Opponents of the plan said that Palestinian Americans living in Sacramento who have Israeli-issued identification would face harsh restrictions if they wanted to travel to Ashkelon.
Other opponents, including representatives of Veterans for Peace, said they were not opposed to a sister city in Israel, but to Ashkelon in particular.
They charged that Palestinians were violently displaced from the city when Israel was formed and noted that the region is home to a prison holding West Bank and Gaza prisoners.
"I have no doubt that many people have intentions that are genuine," said Jimmy Qaqundah, a Palestinian American and Sacramento resident.
"But regardless of those intentions, and we want this to be fostering togetherness . All we're asking of you (the City Council) is to stand up for Palestinians today."
Some opponents rejected the criticism that their challenges to the Ashkelon plan had turned a normally harmonious process into a tense political debate. They said the council had made this a political issue when it approved a link with Bethlehem on the grounds that an Israeli sister city would be explored.
"They placed a political anchor to this with that recognition," said Sharif Silmi, a Sacramento resident and Palestinian American.