Dane County Board Refuses to Condemn Israeli Apartheid

Written by: Julian Cooper

On October 7th, the Dane County Board of Supervisors was scheduled to vote on Resolution 131, formally titled “Resolution Condemning the Acts of Israel and Calling for the Biden Administration to Immediately Cut All Military Sales to the Country.” Dane County is the second-most populous county in Wisconsin, containing the state’s capital of Madison. If passed, the motion would have made history by being the first local resolution passed in the United States to recognize the Israeli occupation as an apartheid regime and condemn Israel’s assualt on Gaza last May. This assault displaced at least 70,000 and left over 240 Palestinians dead, including over 66 children.

Unfortunately, the Board cancelled the scheduled vote with little explanation or justification provided to proponents of the resolution. Reactions among local activists ranged from confusion to frustration. Ashley Hudson, a Madison activist with the organization Madison for Palestine, called the County Board’s handling of the resolution “an abysmal failure.” Madison for Palestine is a small grassroots group entirely local to Madison, who played a major role in drafting the resolution. For them, getting the county board to address it was a months-long effort.

Over the week following the vote’s cancellation, activists’ frustration was only amplified and vindicated, as county representatives failed to explain why they cancelled the vote. Some representatives simply stopped responding to activists. Others deflected, saying it was their colleagues and constituents who had objections with the resolution, without naming the objector or the nature of the objection.

Because of this deliberate obfuscation, it remains unclear who among the Board of Supervisors is directly responsible for the resolution being dropped. Certainly Supervisor Analiese Eicher, in her capacity as Chair of the Executive Committee of the Board, is at least somewhat responsible, given her authority to call and cancel votes. What remains unclear is the extent of responsibility among the other board members, including the three representatives who once sponsored the resolution and have since dropped their support. This state of confusion works in favor of any board members who oppose the resolution. For appearances, it is better that the resolution die in confusion than for a county representative to publicly oppose making a stand against apartheid.

According to local activists Madison for Palestine, some county supervisors cited a “language issue” as their justification for dropping their support of Resolution 131. Specifically, their issue was with a use of the word “Jewish” in the resolution text. This particular passage within the resolution was not written by local activists whom board members may try to characterize as being biased; it is a direct quote from Human Right Watch’s report from earlier this year, wherein they declare Israel guilty of the crime of apartheid. The full quote from the report reads, “the Israeli government has demonstrated an intent to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians.”

The county board members’ “language issue” is not merely an issue with the local activists who drafted the Resolution 131; it is an issue with the findings of Human Rights Watch’s comprehensive study. To remove this passage from the resolution would be to deny the validity of the organization’s work. The sanitization of language advocated here by the county board obscures the brutality of the Israeli occupation. Perhaps it is not the language that is ugly, it is the nature of the crime.

Designating the Israeli occupation as an “apartheid” regime was a major objective of the resolution effort. “Apartheid,” a word borrowed from the Afrikaans language, was originally used to describe the white supremacist government of South Africa and its treatment of its black population prior to democratization in the early 1990s. For years, Palestinian civil rights activists and human rights scholars around the world have been arguing for the term be used to label the occupation government of Israel and the government’s treatment of Palestinians.

Just this year, many major breakthroughs have been made in designating Israel as an apartheid state. In January, Israel’s largest human rights group, B’Tselem, published a detailed report titled “This Is Apartheid.” In April, Human Rights Watch published an even lengthier report arriving at the same conclusion: Israel’s policies of occupation are “so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.” Resolution 131 cites both of these reports. 

Just a few days ago another breakthrough came in the fight to recognize apartheid. Yehudit Karp, a former deputy attorney general in Israel, published an opinion piece in Haaretz titled, “The Time Has Come to Admit: Israel Is an Apartheid Regime.” If Palestininans, Israeli activists, international human rights organizations, and even leaders in Israeli law can recognize apartheid, then why can’t Dane County? Or other American cities and counties, for that matter?

Human Rights Watch sorts Israel’s crimes of apartheid into five categories: “Restriction of movement,” “confiscation of land,” “imposition of harsh conditions,” “denial of residency,” and the “suspension of basic civil rights,” in order to “maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians.” Each of these crimes is abundantly evidenced and corroborated. 

Although Madison could be the first American city to pass a condemnation of Israeli apartheid, it is not the first to consider it. In September, the city council of Burlington, Vermont voted on a similar resolution. It lost a very narrow vote after hours of deliberation. Burlington, like Madison, is an unambiguously progressive city that prides itself on that reputation. The two cities produce some of the country’s most progressive congresspeople, such as Bernie Sanders and Mark Pocan, and are constituted by neighborhood after neighborhood of colorful, performative lawn signs about racial justice. Both cities also cowered when granted an opportunity to take historic action against flagrant racial apartheid. In the vernacular of Palestinian civil rights activists, there is a word for this brand of politics: PEP (Progressive Except for Palestine.)

However, Madison has made history in the past in the fight against apartheid. Forty-five years ago, the Madison Common Council made history as the first city council in America to pass a resolution condemning apartheid in South Africa. Just like Resolution 131, this was a product of grassroots organizing and student involvement. Analiese Eicher and others in the Dane County Board of Supervisors have decided that condemnation of racial apartheid is not a priority for them, given that they could have passed this nonbinding resolution that arrived on their desks fully-written, or they could have rewritten the resolution to their liking. However, there is still a chance for Madison to make history, as the Common Council is still considering the resolution. The Common Council can learn from the “abysmal failure” at the county level: Each representative should state their position on the resolution boldly. The shame and cowardice show in those who oppose the resolution and have nothing to say for themselves. Likewise, those who support the resolution should do so fiercely. This is a moment to make history, either as a vanguard city of civil rights in America, or as a city that deliberately voted not to condemn racial apartheid.

Special thanks to Madison for Palestine for the information they provided on this topic through interviews.