The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project



Judith Davidoff, The Capital Times, May 4, 2004

A number of local Jewish residents want policy-makers to know that not all Jews are opposed to a Madison group forming a sister city relationship with Rafah, a Palestinian city in the Gaza Strip.

Tsela Barr, who is helping to circulate a letter in support of the sister city proposal, said she and others strongly disagree with the Madison Jewish Community Council’s denunciation of it.

“MJCC does not speak for the entire Jewish community,” Barr said.

Barr said about 60 or 70 people have signed onto the letter but the group is still collecting signatures.

Steve Morrison, executive director of the MJCC, wrote in a recent letter to Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and the Madison City Council that the sister city proposal is “nothing more than a thinly veiled mechanism to bash the state of Israel. That it is also about anti-Semitism only makes it more offensive.”

Morrison says Rafah is a hotbed for Hamas and other terrorist groups and that the weapons used by Hamas are smuggled in by way of tunnels that surround and run under the city.

The MJCC also took particular exception to the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, which is working with the local sister city group on the proposal. The letter said Al Mezan was part of a 2001 United Nations conference in South Africa “which descended into gutter anti-Semitism.”

The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project denies these charges.

Marc Rosenthal, a member of the project and a practicing Jew, said it is critical that other Jews, in particular, respond to Morrison’s charges of anti-Semitism.

“I am deeply offended at what Steve Morrison and MJCC appear to be saying,” Rosenthal said. “This is not in any way anti-Semitic. Nor do I believe it is anti-Israeli. It is challenging the political program of the right-wing Sharon government and their policies. To say that this is anti-Semitic I think does an incredible disservice to people who have to really deal with and confront issues of racism and anti-Semitism.”

Sister city project backers have also defended Al Mezan, saying the group denounces anti-Semitism and that its sole representative at the 2001 conference “participated in no demonstrations and carried no anti-Semitic placards.” Sister city proponents wrote in a response to the MJCC letter that such accusations came from U.N. Watch, which it called a “pro-Israel organization under the control of the American Jewish Committee.”

Morrison said in a telephone interview this morning that some have misconstrued his group’s letter as saying the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project itself is anti-Semitic. Morrison had not seen the new petition being circulated, but he called it a sign of a diverse and vibrant Jewish community in Madison.

Two local rabbis have signed on to the petition: Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim and Rabbi Brian Field.

Zimmerman has also penned her own letter to the City Council and Cieslewicz in support of the Rafah project.

In it, she stressed her strong connections to Israel, where she lived for two years, and her close relationships with Israeli Jews. But she added, “My love for Israel, however, does not mean that I can shut my eyes to the plight of the Palestinian people. Having once sat with a family in a refugee camp in Gaza, I have witnessed the utter poverty and hopelessness that so many Palestinians are forced to endure.”

The controversy over the proposal has already led one of the proposal’s eight City Council supporters, Ald. Mike Verveer, to drop his name as a co-sponsor.

Cieslewicz has also declined to support the proposal, stating that the City Council should stay out of Middle East politics and concentrate on city business.

But the proposal’s chief sponsor, Ald. Jean MacCubbin, remains on board.

“I’m prepared to move forward,” said MacCubbin, the chair of the city’s subcommittee on sister city programs.

MacCubbin said she was willing to refer the proposal from its tentatively scheduled airing on May 18 before the City Council’s Organizational Committee if Ald. Ken Golden organized a public forum on the proposal, as she said he indicated he wanted to do.

But Golden said Monday the forum is not going to happen.

Golden said he met with the organizers of the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project and suggested that a Madison group establish an Israeli sister city as well as a Palestinian one. The idea would be for the three cities to engage in cultural exchange with each other, he said.

“I thought a constructive moment while this proposal is pending before the City Council would be to talk about how people in Madison could in their own minor way contribute to increased understanding and cooperation between peoples of Israel and the Palestinian territories,” Golden said.

But he said the representatives of the Rafah group were not interested.

Rosenthal said his group would be interested in talking about the issues raised by their proposed project and dialoguing with people who might be interested in establishing an Israeli sister city project.

But he said they do not want their own project tied to that effort.

The power balance, as he sees it, is already bent in favor of the Sharon government, which has the support — and financial backing — of the United States.

“There’s no lack of venue for the voice of the current Israeli administration,” he said.


Cite this article

“GAZA SISTER CITY DRAWS JEWISH SUPPORT SIGNATURES GATHERED IN FAVOR OF IDEA.(METRO).” The Capital Times. Capital Newspapers. 2004. Retrieved November 15, 2009 from HighBeam Research:

COPYRIGHT 2004 Capital Newspapers