The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

Proposal to Adopt a Palestinian City as a ‘Sister’ Creates a Family Feud for Madison

JO NAPOLITANO, The New York Times, May 29, 2004

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said he thought his job would be limited to deciding issues like whether to build a municipal pool in this city of 215,000 residents or add a light-rail system. Instead he finds himself in the middle of a debate over Middle East peace.

A proposal for Madison to form a sister-city relationship with the Palestinian city of Rafah has divided Jews and others in this college town and prompted personal attacks and accusations of anti-Semitism. The mayor and members of the Common Council, the city council, have received scores of impassioned letters, e-mail messages and phone calls from angry constituents.

While some of the city’s 5,000 or so Jews say people here should reach out to the people of Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, to help send aid to the tens of thousands of refugees there, others see the city as a hotbed for Hamas and other militant groups. Any partnership with the city, opponents say, would be a condemnation of Israeli foreign policy and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Madison, a left-leaning town in the middle of a swing state, has had sister cities for more than two decades. The sister-city program, meant to foster peace and understanding across the globe, is financed with $10,000 budgeted annually. Under the program, leaders from both cities often visit one another and share ideas about common problems. Madison’s sisters include Ainaro, East Timor; Arcatao, El Salvador; Bac Giang, Vietnam, Camaguey, Cuba; and Managua, Nicaragua. Though some of those caused a stir, none proved as divisive as Rafah.

Jennifer Loewenstein, founder of the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, the group that presented the idea to the Common Council, said Rafah exemplified the Palestinian struggle and deserved help.

”It’s a place that desperately needs to be understood where suffering needs to stop,” said Ms. Loewenstein, who is Jewish.

But she acknowledged that the enmity between Israelis and Palestinians had made her proposal a hard sell, especially in a country that generally supports Israel. ”It would be easier to have a sister city with Baghdad than with Rafah,” she said.

Shirin Ezekiel, a 28-year-old Israeli who has lived in Madison for two years, said the contemplation of a partnership with Rafah sent her a troubling message — that only Palestinians suffer because of the conflict.

”It hasn’t been a picnic for the Israeli side either,” said Ms. Ezekiel, who added that she had collected more than 500 signatures from students and visitors at the University of Wisconsin who oppose the plan. Making Rafah a sister city ”doesn’t acknowledge any of the suffering on the Israeli side,” she said, adding, ”It doesn’t foster peace and understanding.”

Ms. Ezekiel and other opponents say the group in Rafah, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, that has worked with the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project is anti-Semitic, an accusation the group denies.

A number of people who support the sister-city proposal do not deny that members of Hamas and other extremist groups work in Rafah. In fact, these supporters say, this only amplifies the need for a partnership to curb the influence of extremists.

”The more we isolate ourselves, appear partisan or appear to condone violence, we serve as a recruiting method for these radicals,” said George Arida, a member of the Madison-Rafah project.

In a letter to the Common Council, a local rabbi, Laurie Zimmerman, wrote that her support for the sister-city proposal did not negate her ”love for Israel.”

”Our hearts must be big enough to hold the tears of both peoples,” Rabbi Zimmerman wrote.

Steven Morrison, executive director of the Madison Jewish Community Council, which opposes the proposal, said supporters of the sister-city project exaggerated the effect they would have on Middle East peace. ”This idea that Madison could have an impact on the war and peace issues in the Middle East through a people-to-people program is fundamentally na•ve and borders on being foolish,” Mr. Morrison said.

That did not deter a Palestinian expatriate from arguing her point with her alderman. The expatriate, Leila Nijim, who has lived in the United States since the 1960’s, grew increasingly frustrated as the alderman, Zach Brandon, refused to budge from opposing the proposal. Ms. Nijim asked why the Common Council would not embrace Rafah as it had other cities.

”In my book, this is racism,” she told Mr. Brandon. ”If you support one and not the other, that’s racist. When we are negligent and not caring, oh man, somebody’s going to have to answer to the guy upstairs.”

Mr. Brandon told her that he did not support any of the other sister-city programs either and that the city should stay out of such an emotional and political debate.

When the rift became clear, the Common Council put off deciding about the sister-city ties so that discussions could continue. Members of the Common Council have been meeting with the Jewish Community Council and the Madison-Rafah project to work out a compromise, which could include adding a sister city in Israel.

The mayor has, for his part, withdrawn his support for the Rafah proposal because it became so divisive, he said.

”The council and I got elected to get the garbage picked up and get the streets plowed,” Mr. Cieslewicz said. ”We didn’t get elected to act on matters of international policy. It’s a debate that we don’t have to have in the city of Madison, and it’s also one that’s dividing the community.”

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company