Maryland county halts Beit Shemesh partnership

Residents of Washington DC suburb express concern about "human rights violations" in the city due to haredi extremism.

Beit Shemesh protest 311 (photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
Beit Shemesh protest 311
(photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
A Maryland county considering a partnership with Beit Shemesh is backing off from their proposal due to sharp criticism of the recent violence by ultra- Orthodox extremists.
Montgomery County, an affluent suburb of Washington, DC, with almost a million residents, began the process of creating a sister city relationship with Beit Shemesh last fall. But when constituents raised questions of human rights violations in the city, Montgomery County officials decided to put the plan on hold until critics of the partnership could present their concerns, said Bruce Adams, director of the Office of Community Partnerships in Montgomery County.
The county already has a sister city in Morazán, El Salvador, and is creating a partnership with Gondar, Ethiopia. County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett, who occupies a position similar to that of city mayor, launched the idea of creating sister cities in spring 2011. He helped create a nonprofit called Montgomery Sister Cities, which operates separately from the county government.
Montgomery County’s large Jewish population, which includes the city of Silver Spring, Maryland, made Israel a natural choice for partnership. Beit Shemesh is already a sister city of Washington through the Jewish Agency's partnership program. Leggett visited the city in 2007, and Adams said felt it was a “no brainer” for the county to partner with the Israeli city that already had deep roots in the region.
But when a few residents started raising concerns about the issues in Beit Shemesh, including haredi extremists harassing young girls at the Orot Banot girls school and attacking a woman hanging posters in the neighborhood, the city decided to put a “time out” on the process until the residents could present their opinions, explained Adams.
“Montgomery County is a place of rich dialogue about controversial issues, it is our culture to listen,” he said. He added that the county was not ruling out a partnership with Beit Shemesh but would likely follow the advice of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Adams added that residents were not opposed to the idea of a sister city in Israel, but were concerned about Beit Shemesh specifically due to the harassment of women. A meeting is set for March 13 to examine these issues, and the decision to continue the relationship with Beit Shemesh will be made after the meeting.