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(photo credit: David Kaplan)
Kfar Saba's mayor has his eye on the ball. On the grass patch outside his office, Yehudah Ben Hamo butts into a game of soccer between some youngsters. Within a few minutes, a crowd gathers and watches an impressive solo display of ball control - unlikely to have Beckham too worried, but nevertheless a sure crowd-puller. "Not bad," commented one amused bystander, while another, a long time resident, remarked, "Make no mistake, he has his eye no less on running the city."
Clearly there are others less quick to applaud, evident by some stinging allegations that appeared in a report in the Hebrew local weekly Ha'ir-Tzomet Hasharon critical of the amount that the city spends on its "twin city" project. The gloves were off. Undisclosed persons were alleging that the "project contributes nothing to the welfare of the residents and is just an excuse for council members to travel overseas at taxpayers' expense."
It gets worse. The report goes on to say that a recent visit by a large delegation of some 30 participants from Delft - a twin-city in the Netherlands - has prompted Kfar Saba officials to "increase their own budget in order to enlarge their own delegations when traveling abroad." While acknowledging that the underlying motivation of strengthening international ties "is a good idea," the implication of the report was clear - it was turning into "perks" for political cronies.
Metro spoke to Dr. Buky Chass, Deputy Mayor for Sport and Foreign Affairs, who chairs the committee responsible for city twinning. "No truth in this whatsoever. Certain people are out to attack the mayor," says Chass, who has the facts and figures relating to his portfolio to refute these "scandalous allegations."
Chass chronicles the exchange of visits since Ben Hamo took office. Yes - the delegations may be large, he says, but the participants pay for themselves. "The council pays for no more than two air tickets, that's it! Clearly these people have not done their homework, or have a political axe to grind," he asserts. "When our mayor led his first twin-city delegation abroad, which was to Wiesbaden last year - a delegation of 40 - the council paid less than $900. That was for two tickets - the mayor's and mine. The rest of the participants were all citizens of the city, many of them local artists who all paid their own way. It is a credit to the moral fiber of our citizens that they, at their own expense, feel a civic duty to participate in promoting Kfar Saba. This city has possibly the highest number of active voluntary organizations in the country, and this is reflected day in and day out by the wonderful work they do."
It is a shame, continues Chass, the way the report attempted to tarnish the recent 30-strong delegation from Delft. "This was a vitally important visit having ramifications far greater than just for Kfar Saba. This was their first visit in eight years. Since the second intifada, there has been overwhelming pressure on Europe to disconnect from Israel, hence Delft's absence for so long. We worked hard encouraging them to return, saying that if their government did not see fit to break off diplomatic relations with Israel, they should not interfere with their country's foreign policy. We prevailed," says Chass, proudly.
In addition to Wiesbaden, Kfar Saba is "twinned" with Delft in Holland, Mulheim in Germany and San JosÃ© in Costa Rica.
In the center of Kfar Saba at the end of the Jerusalem pedestrian mall is Twin City Park, a green swathe of lawn surrounded by trees, restaurants and coffee houses. A popular nightspot, it has a colorful, cosmopolitan ambience befitting its name. Nesting on the grass is a stone sculpture of a large frog, a gift from the German government. Once rough, today it is smooth, testifying to the enjoyment of young children climbing over it every day. It was here that Metro met a joint delegation of adults and schoolchildren from Wiesbaden, who were visiting Kfar Saba for 10 days.
The tour was no less educational for the local Kfar Saba residents who joined the group. Remarked one old-timer in disbelief: "I thought the city was named, "The City of the grandfather! Saba means grandfather in Hebrew."
Not so! It turns out that "The Saba is named after a Jewish family - 'Sabah' - who dwelled in the area over 2,000 years ago," explained the guide. In answer to a question from a German visitor "Why do you still call your city a village?" the guide replied to everyone's amusement, "We are waiting for you guys. When DÃ¼sseldorf (originally DÃ¼sseldorp), drops the 'dorf', we will dispense with the 'Kfar.'"
A lesson in history, the tour dispelled many of the myths rooted in current European thinking. The group was exposed to the security wall near Kalkilya separating Israel from the Palestinians. The Germans, like 17-year-old Karina who expressed, "I don't like it and cannot understand why it is necessary," learned about the need for security. They would also soon understand the consequences of not having such measures. There were clear displays of emotion when at the Memorial Room in the Pinchas Sapir Cultural Center, the visitors saw photographs of young boys and girls - some younger than themselves - who had been killed in Kfar Saba by Palestinian suicide bombers.
