The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

A Case Study: Madison, Wisconsin, U.S.A.

A Battleground for Israel’s Legitimacy

Joel Fishman, Jewish Political Studies Review 16:3-4 (Fall 2004)

In spring 2004, a group of pro-Palestinian radicals initiated a proposal that would have twinned Rafah in Gaza with Madison, Wisconsin. This initiative was significant, because only a few American cities have adopted Palestinian towns. Its acceptance would have meant a victory for the Palestinian Authority and its supporters by advancing their long-term objective of delegitimizing the State of Israel and by creating a climate congenial to politically correct anti-Semitism. The City Council of Madison met twice, on 6 July and 20 July 2004, to deliberate this proposal. Because the local Jewish community and unaffiliated Jews, some belonging to the "soft Left," acted effectively, the City Council did not adopt the proposal. Although Madison may seem far away from Israel, the decision reached there has considerable importance.

A Sister-City Proposal

Thousands of miles away, in the scenic university town of Madison, Wisconsin, a battle of some importance to Israel’s cause took place. The City Council of Madison met twice, on 6 July and 20 July 2004, to review a proposal to name Madison the sister city of Rafah in the Gaza Strip. This initiative was significant, because only a few American cities have adopted Palestinian towns, and its acceptance would have resulted in further Israel-bashing. Although Madison may seem far away, the decision reached there will serve as a precedent.

A university town, Madison was known in the 1960s as a center of opposition to the war in Vietnam, and became one of the "cause capitals" of America.1 This spring, it was a group of pro-Palestinian radicals who proposed designating Rafah as Madison’s sister city. Their leader and spokesperson, Jennifer Loewenstein, spent time in Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza in 2000-2002 and is a member of the Palestine/Israel Peace and Justice Alliance.2 Her partner in this initiative is the Al Mazen Center for Human Rights, located in the Gaza refugee camp of Jebaliya. It professes to be a nonpartisan human rights organization but has been active in pursuing a virulently anti- Israeli agenda, while entirely ignoring Palestinian terrorism. Al Mazen was prominent at the anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic hate-fest at the UN World Conference against Racism in Durban (2001).3 Loewenstein referred to Al Mazen as a welcome intermediary for establishing contacts with Palestinians and a positive step toward giving them a voice in the United States.

Last April, Steven Morrison, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Madison, came out against the idea of twinning Madison with Rafah.4 And Madison’s mayor, Dave Cieslewicz, also declared himself against it, as it would divide the community.5 Such a proposal normally would have had a reasonable chance. "What was new this time," one of the council members stated, was "the tremendous amount of opposition here at home."6

The Jewish community of Madison, which numbers about five thousand, decided to fight and was well organized. In a letter written just after the first deliberations of the Madison City Council on 6 July, poet and essayist Esther Cameron7 summed up the Jewish community’s concerns:

Understandably, this plan has aroused strong opposition among Madison Jews, who a) know that Israel is battling for its survival and b) worry about the anti-Semitism which has become "politically correct" in many places since 9/11….Aside from the fact that "politically correct" anti-Semitism should worry every person of conscience, a "cultural exchange" with a society that is not democratically ruled, and whose "cultural values" at present include the suicide bomber cult, is not only phony. It is dangerous.8

A Successful Contest

The Jewish community of Madison and its leadership achieved an extraordinary level of unity, not seen since the struggle for Soviet Jewry. Larry Kohn, the educator of Temple Beth El of Madison, sent an account to this author of the 6 July proceedings at City Hall:

The debate began with the Palestinian advocate of the sister-city proposal giving a low-key presentation followed by over twenty on our side since the only speakers left were the Palestinian and Loewenstein. People made strong, articulate arguments about Rafah and the links with terror and what would happen with any funding sent this way. The Chabad rabbi, Yona Matusof, and the Conservative rabbi, Kenneth Katz, spoke. I spoke, professors, students, left Zionists and right Zionists, lay people, Reform and Conservative congregants. Loewenstein was almost the last to speak but someone from Hadassah had been missed, so we got the last word. Although it was the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, the Wall was not breached.9

The subcommittee spearheading the proposal had already arranged for a postponement, and on 20 July the City Council voted on the proposal.10 Nine voted in favor, eight against, and three were absent or abstained. For the proposal to have been adopted, eleven out of twenty votes were required. As Larry Kohn described it:

The other side talked about humanitarian projects, but many kept referring to the "Israeli occupation," checkpoints, and bulldozing. Our side countered by raising the issue of terror, specific references to the NGO Monitor website, and the failure of the other side to accept an alternative city. I was impressed with the turnout on both sides, since so many ordinary folks were involved, and nobody was threatened or got physical despite occasional harsh words one way or another. Democracy is precious in a society based on law.

There is also a larger question at stake, namely, the role of NGOs such as Al Mazen. As a rule, such bodies are extremely well funded and claim to be advocates of disinterested causes, when in fact they are not, as they provide professional help, advice, and financial support for Palestinian efforts to delegitimize Israel in the United Nations, on college campuses, and in the media.11

In the case of Al Mazen, the NGO Monitor ( org) of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs has reported that it is among the organizations that exploit the language of human rights to deny Israel the right of self-defense against terrorism. Al Mazen used a $100,000 donation from the Ford Foundation to promote the notion of Israeli "war crimes."

