The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project


Michael Mylrea, Jerusalem Post, May 31, 2004

A proposal to establish a sister-city arrangement with Rafah in the Gaza Strip has divided the 215,000 residents of Madison, Wisconsin.

While some support the adoption of Rafah as part of a relief effort to help the city’s thousands of refugees, opponents argue that the city is a refuge for terrorists and that Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, responsible for implementing the project on the Rafah side, supports terror and is anti-Semitic.

Madison, a college town with a left-leaning reputation, currently has 10 official sister-city alliances. The program is meant to foster peace and cross-cultural understanding.

Madison’s program has previously come under fire for establishing controversial sister-city arrangements, but the friction has never equalled that caused by the Rafah proposal.

The city’s 5,000 or so Jewish residents have amplified the opposition voice, but remain divided on the proposal.

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.”

“As violence continues to destroy so many lives in the Middle East, it is essential that those of us who are fortunate to live in peaceful lands reach out to those who suffer from war and bloodshed,” she wrote.

Steven Morrison, executive director of Madison Jewish Council, which opposes the proposal, said the sister-city arrangement is being used as a political tool to bash Israel and expressed concern over the involvement of Al-Mezan Center.

“That the city of Madison would propose to align itself with such a group is unworthy of our great city,” he said. “Al-Mezan is on record in the Durban anti-racism conference denying the Holocaust, proposing anti-Semitic resolutions, and participating in demonstrations carrying the most vile of placards. As long as Al-Mezan is part of this project their is no way to assure that funds raised in Madison will not be used to support terror.”

But Al-Mezan director Issam Younis, who attended the Durban conference, said these allegations are untrue and that he hopes to foster a closer bond with Madison.

“The Madison committee and Al-Mezan are entirely committed to the development of deeper understanding between the two communities and the accomplishment of humanitarian betterment; are non-political and non-partisan, endorsing no political movements or formulae; and are committed to non-violence,” he said.

Kavanna, a progressive Jewish student group in Madison, which opposes the partnership, proposed that Kibbutz Metzer and Kaffin, neighboring Israeli and Palestinian villages separated by the Green Line, would make better alternatives for a sister city than Rafah.

“These Israelis and Palestinians have lived as peaceful neighbors for decades, and today both sides oppose the location of the new Israeli security fence being built through Kaffin’s fields,” said Jeremy Manela, a member of Kavanna.

“Madison could become sisters with both Kaffin and Kibbutz Metzer as they try to resolve this issue.”

Dr. Emad Sha’at, deputy mayor of Rafah, said the partnership will help foster stronger cultural ties and raise awareness to the city’s struggle “with poverty and occupation.”

“The people of Rafah are a peaceful, loving people under occupation and hope this [partnership] will bring people of Rafah closer to the people of America,” he said. “This will help people of Madison understand are culture and standard of living in Rafah — the most deprived city in Palestine.”

Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said he has withdrawn his support for the Rafah proposal due to the growing divide between opposing groups.

Meanwhile, Madison’s Common Council has delayed a decision so that members of the Jewish Community Council and the Madison-Rafah project can work out a compromise, which might include adding a sister city in Israel.