The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

Midwest city feels conflict in the Mideast close to home

Frank Bures, The Christian Science Monitor, 03-Jun-04

A Palestinian woman inspected the rubble of her house at the Rafah refugee camp after it was destroyed by Israeli bulldozers during a raid. Madison, Wis., wants to adopt Rafah as a sister city.

On a cool, cloudy day in Madison, Wis., a city once at the heart of the 1960s antiwar movement, a handful of activists gather for a press conference on the terrace of the city government building to protest a different war in a different way.

In front of a row of television cameras, members of a “sister city” project take turns reading a long list of reasons for the Madison City Council to vote to adopt Rafah, an embattled city on the southern edge of the Gaza strip, as an official sister city.

To date, no American city has officially adopted a town in Israel’s occupied territories. Even that other redoubt of liberalism, Berkeley, Calif., tried and failed to do so with the town of Jabaliya in the late 1980s.

But activists in Madison are undeterred. They have already helped turn the city into one of the cause capitals of America — forging relations with beleaguered cities across the world in places like East Timor, Nicaragua, Cuba, and the former Soviet Union. The city also has long history of tackling controversial issues on everything from the Vietnam War to gay rights to the pledge of allegiance in schools. If the sister city campaign is “going to succeed anywhere, it’s going to succeed here,” says Jennifer Loewenstein, a founder of the Madison Rafah project, aimed at highlighting civilian suffering in the city.

Still, the debate over Rafah has been pitched even by Madison standards. Passions are running high on both sides, especially since Israeli’s recent incursions into Rafah in search of smuggling tunnels, which left around 45 Palestinians dead and 2000 homeless, according to the UN. “I’ve been flooded with e-mails from across the world either opposing or supporting this project,” says Mike Verveer, an alderman who originally cosponsored the resolution, but who has since removed his name from it.

In the council chambers, Mr. Verveer and others listened as residents testified, trading accusations of McCarthyism and anti-Semitism, a virulence not often seen even in this city of passion and crusades. “Madison has been known nationally since the Vietnam era as being right there on the front line, opposing war,” Verveer says. “And many of the communities that we sister with have had very serious strife and violence. So from that perspective, this isn’t new. What is new is the tremendous amount of opposition here at home.”

Leading the opposition are local Jewish groups, which argue that Rafah’s leaders are anti-Semitic and that they have links to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. They ardently refute that the Rafah project falls in line with Madison’s antiwar tradition. “It’s just the opposite of being antiwar,” says Steve Morrison, director of the Madison Jewish Community Council.

Marc Rosenthal disagrees. In the 1980s, Mr. Rosenthal helped found a sister city relationship with Arcatao, El Salvador. He credits the official tie with saving hundreds of noncombatant lives during that country’s civil war. “We really understand that we are part of a broader globalization from below,” he says. “And with something like Rafah, you’re just trying to project the humanity of the people caught in this struggle.”

In the current Madison debate, there may be less tear gas employed than in the past, but the debate is still fierce. For some, it’s what gives the city its character. “There’s a pretty healthy argument about issues in Madison,” says David Maraniss, a Madison native and an associate editor at the Washington Post whose book, They Marched into Sunlight, chronicled an antiwar protest here in 1967. “It’s not all one-sided. I think the city has come to accept that ideological debates are part of its definition.”

This week, a City Council committee voted to postpone a Rafah decision to allow more dialogue. At the councilors’ behest, the two sides are meeting and will report back to the committee before it votes. “At the end of the day, any dialogue on this is a good thing,” says supporter George Arida.

“That’s what these sister city relationships are supposed to be all about,” says Verveer. “Learning from one another.”