Birmingham signs sister city agreement with Israeli, Jordanian towns

On Nov. 9, retired Israeli Brigadier General Dov Sedaka found himself in the role of comforting Jordanian officials in Birmingham following a terror attack in Amman.

Then again, this is the story of the Middle East, where even the unusual can be affected by the unexpected.

Sedaka was part of a visiting delegation from Rosh Ha’Ayin, in Birmingham for an unprecedented sister city signing. The Nov. 9 ceremony was a unique trilateral signing of sister city agreements by an American city with both Israeli and Arab cities.

The signing took place at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, located in the area where internationally-known civil rights demonstrations took place in 1963. Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid said “maybe that kernel that started in Birmingham 42 years ago for peace among peoples is spreading all over the world.”

Birmingham’s Sister City Commission signed its ninth and 10th agreements with Rosh Ha’Ayin, and with al-Karak, Jordan. The Israeli and Jordanian cities did not sign an agreement with each other, but with numerous joint appearances during the four-day visit, the mayors discussed educational and cultural initiatives.

Birmingham’s history with Rosh Ha’Ayin began 25 years ago when the Kimerling family built a community center in what was then a forgotten Yemenite development town. The cities were paired under Project Renewal, then kept a very active friendship through the 1990s. Now, Rosh Ha’Ayin is a bedroom community with high-tech industry in the center of Israel, and is still connected with Birmingham through Partnership 2000.

Ruth Lamonte opened the signing ceremony by saying “I think I have been wishing for this for 30 years. I can’t tell you how pleased I am.” Lamonte, chair of the Sister Cities Commission, has been an activist for the Palestinians for three decades, since her time as a Fulbright lecturer in Jordan.

Lawrence Pijeaux, director of the Civil Rights Institute, asked “what better place to have an agreement between Birmingham, Israel and Jordan” than a place commemorating a “non-violent movement that improved race relations around the world.”

Kincaid echoed that theme, noting that “42 years ago we were torn in racial strife… we have managed to heal that rift and we are fully ensconced in the 21st century.”

The signing between Birmingham and al-Karak took place first, with three sets of documents, in Arabic and English, being signed. One set goes to each city, with the third going to the international agency that oversees sister cities.

The Birmingham-Rosh Ha’Ayin agreement, in Hebrew and English, was then signed. All three mayors then shook hands, with al-Karak Mayor Mohammed Maita and Rosh Ha’Ayin Mayor Moshe Sinai shaking hands in front of Kincaid in an arrangement reminiscent of the famous Rabin-Arafat and Rabin-Hussein handshakes at the White House in the early 1990s.

In his remarks, Maita spoke of his town’s tradition of “extending the hand of friendship to other nations.” He spoke of the hopes for peace, and for trade opportunities. “We appreciate the United States’ partnership in the Middle East, to help us in so many ways.”

Sinai told Kinkaid that “it is very important that you… took the initiative and invited us here together.”

Sinai stressed that Israel feels it is important “that peace will not only be between nations and states, but between people, children.” Now, he added, comes the hard work of following up and expanding relations and activities.

Before the visit, there had not been any ties between Rosh Ha’Ayin and al-Karak, but Sinai said he and Maita discussed several ideas, including a youth exchange, especially tied to music. Rosh Ha’Ayin has a world-famous youth mandolin orchestra and a newer music conservatory.

Another idea is to have a film exchange during the communities’ respective film festivals. Internet links between schools is another possibility, and the joint ties with Birmingham will be an avenue to help facilitate relations.

Maita expressed the hope that “this will open the door for peace.”

Aviv Ezra, deputy consul at Israel’s Consulate in Atlanta, said the signing was a “win-win-win situation” unlike any he had ever seen. “May we see this as a stepping-stone to an even brighter tomorrow.”

After the ceremony, the three mayors went across the street to Kelly Ingram Park for pictures. While in the park, Chef Clayton Sherrod stopped by to present Maita and Sinai with copies of his “Simply Southern” cookbook.

Also, a passerby called out to Kincaid, who explained what was happening there. The passerby then said, “I have to come over and shake their hands, then.”

Visitors then mingled at a luncheon of Middle Eastern food in the Institute’s lobby. The luncheon was partially sponsored by the Birmingham Jewish Foundation.

Scotty Colson, director of the Birmingham Sister Cities Commission, commented “this was our Camp David.”

But those in attendance were jolted back from their ebullience upon learning of the terror attacks in Amman that day.

Seeing the city

The mayors toured numerous places in Birmingham during their joint visit. On Nov. 7, they visited the University of Alabama at Birmingham, then met with the Birmingham Area Consortium for Higher Education at Samford University on Nov. 8.

Also on Nov. 8, the delegations visited City Hall and were presented with keys to the city by Kincaid.

On Nov. 10, the Israelis returned to UAB and visited the music program at Birmingham-Southern, while the Jordanians met with local experts on physical disabilities.

Sinai also met with the Birmingham Jewish Federation’s Israel-World Jewry Bureau to brainstorm on future projects. Birmingham, along with New Orleans, has been partnered with Rosh Ha’Ayin under Partnership 2000, and Sedaka heads the project in Rosh Ha’Ayin.

Project ideas included having teens from Rosh Ha’Ayin compete on Birmingham’s team in the annual international Maccabi games, and having a leadership training workshop in Birmingham for youth from Rosh Ha’Ayin and al-Karak.

There was also discussion of expanding an initiative in Rosh Ha’Ayin schools to replace textbooks and notebooks with laptop computers, and connecting the two communities for joint projects over the Internet.

Meir Serrouya, head of the Rosh Ha’Ayin Music Conservatory, spoke about growing the 300-student conservatory as part of a plan to make Rosh Ha’Ayin Israel’s “city of music.”

Birmingham signed its first sister city agreement with Hitachi, Japan, in 1982. Other sister cites for Birmingham are Anshan, China; Guediawaye, Senegal; Gweru, Zimbabwe; Pilsen, Czech Republic; Pomigliano D’Arco, Italy; Szekeshfehrevar, Hungary; and Vinnitsa, Ukraine.