While every effort is made by Israel's enemies to refute the Jewish connection to the land of Israel, the German visitors heard how the name Kfar Saba appeared in the writings of Flavius Josephus dating back 2,000 years, as well in a mosaic dating back to the early Byzantine period. A replica of the mosaic, originally discovered in the Beit She'an valley, stands in a secluded spot in Kfar Saba's cultural center. Beneath Israel's crusty surface, the past is constantly being unearthed testifying to Jewish civilization long before the arrival of Islam.
"Kfar Saba prides itself on its cultural heritage," explained the guide. Here, too, there was much for the overseas visitors to learn. Adults nodded when they heard how many of the words they sing and recite in church originated from Hebrew. "When we were exiled 2,000 years ago following the destruction of the Second Temple, many of our people ended up in your neck of the woods. They took with them their music and words like Hosanna, a cry of adoration for Jesus, which comes from the Hebrew, meaning 'please save' or 'save now.' So to with the word Amen," continued the guide. "Don't you always conclude your prayers with 'Amen?'" Heads again nodded. "Well, it originates from the Hebrew meaning 'so be it' or 'truly.'"
This history lesson was resonating with both the adults and the teenagers. The value of the Twin City project was all too evident.
Metro spoke with Mayor Ben Hamo of his visit with a Kfar Saba delegation to Wiesbaden last year. The occasion marked the 25th anniversary of the signing of a Twin City agreement between the two cities. It was also emblematic of changing attitudes. "For our late mayor Ze'ev Geller, it was not easy. He was a Holocaust survivor who had lost most of his family in the concentration camps. Nevertheless, he felt it was a path he had to pursue. A new generation had taken over the reins in Germany, and overtures had to be made to reach out," says Ben Hamo.
"We don't forget the past, but we strive to create a different and better future," asserts Ben Hamo. Together with the residents from Wiesbaden, "we attended a memorial ceremony at Buchenwald."
Striking the right note, Wiesbaden mayor Hilderbrandt Diehl addressed the gathering at the site of the former concentration camp, recounts Ben Hamo. "The partnership between the citizens of our two cities is an example of how to reconcile the past with the future. It is important for people to be made aware that Buchenwald did once exist. It serves to teach that if this kind of crime was possible in the modern world, it is possible that it can happen again."
For Kfar Saba artist and former South African participant Barbara Issahary, these words made her shudder. The group stood near the railway line where Jews had been transported to their deaths. Wreaths were laid and Kaddish was recited. While the flags of Wiesbaden and Kfar Saba fluttered in the wind, "The image of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, loomed in many people's minds," lamented Issahary. Who could forget the constant mantra in the Israeli press decrying the Iranian president for "denying the last Holocaust while preparing for the next."
It was at least comforting, she says, that "while some leaders were plotting against the Jewish people, others like Diehl and Ben Hamo were forging new and stronger relationships."
For 17-year-old Adam Milliner, who visited Wiesbaden in March earlier this year with his class from the Galili school as part of an exchange program, it was very different "to the experience of some of my friends who went to Poland. When you visit Auschwitz, you are all Israelis. You are free to express your feelings publicly. Not so easy in our case when we visited Buchenwald together with the German school kids we were staying with. It's not the same."
Most interesting, said Milliner, "was the discussion following our visit to the concentration camp where the subject was whether third-generation Germans should feel any guilt. The conclusion was that while they should not be saddled with guilt, there should be the burden of responsibility to ensure that the German people never forget what they did to the Jewish people."
Kfar Saba is set within the next two years to twin with Jinan in China. Protocols of intent have already been signed between the cities. A city of six million, "Jinan is one of the wealthiest provinces on the eastern seaboard of China," says Chass. "Yes, it's bigger than Kfar Saba," he jokes. "But size is not everything."
In fact, quite the contrary. "They marvel at how the Jewish people, with a total world population not much more than a medium-sized Chinese city, can be tops in so many fields and have so many Nobel winners."
In the same way as the Galili school was chosen for the exchange program with Wiesbaden, Kfar Saba's Herzog school has been selected for a similar program with a school in Jinan. With one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, "China represents the future," says Chass. "While the country is still communist, it is clearly in a state of transition. Yes, you see people walking or commuting on bicycles, but you also see so many people now driving European cars manufactured in China. When we sign the twin agreement, Kfar Saba will be the 10th city in Israel to twin with a city in China."
Jinan abounds with historic sites dating back 6,000 years. So does Kfar Saba. Located outside the city, on the road to Kochav Yair, stands unobtrusively the tomb of Benjamin, the youngest son of Jacob and head of one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Nearby is located the agricultural village Neve Yamin, named after the tomb. As Ben Hamo put it, "We are a city with a rich past, but we are reaching out with a vision to the future."