The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

Should Wisconsin town have Gaza sister city?

By Leon Cohen, JTA, June 9, 2004 9:00am

MADISON, Wisc., June 9 (JTA) — Rabbi Kenneth Katz, of Madison’s Beth Israel Center synagogue, long has wanted the city to build a speed bump on a street near his shul to slow down reckless drivers. Probably in any other city in America, that would have nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But this is Madison, which as a recent local editorial noted, “is one of the few American cities with its own foreign policy.” For the last couple of months, the city government has been debating whether or not to make Rafah, a Palestinian city of about 130,000 people on the boundary between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, the sister city of Madison. Katz, who counts himself among Madison’s Jewish opponents of the idea, said, “It is ridiculous for my City Council, which can’t organize a speed bump on my street, to be wasting people’s time on having a foreign policy.” But a lot of other Madisonians find at least this “foreign policy” issue very interesting. The controversy has been intense, with an outpouring of letters to the editors of local newspapers and to city officials. Steven H. Morrison, executive director of the Madison Jewish Community Council, said some city council members told him the issue has generated “more constituent contact equally divided than any other issue.” The two local dailies have taken opposite positions in editorials, with the Capital Times in favor and the Wisconsin State Journal opposed. The controversy has spread beyond Madison, and the issue has received coverage in national and international media. In the meantime, the city has erected a legislative speed bump to delay implementation of the sister city project while it tries to find a way to resolve the controversy. Madison City Council President Brenda Konkel organized a meeting May 25 between members of the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project and delegates from the local Jewish community council, which is the primary opponent of the idea. The meeting failed to resolve the matter; another meeting is scheduled for early summer. Madison has had several sister city relationships since 1962; each sister city has received some modest funding from Madison’s government. The active proponents of the Rafah project are a group of about two dozen people, Jews and non-Jews. Apparently, a Madison Jew, Jennifer Loewenstein, came up with the idea. Speaking of Rafah, Loewenstein said she came up with the idea after “I fell in love with the city and its people.” She said, “Rafah is the poorest of all Palestinian cities and has experienced all the kinds of things” Israel has done in the disputed territories since Israel took control of them in the 1967 Six-Day War, including targeted killings, army incursions and home demolitions. Even during college, Loewenstein said, she saw “Arabs being badly discriminated against” in Israel, concluding that “Arabs were treated as second-class citizens.” She later visited Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. In 2002, while her husband, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, was a visiting scholar in London, Loewenstein returned to Gaza and worked as a volunteer editor for the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, based in the Jabalya refugee camp. Loewenstein said she became close friends with Al-Mezan staff members who lived in Rafah, often visiting their homes. Loewenstein pointed out that some of Madison’s past sister city projects were chosen to show solidarity with people struggling economically, socially and politically; hence, relationships with cities in El Salvador, Nicaragua, East Timor, Vietnam and Cambodia. The Rafah-Madison project was introduced in Madison’s City Council on March 24. No additional funding was required, since Madison’s 2004 operating budget already included $10,000 to support a sister city program. The following month, the Jewish community council’s board voted unanimously to oppose the project. Morrison, the director, wrote a letter to Madison Mayor David J. Cieslewicz and members of the City Council expressing his opposition. The fight then raged on editorial pages and in letters all May. Amy F. Scarr, an attorney and a Jewish member of the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, said the purpose of the project is humanitarian. “I would be hopeful that people from our group or others from Madison could travel to Rafah and from Rafah to Madison,” Scarr said. “We could observe each other’s form of government, their handling of green space and environmental concerns.” Lester Pines suspected otherwise. As soon as he heard about the project, he said, he “suspected that the purpose was to participate in an ongoing attempt by many groups to delegitimize Israel.” He said, “If this was really an effort to have humanitarian actions with people in Rafah, and if it was really a discussion about democracy and so forth, it would have to encompass more than discussion about Israel and its relationship to Rafah.” “It would have to encompass discussion about the manner in which the Palestinian Authority operates, the political strategy of the P.A. and the political strategies of the Arab countries.” He added, “That does not seem to be part of the agenda.” Then there’s the role of the Al-Mezan Center, which agreed to serve as an intermediary between the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project and the Rafah Refugee Committee and Municipality to “overcome initial language and cultural barriers.” Morrison said that Al-Mezan is a member of the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations network, which participated in the infamously anti-Israel and anti-Semitic 2001 U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. “Al-Mezan to this day has not distanced itself from or condemned” the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel messages of that conference, Morrison said. The NGO Monitor, affiliated with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, says that Al-Mezan’s Web site “is entirely devoted to a deep-seated hatred against Israel, packed with inflammatory pieces and accusatory statements and reports.” Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, spiritual leader of Shaarei Shamayim-Madison Reconstructionist and Renewal Community, was sufficiently bothered enough by such allegations to “do some checking.” In an e-mail from Israel, she said that “B’Tselem, the well-respected Israeli human rights organization, has assured me that Al-Mezan is a totally legitimate human rights organization. Other colleagues have assured me that it is not anti-Semitic.” That helped her decide to support the sister city project, she wrote. The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project’s Web site also contains a statement from Al-Mezan’s director, Issam Younis, saying that Al-Mezan in Durban “did not take part in any of the activities or seminars that were described lately as an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel campaign.” Finally, there’s Rafah itself. To choose this city, Katz said, “was unusually cynical.” In recent months, Rafah has been the focus of intense Israeli military action. Because it straddles the border with Egypt, it has been the location of numerous tunnels used for smuggling weapons. “Twinning with a Palestinian city is not a bad idea,” Katz said. “But to twin with a city where at best the facts are in dispute and at worst is a major center for smuggling heavy weapons into Gaza cannot avoid being advocacy of a cause abhorrent to many citizens of Madison.” For her part, Loewenstein said, “I didn’t choose Rafah because of weapons smuggling tunnels or resistance. That was not even in my mind. There was little attention being paid to Rafah at the time I chose it.” It’s hard to say whether a compromise is possible. Morrison and Pines said the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project has proposed that a Palestinian city other than Rafah be chosen, but both Loewenstein and Zimmerman reject that idea. On the other hand, Loewenstein and Zimmerman said they like the idea of Madison sister city relationships with Rafah and an Israeli city. But that may not be agreeable to the Madison Jewish Community Council. As Morrison said, “Our objections are very specific to Rafah and Al-Mezan.”