A sister-city relationship with Provo is a potential political issue for local officials in the small city of Yavneh, Israel.
While the mayor of Yavneh wants to continue that relationship and perhaps even expand it in the future, he would rather keep it low key during this, an election year for his city.Yavneh is about 50 miles west of Jerusalem where the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center for Near East Studies is located. The center has been a point of controversy for some Jewish factions who fear the center might be used in proselyting work.
And Provo officials, very much aware of the political realities that can affect the life of an elected public office holder, are offering their complete understanding of the situation.
Last year, Yavneh Mayor Mier Sheetrit and an official delegation visited Provo to establish the sister-city ties, and Provo Mayor Joe Jenkins later led a delegation of 22 prominent Utah County citizens to Yavneh.
But the same kind of reciprocal visit probably won't be held this year, for political reasons.
Sheetrit has stepped down as the city's mayor to devote full attention to his other position as a member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. New Yavneh Mayor Judah Berrous faces a mayoral election in November. Between now and then Berrous would as soon not have anyone in Yavneh make a big deal of Provo or the sister-city relationship.
It's not that Berrous doesn't want Yavneh to be Provo's twin city, explains Raylene Ireland, Jenkins' executive assistant. It's just that the mayor needs to campaign for office, and among some Israelis, BYU is a political issue. Ireland recently was in Israel to attend the International Conference of Twin Cities, and spent several hours in Yavneh with Berrous. She had written before her visit to make sure it would not politically embarrass him.
Although Ireland invited Berrous to visit Provo later this year, she said it may not be realistic to expect him to come.
"He's new in his position and he wanted elbow room as he campaigns," she said of Berrous. "He wants to work with us after the November elections (in Yavneh), so as not to stir up a political issue. I think we need to be understanding of the sensitivities of his situation."
Last year when Sheetrit and his delegation were preparing to visit Provo, the sister-city relationship was seized upon as a political issue by a small but vocal minority of ultraorthodox Jews who oppose the ties.
Demonstrators picketed the Yavneh delegation before it left the city of 20,000 that lies 20 miles south of Tel Aviv and 50 miles west of Jerusalem. One Yavneh official dropped out of the Provo visit because of political pressure.
At the time, BYU for several years had been planning its Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. Some small ultrareligious political parties, which wield little influence or power in the Knesset, opposed construction of the BYU center, charging the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will use it as a base for proselyting activities, encouraging Israeli Jews to convert to the LDS faith.
LDS Church officials have sought to assure Jewish officials that the center won't be used for proselyting. But unsatisfied ultraorthodox Jews continued their opposition and loudly protested the opening of the BYU Jerusalem Center last spring.
The anti-BYU protests spilled over to Yavneh, with its sister-city ties to Provo becoming a target, even though Provo's link with Yavneh is not educational or religious, but industrial and commercial.
Over the past several years Provo has purchased a number of generators for its geothermal power facility at Cove Fort from the Ormat Corp., a Yavneh-based manufacturer. It was Provo's business with Ormat that originally led Sheetrit to request the formal sister-city tie with Provo.
Protests against the BYU center have quieted, but Berrous would still like to keep the official Yavneh-Provo city ties low key for now to avoid the possibility of resurrecting the issue before fall elections.
Ireland encountered no demonstrations or other protests during her visit to Yavneh.
"We walked around (Yavneh) with no hint of any problem, even though people knew we were in town," Ireland said. "Most of the people we met seemed very supportive and were curious about Provo."