The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

The Battle of Rafah—This One in Madison, Wisconsin

The Mideast in the Midwest

By Paul Beckett, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2004

The Battle of Rafah—This One in Madison, Wisconsin

Some members of the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project: sitting (l-r) are Jennifer Loewenstein, Barbara Olson, Carol Reiss and Tsela Barr. Standing (l-r) are Bernhard Geyer, George Arida, Kathy Walsh and Kevin Walsh (Michelle Stocker/The Capital Times, Madison, WI).

FROM MARCH to August 2002, Jennifer Loewenstein, a citizen of Madison, Wisconsin, lived in the Gaza Strip, working as a volunteer with a Palestinian human rights non-governmental organization (NGO). She became close with several families in the city of Rafah, at the southern edge of the Gaza Strip.

From these person-to-person contacts came an idea: why not a sister-city relationship linking Rafah with Madison?

It should have been a simple matter. Between them, Madison and its surrounding county count about a dozen active sister-city relationships with communities throughout the world. The rules for qualification are reasonable, and clearly defined in Madison city statutes. Madison’s Common Council had never turned down a request for city certification of sister city status.

However, it hasn’t been simple.

The effort by Loewenstein and some 30 to 40 other Madisonians organized as the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project (MRSCP) has provided an unexpected—and undesired—introduction to rough-and-tumble politics, one which seems to them to illustrate how America’s pro-Israel lobby works at the local level.

The outcome of what has turned out to be a widely watched political battle is not yet known. But the stakes have steadily escalated. At issue seems to be the question of whether an organized section of the Jewish community (the Madison Jewish Community Council) can successfully exercise a veto preventing another section of the city community (MRSCP) from developing relations of sympathy and solidarity with a Palestinian community.

Many Madisonians feel that what is at stake is the city’s character as one of the nation’s most liberal communities, one widely known for progressive international connections and for freedom of thought. MRSCP activists point out that the issues go much farther, however. As the debate has roiled in Madison, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) tanks, bulldozers and helicopter gunships have made an estimated 2,500 Rafah families newly homeless, creating a broad razed no-man’s-land between the city and the border with Egypt. The injuries, many of them to children, have been horrible. In unusually strong language, Amnesty International condemned the IDF actions as war crimes.

The issues in Madison seemed to pale in comparison. But, as the MRSCP group also points out, the political battle there and the sharp divisions it has seemed to generate, really represent a microcosm of the larger U.S. political scene. Will the American public begin to see the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank as fellow human beings, and to become conscious of the U.S. role in supporting an ever more brutal Israeli occupation? Or, will the political force represented by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) continue to succeed in keeping Palestinians off TV screens and out of public discussion—except as “terrorists” and suicide bombers—throughout the U.S.?

The Battle Is Joined

To bring the Madison story up to date: in early February 2003 MRSCP began organizing for sister city status. The idea quickly attracted a broad range of supporters. The group organized itself into committees, formulated an application for non-profit corporate status, created a Web site (<>), and organized a series of films and speakers focusing on Israel and Palestine. It developed handouts and maintained tables, especially at “progressive” events, and organized a humanitarian aid program to respond to the city’s crisis, working with the Rafah municipal authority.

Members were astonished at the positive public reaction. Their events were very well attended, and some $14,000—mostly from relatively small individual contributions—has been raised so far for urgent humanitarian aid to Rafah. (About $2,000 more has come from craft sales, which is returned to Palestinian artisans.)

Meanwhile, the group had begun their campaign for Madison Common Council approval of their sister city project. Meeting individually with Council members, and providing informational packets about the project and Rafah, they soon gained support from a number of alders—nearing a majority. Only a couple of alders had declared outright opposition. In March, the MRSCP resolution was introduced with co-sponsorship by eight of the city’s 20 alders.

In short, the proposal for sister city status with Rafah seemed to be progressing very much as had all the previous Madison sister city projects.

It was at that point, however, that the opposition struck. Without prior contact or warning, the Madison Jewish Community Council wrote to the mayor and all members of the Common Council. The letter, signed by MJCC executive director Steven Morrison, called the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project “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.”

It went on to assert that the mayor of Rafah, Said Zouroub, “stands accused (which he has never publicly denied) of membership in Hamas…” The Madison-Rafah group had acknowledged the support (primarily in communication logistics) with the Gaza-based human rights organization Al Mezan. Asserted Morrison’s letter: “Al Mezan is on-record in Durban [the 2001 U.N. Conference on Racism at Durban, South Africa, from which Israel and the U.S. walked out] denying the Holocaust, proposing anti-Semitic resolutions, and participating in demonstrations carrying the most vile of placards.”

Simultaneous with receipt of Morrison’s letter, alders began receiving a barrage of phone calls and e-mails from constituents repeating the same charges.

