Madison Fights for Palestinian Rights

by Greg Geboski & Dayna Long

On Monday, November 29, on the annual International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, the small Midwestern city of Madison, Wisconsin was hopping. Signs and a large Palestinian flag were flown on a footbridge over Campus Drive, a well-traveled roadway connecting the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. And at the state capitol building, a Palestinian flag briefly adorned the statue Victory, a monument commemorating the civil war that led to the abolition of slavery in the US. These actions were carried out by local participating organizations including Madison for Palestine, Palestine Partners, the UW-Madison chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project. This was part of an effort coordinated nationally by the US Palestine Community Network (USPCN).

Madison might seem an unlikely location for significant Palestine solidarity organizing, but that hasn’t stopped multiple Madison-based organizations from stepping into the struggle for Palestinian liberation. In fact, the amount of local organizing around Israel’s illegal occupation has reached surprising and even outsized levels, in recent months in particular. 

The upward trend began this spring during Israel’s escalation in hostilities following Palestinian resistance to the displacement of the residents of Sheikh Jarrah by illegal settlers. Members of Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, Madison for Palestine, and the UW Madison chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine organized a demonstration called Palestine Can’t Breathe: Save Sheikh Jarrah on May 15, with support and endorsement from a number of other groups, including Madison Area DSA, Socialist Alternative, and Black Umbrella Global, a group that emerged from the 2020 rebellion against white supremacy. But even after Palestine fell out of the headlines, the organizing didn’t stop. 

Members of Madison for Palestine began working with progressive Dane County Board Supervisors to advance Resolution 131 condemning the actions of Israel and calling on the Biden administration to halt military sales and aid to the settler state. The resolution was sponsored by Supervisors Elena Haasl and Heidi Wegleitner, and endorsed by sixteen organizations and individuals, Jewish Voice for Peace, Allies for Black Lives, Madison Area DSA, and Veterans for Peace. Ultimately the resolution was not scheduled for a vote after early support among other supervisors cooled, reportedly due to behind-the-scenes pressure on the board. This outcome is disappointing but not surprising. As Madison for Palestine organizer Ashley Hudson put it, in a letter published in the Madison Cap Times, “I am disgusted. If our leaders are going to deny oppressed peoples’ humanity, we want answers and we want names. If one is not ashamed of their position, let them come forward and publicly tell their fellow community members why they have chosen to side with the oppressor.”

In early October, Madison for Palestine, Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, Palestine Partners, Playgrounds for Palestine, and US Palestinian Community Network co-sponsored a celebration of Palestinian culture, Turath Baladna, at a downtown Madison park, featuring food, music, and dancing. In addition to sharing Palestinian culture with a wider audience, the event was organized with the intention of raising awareness about Resolution 131 and its lack of progress through the Dane County Board. It was after this event that organizers with Students for Justice in Palestine decided to pick up the baton. SJP is now working on advancing a similar resolution through Madison Common Council. Twelve organizations have signed onto their letter, including Madison for Palestine, Madison-Rafah Sister City, Amnesty International at UW, Muslim Student Association, UW Madison Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), and SJP chapters at Marquette University and at UW-Milwaukee.

Throughout the fall semester, SJP also worked towards establishing a coalition of campus-based organizations for solidarity with Palestine and responded to an international call to #StandWithThe6, defending six Palestinian human rights organizations that Israel recently designated “terrorist organizations.” They issued a statement condemning Israel’s ban on these human rights organizations that attracted harassment from prominent zionists on Instagram. The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project issued its own statement condeming the Israeli campaign against these six Palestinian human rights groups. Yet, as the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project knows through its decades of work to get Madison even to acknowledge the plight of the Palestinians, this attack on Palestinian civil society by the State of Israel is simply a continuation of a long pattern. As MRSCP write, “Slandering and prohibiting the work of human rights groups who reveal damaging and embarrassing facts about Israel and its apartheid regime has for decades been standard practice of Israel and its allies.” 

Activists gather on the footbridge that crosses Campus Drive for a banner drop on International Day of Solidarity with Palestinian People.

For some groups, this organizing is nothing new. The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, for example, has for years been steadily engaged in efforts to raise awareness and influence congressional representatives to stand with Palestine and block US funding for occupation. The UW Madison chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, on the other hand, is active off and on, their level of activity fluctuating as activists graduate and are later replaced by new student leaders. Madison for Palestine is a new grassroots organization, having formed over the summer.

Many individual members of Madison Area DSA have been involved in boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) campaigns and other solidarity with Palestine organizing over the years, but the chapter’s commitment to solidarity with Palestine began to solidify this spring through its involvement in the Palestine Can’t Breathe rally and through education. May’s second general membership meeting featured a presentation on Palestine from brian bean, co-editor of the new book Palestine: A Socialist Introduction.

These experiences, as well as educational meetings and discussions of imperialism and the anti-war movement influenced a decision the chapter made at its late-October general membership meeting – to call on DSA’s National Political Committee to expel DSA member and DSA-endorsed congressman Jamaal Bowman, who voted in favor of funding for Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system and later made comments lauding former Secretary of State, the war criminal Colin Powell. The chapter’s statement was met with more support than hostility, but it still attracted a significant amount of derision and backlash both from zionists and from other DSA members. Many suggested that a chapter in Wisconsin has no business weighing in on a member of a different chapter, an elected official from another state halfway across the country.  

However, more than a month later and following Bowman’s highly publicized trip to Israel on a J Street sponsored tour, more than a dozen additional DSA chapters and DSA’s National BDS and Palestine Solidarity working group have also issued calls for Representative Bowman to be held accountable. DSA’s National Political Committee met with Bowman on Friday, November 19. Though the NPC has yet to share the outcome of the meeting with DSA members, an article published in The Nation reports that Bowman declined to publicly support BDS at the meeting and that “Bowman is unlikely to be expelled from DSA.” 

Notably, Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan also attended the J-Street tour of Israel, disappointing constituents who have spent years encouraging Pocan to stand with Palestine. Pocan is not a member of DSA and he has not received any endorsement from Madison Area DSA or DSA nationally, but he is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and is often regarded as a strong progressive in Wisconsin. It is important that he, too, be held to account for his support for Israel. In their statement,  Madison-Rafah Sister City Project explicitly called out Pocan and Senator Tammy Baldwin to denounce Israel’s designation of the six Palestininan civil organizations as “terrorist,” and directs them to House Resolution 751 sponsored by Betty McCollum, which condemns “the repressive designation by the Government of Israel of six prominent Palestinian human rights and civil society groups as terrorist organizations.”

To learn more about any of the organizations listed above:

Activities, political or fun, around Palestine this week: Today, Wednesday, December 1, SJP will screen the documentary The Occupation of the American Mind: Israel’s Public Relations War in the United States. This will be at the UW campus, 6:30-8:00 pm in Birge Hall B302, and will be open only to students, faculty and staff of the university. And Palestine Partners ,Madison-Rafah, and local members of Playgrounds for Palestine will be among those at the Madison Fair Trade Festival, this Saturday, December 4, at Monona Terrace.

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