Professor Gerald Steinberg, director of NGO Monitor, stated before
the 20 July vote:

The mask is slowly being pulled off, through the research and reports of the NGO Monitor project. Donors to such groups are beginning to realize that their money is being used to promote the new anti- Semitism, and Jewish as well as other groups are also fighting back. In Madison, Wisconsin, a handful of anti-Israeli extremists expected to gain the City Council’s approval to "adopt" Rafah, as a means of highlighting "Israel’s brutality" and funneling U.S. taxpayer funds to the campaign. Their Palestinian partner was the head of the Gazabased NGO known as Al Mazen, a leader at the Durban Conference and a major source of hatred and incitement. But after examining the analysis of Al Mazen on the NGO Monitor website, many citizens of Madison woke up to the deception, and this NGO link in the proposal was dropped. When the City Council meets again on 20 July, it may set a major international precedent by defeating what remains of the Rafah link. Countering the propaganda of other NGOs will be more difficult, but the precedent has been established.12

Reasons for the Madison Jewish Community’s Effectiveness

When analyzing the reasons for the Madison Jewish community’s effectiveness, several seem to be determinant.

First, the Jewish community showed unity and nearly all of it joined the cause: the Jewish Community Council (which is the equivalent of the local Jewish Federation) took an official position, and the rabbis of the Conservative, Reform, and Chabad congregations and the director of Hillel spoke in opposition. (In contrast, the rabbi of the Reconstructionist/ Renewal congregation spoke in support of the proposal, basing her decision on what she understood as humanitarian considerations.)14

Second, the proposal was generally perceived as a means for Israelbashing. The Jews of Madison viewed it as one-sided with anti-Semitic implications (see Esther Cameron’s statement above). In the debate, the opposition effectively emphasized Palestinian hate-education, suicide bombing, as well as the use of children as platforms for bombs, while using the NGO Monitor website as a source of authoritative information. The fact that the proposal’s supporters were unwilling to consider any place but Rafah – for example, Neve Shalom, a Jewish- Arab village in Israel – also worked to their detriment.

Third, because Mayor Cieslewicz considered the issue to be divisive, he declared that if the proposal passed, he would veto it. Fourth, members of the Jewish "soft Left," as opposed to the hard, radical Left, and the unaffiliated were split on the issue. A good number of this group, however, felt sufficiently threatened that they joined the opposition. One such group was Kavannah, made up of progressive Jewish students.

Finally, the Madison Jewish community enjoyed considerable goodwill within the larger community.

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1. Frank Bares, "Midwest City Feels Conflict in Mideast Close to Home,"
Christian Science Monitor, 3 June 2004.

2. "Jennifer Loewenstein," Z-net Middle East Watch, 2004.

3. "Special Edition: 4 July 2004 Al Mazen (Madison/Rafah ‘Sister City’ Proposal),"
ed. Gerald M. Steinberg, NGO Monitor: See
also "Exchange between NGO Monitor and Jennifer Loewenstein (Madison/
Rafah)." For general background information, see Anne Bayefsky, "The
UN World Conference against Racism: A Racist Anti-Racism Conference,"
Proceedings of the American Society of International Law, 2002, pp. 66-74.

4. Michael Mylrea, "Proposed Rafah Ties Ire Madison," Jerusalem Post, 31
May 2004.

5. "Madison Sister Cities Proposal Controversy," Duluth News Tribune (AP
story), 6 July, 2004. See also Amelia Buragas, "Cieslewicz Says He’ll Veto
Rafah Sister City. . . ." Capital Times, 13 August 2004.

6. Bares, "Midwest City."

7. Esther Cameron received her J.D. from the University of Wisconsin and her
Ph.D. in German from the University of California, Berkeley.

8. Esther Cameron, "Letter on Rafah for Our Non-Jewish friends," 10 July

9. Larry Kohn, personal communication, 21 July 2004.

10. Chuck Huga, "Madison Wis. Rejects Sister City in Gaza," Star Tribune, 22
July 2004.

11. "Special Edition."

12. Gerald Steinberg, personal communication, 11 July 2004.

13. "In a letter to Madison’s Common Council, Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman wrote
that residents of Madison and Rafah could mutually benefit from the ‘personal
connections of this project,’" Jerusalem Post, 31 May 2004.

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DR. JOEL FISHMAN is an associate of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He received his doctorate in modern European history from Columbia University. He was a Fulbright Scholar at the Institute for History of the State University of Utrecht and carried out postdoctoral research at the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation in Amsterdam. His book Diplomacy and Revolution: The London Conference of 1830 and the Belgian Revolt examines the operation of a European peace conference. He served as chairman of the Foundation of the Institute for Research on Dutch Jewry and is currently conducting research on the means of best safeguarding the democratic process in Israel.

The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect
those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The above essay appears in the Fall 2004 issue of the Jewish Political Studies Review, the first and only journal dedicated to the study of Jewish political institutions and behavior, Jewish political thought, and Jewish public affairs.

Published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (, the JPSR appears twice a year in the form of two double issues, either of a general nature or thematic, with contributors including outstanding scholars from the United States, Israel, and abroad. The hard copy of the Fall 2004 issue will be available in the coming weeks. This issue focuses on "Emerging Anti-Semitic Themes."