In his first foreign trip as chief executive of his city, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg visited Israel this week in “a civic and business mission to strengthen both of our nations.”
Tel Aviv is one of three “friendship cities” San Antonio has, in addition to 10 “sister cities.”
“We have a very strong relationship with Israel,” Nirenberg told The Jerusalem Post during a lunch meeting at Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market earlier this week.
“We have so much in common from the industry standpoint and the values standpoint,” he said, noting that the city has a history similar to Israel’s as “a city of immigrants.”
Nirenberg’s delegation was in Israel for five days, before flying to Darmstadt, Germany, where it was due to sign a sister-city agreement.
Councilman Roberto Trevino and two city staff members joined Nirenberg on his tour, which was organized by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Jewish Federation of San Antonio.
Nirenberg, who has a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, is a member of San Antonio’s Jewish community and sends his son to a Jewish school. In light of his Jewish heritage, he had a particular interest in visiting Israel, which he had never done before. The last visit by a San Antonio mayor was in 2011, and Nirenberg was keen to build on the relationship to connect trade, business, cultural and educational interests.
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The delegation stayed in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and in addition to fostering ties with Tel Aviv, the mission also sought to advance civic diplomacy, educational exchanges and economic partnerships with sites around the country.
Issues of interest on the agenda included water, energy, security, cybersecurity, science and technology.
Another area in which the delegation sought to draw from Israel’s experience was in the preservation of world heritage sites. In 2015, the Alamo and four Spanish colonial Catholic missions in Texas were designated US World Heritage sites by the United Nations.
In addition to meeting with his Tel Avivian counterpart, Ron Huldai, Nirenberg visited Israeli companies, start-ups, tech and innovation accelerators, and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba.
He also toured Jerusalem, where he met with Israeli officials, visited Yad Vashem and embraced his Jewish heritage with a visit to the Western Wall.
Next year, Nirenberg will be the chairman of the Sister Cities International organization, which he said aims to “build citizen-to-citizen diplomacy, in spite of geopolitical affairs.”
“The approach is that these kinds of relationships are what form the foundation for making peace possible. As citizens of the world, we need to extend our hand to all people all the time, and certainly when you come to a place where there is a lot of conversation about politics, you find shades of gray that you can understand much better than you can half a world away,” he said. “When we extend our hand, neighbor to neighbor, it provides a platform for understanding and peace,” he added, saying that geopolitics should be left to the geopoliticians.
“Our job as local leaders is to facilitate local interactions, and I think they are more long-standing than whatever is happening in the White House,” he said.
Addressing an incident in the Texan town Dickinson last week in which the city required applicants for Hurricane Harvey rebuilding funds to certify that they will not take part in a boycott of Israel, Nirenberg said: “We should never put conditions on compassion... we don’t ask to see your papers or about reimbursement; we ask how can we help.”
But making clear his own view on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, he opined that “it’s very shortsighted for local communities to sign onto boycotts of Israel, because the importance of Israel to the international community and to the US cannot be overstated....
The goal should be how we can further ties and overcome political and diplomatic challenges. Isolation is never good diplomacy.”
Indeed, he sees his own city’s ties with Israel going from strength to strength, and Tel Aviv might even be on track to becoming a “sister city.”
“In Tel Aviv, I think there is definitely an interest in furthering our relationship here,” Nirenberg said.
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