The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

After a ceasefire resolution, the City of Madison played host to some of Israel’s largest weapons suppliers


A photo shows a hand holding up a small toy missile, consisting of blue foam fins and a white plastic cylindrical body, with the Northrop Grumman logo printed on it. In the background, cars can be seen moving through a crosswalk on East Wilson Street in downtown Madison.
An attendee of the recent NSMMS-CRASTE conference at Monona Terrace holds up a toy missile, distributed as a promotional item for defense contractor Northrop Grumman. Photo courtesy of Josh Jenkins.

A recent defense-industry conference at Monona Terrace highlights the gap between local declarations and local action.

On June 24, the National Space & Missile Materials Symposium (NSMMS) and Commercial and Government Responsive Access to Space Technology Exchange (CRASTE) kicked off a joint conference on missile and space technology at Madison’s Monona Terrace. While the event’s branding cloaked it in images of astronauts and NASA spacecraft, it was very much a conference for defense contractors. Its sponsors included companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman—each of which provide Israel’s military with missiles, bombs, and fighter jets.    

The five-day conference, at a City of Madison-owned venue, comes after months of debate amongst Madison’s elected officials over resolutions calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Most recently, the Madison Common Council failed to enact a resolution in support of the UW-Madison student encampment after Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin authorized a multi-agency squad of riot police to carry out a violent crackdown. In December, however, the Common Council voted unanimously to call for an immediate ceasefire, and for “urgent political action to both de-escalate the crisis and to prioritize truth, reconciliation, restitution, and the building of a future for the Palestinian and Israeli people.” 

Despite this ceasefire resolution, Monona Terrace—technically a city agency, with an operating budget of $14,701,064 for 2024—played host to weapons manufacturers largely responsible for the destruction of 70 percent of homes in Gaza and the deaths of over 35,000 people, mostly civilians.  

On June 17, community member Josh Feran wrote in a letter to a Madison District 7 Alder Nasra Wehelie: “I think it should be highlighted and discussed that the resolution doesn’t appear to impact municipal support for weapons industries perpetuating genocide.”

What is a ceasefire city?

Dozens of city councils across the country, including in Providence, Rhode IslandWilmington, Delaware, Minneapolis, and Oakland, have also passed resolutions calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. However, these resolutions call upon state and federal officials to de-escalate and provide aid, rather than spelling out any role that local governments might play in stopping genocide. 

Madison’s resolution has the same shortcoming. It states: “Whereas, Madison’s long history of peace activism has largely created its liberal reputation; Now, therefore, be it resolved that the Madison Common Council calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.” Yet it does not illuminate any actionable steps the city might take to reduce support for the governments and companies carrying out the violence. 

This symposium, using public space and resources, raises the question of what a true commitment to ending the war in Gaza means, and how a city can be held accountable to an essentially non-binding declaration. 

UW-Madison student organizer Abbie Klein tells Tone Madison: “I think there’s a lot of superficial placating happening at the university and city level…there’s more importance and value in actually following through with your actions and the principles within them.” 

As protesters around the country call for universities and other institutions to divest from ventures that financially support Israel’s ongoing violence against Palestinians, simply calling for change may not be enough.

“Continuing to host companies like Boeing and other weapons manufacturers really shows that at the end of the day they are thinking about capital and not about saving the lives of people experiencing a genocide, or standing on any moral ground,” Klein says.

A community coalition 

At a demonstration at Monona Terrace on June 26, organizers from the Madison Area Democratic Socialists of America (MADSA), the Madison chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and the UW-Madison chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) spoke out against the NSMMS-CRASTE conference. The event drew community leaders invested in changing a wide range of critical issues. 

Madison community members and organizers at the demonstration voiced outrage over the war on Gaza, but also drew connections to a range of other problems. Some highlighted the increased policing the conference brought to the community. Others pointed to the environmental impact of U.S. militarism.

Adithya Pugazhendi, co-chair of MADSA, shared a climate-conscious perspective on the impact of U.S. militarism during a speech at the event: “They are also complicit in the climate crisis… the U.S. military is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other single institution on this planet.”

A Monona Terrace employee, who spoke with Tone Madison but asked not to be named out of concern for job security, shared insight into conference security measures. Unlike most other Monona Terrace events, the employee says, the NSMMS-CRASTE conference ran additional background checks on employees of Monona Terrace and its in-house caterer, Monona Catering. 

“They decide who can and cannot work during the duration they are there,” the employee says. Thus, these background checks can result in days of unpaid time off for city employees, for any reason conference organizers deem necessary. Tone Madison was unable to confirm how many Monona Terrace employees, if any, missed out on work due to the conference’s background checks.

“How can the City of Madison justify this contradiction between supporting a ceasefire yet hosting, policing, and benefitting from major missile systems industry events?” asked Feran. 

The call to divest

The movement for divestment from Israel, like its predecessors in the divestment campaign against South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s and the ongoing push for divestment from fossil fuels, is most commonly associated with universities. However, other institutions, including municipal governments, could also take critical action to advance the drive for justice in Palestine. 

Olivia Katbi, an organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace, wrote in a November 2023 piece for Mondoweiss: “Consumer boycotts are most effective when taken as a collective action…More important than our own personal investments and purchases, which are symbolic gestures but not impactful alone, is working within an organization, union, or coalition to organize effective, strategic campaigns and build power globally to support the Palestinian struggle.” (Italics from the original text.)

Municipal divestment is not a new concept. New York City implemented a plan in 2018 to divest $189 billion in pension funds from fossil fuels. In the 1980s, 26 states, 22 counties, and over 90 cities in the U.S. took steps to cut economic ties with companies doing business in South Africa. The City of Madison was ahead of most of them: In December 1976, the Common Council adopted a resolution requiring the City to avoid contracting with companies that had ties to South Africa. 

Furthermore, the Palestine-focused Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement calls not only for substantive action on the part of institutions, but also for transparency and accountability. As college campuses became hotbeds of organizing around Gaza, student protesters have chanted, “Divulge, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest.”

In Madison, the decision to host a missile and aerospace technology conference at a city-operated venue illustrated the importance of the “divulge” part. “Secretive highly secure events like this should not be welcome at public venues,” Feran wrote in his letter to Alder Wehelie. 

As the violence continues in Gaza, Madisonians continue looking for ways to build collective power and create meaningful change. But the local government needs to follow suit, bringing the sense of responsibility—and the imperative to take action—home.

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Mariama Sidime is a writer and communications coordinator for the queer feminist abolitionist non-profit Freedom Action Now in Madison, WI. She is a native Chicagoan and a graduate of Pomona College.





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