Madison’s generally liberal mayor, David Cieslewicz, indicated in a private and otherwise friendly meeting with the MRSCP group that his own position would be determined largely by that of Morrison. Two of the co-sponsors of the MRSCP resolution withdrew their co-sponsorship.

Until then, MRSCP members had felt that their proposal was receiving the same fair treatment as all the other sister city projects. Suddenly, however, a different model was before them: that of pro-Israel political action intended to pressure and frighten the elected alders, via a smear campaign liberally employing two of today’s most repugnant labels: anti-Semitism and terrorism. Perhaps the Madison-Rafah sister-city project was over before it had really begun.

Signs of Different Times?

So far, however, the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project has refused to die. Despite the MJCC barrage, six of the alder co-sponsors have hung on—and one new co-sponsor has come on board! Other alders have indicated their intention to vote for the resolution. With little prompting or organization, Madisonians have sent alders e-mails, letters and phone calls in favor of the project—and these gradually have come to equal and then to outnumber the ones apparently organized by MJCC. At a public Common Council meeting, speeches in favor of the project greatly outnumbered those opposed. New public support for the project actually seems to have developed because of the attack.

MRSCP members find it highly significant, and encouraging, that the MJCC’s claim to speak for all Jews in Madison has been severely damaged. As it happens, about one-third of the MRSCP activists are themselves Jewish. And the number of Madison Jews who have written to alders or to the newspapers expressing their dismay at being “represented” by the MJCC letter is now legion.

Steven Morrison and the MJCC also have been widely chastised, most notably by one of Madison’s newspapers and by one of the alders, for their rash use of the charge of “anti-Semitism”—a phrase and concept many feel should not be debased as a weapon of convenience. So effective has this objection been that Morrison now insists he did not mean to apply this label to the MRSCP activists (an insistence undermined by the clear wording of his original letter!).

For the MRSCP group, the most positive aspect of all has been the fact that, indisputably, public attention has been drawn to Rafah itself, and to the destructive and deadly force being applied there so profusely and constantly by the IDF.

The Battle Continues

If the Madison-Rafah project has not lost, however, it also has not yet won. The MRSCP group finds itself in engaged in the time-consuming and laborious process of refuting false charges and proving negatives. After considerable effort, they were able to extract from Morrison the basis of his charge that Mayor Zouroub is accused of membership in Hamas. Using Morrison’s own source, they were able to determine that the accusation (made by Israeli authorities in 1997) had been leveled against another Said Zouroub (a relatively common name). Meanwhile, records of the Canadian Parliament established that, at the time the accusation was made, Mayor Zouroub had been an honored guest in Waterloo, Canada—with Israeli and Canadian travel permission!

Putting direct questions to the Al Mezan NGO, the Madison group established that Al Mezan had been represented by only one person in Durban, and that that person had participated in none of the street activities characterized by Morrison as “anti-Semitic” and “vile.” (It is notable as well that Al Mezan is on record as officially condemning the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks immediately after they occurred—confounding another allegation made against the NGO.)

But the MRSCP group has discovered an old truth: that political leaders and the media tend naturally to treat allegations and refutations as being of equal value—simply expressions of contesting groups—and to be less interested in trying to ascertain truth and falsity.

Further, Morrison and the MJCC continue to shift their ground, introducing new assertions to replace those that are disproved. A charge that Mayor Zouroub is a member of Fatah (scarcely surprising that he belongs to the main political party!), and that Fatah is itself and as a whole a terrorist organization, replaced the Hamas charge. And MRSCP finds itself led into a fruitless and irrelevant debate as to how many weapon-smuggling tunnels may now (or in the past) connect Rafah to Egypt. Knowing that MRSCP could not and would not abandon its relationship with Rafah, Morrison now says that MJCC would accept a relationship between some different Palestinian city and Madison.

“A luta continua,” as the Mozambique freedom fighters used to say.

Making a Difference

The Madison group already has transmitted more than $10,000 in response to emergency needs in Rafah. But of still more importance to people in Rafah is the knowledge that that they have friends abroad, and that people care. In February, Zeyad Sarafandi, president of Popular Refugee Committees in Rafah, wrote to Jennifer Loewenstein to say thanks for the work done by the Madison group: “We feel we are not alone in the world,” he said.

As the MRSCP members have studied other Madison sister-city projects, they have come to understand better the depth and the potential power of sister-citying. Person-to-person, community-to-community contacts and exchanges can go where our government cannot, or will not, go. An activist in Madison’s El Salvador sister city project, Marc Rosenthal, put it best: The Rafah project “is very much within the spirit of sistering and what it means to be a global citizen,” he said. “We know from firsthand experience what a difference it can make as a way to put a human face on those broader social and political issues that confront us.”

MRSCP may be contacted via its Web site, <>, via e-mail at RafahSisterCity at

Paul Beckett is a political scientist and freelance writer who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. He has published books and articles on Nigerian politics and on political theory.