Update: Durham NC Pro-Israel groups organize against City Council ban on police exchanges with Israel
Two Jewish organizations file a joint formal complaint with Durham advisory board against the City Council.
On April 16h, Durham, North Carolina became the first American city to align a municipal public policy with the agenda of the virulently anti-Jewish and anti-peace extremist organization Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which falsely blames Israel and American Jewish organizations for U.S. domestic police militarization and instances of police violence against blacks and other minorities in America, Demonization: Durham NC City Council bans police exchanges with Israel.
As we discussed, in a statement which passed unanimously, the City Council of Durham imposed a total ban on police exchanges with “only one country in the world: the Jewish nation of Israel.”
It did so without any evidence to support this discriminatory action and based solely on propaganda concocted by the radical JVP and promoted by its local activists and their allies, who together launched the “Demilitarize! Durham2Palestine” coalition and a sophisticated PR campaign.
In our prior post, we described how Durham’s City Council ended up lending legitimacy to JVP’s malicious “Deadly Exchange” campaign, which seeks to delegitimize Israel and American Jewish groups by blaming them for institutionalized racism and societal ills in America, including domestic policing problems in minority communities:
- With “Deadly Exchange” Campaign, Jewish Voice for Peace moves from enabling to promoting antisemitism
- Jewish Voice for Peace doubles-down on antisemitic “Deadly Exchange” campaign
As we noted, following the April 16th City Council meeting, a “thrilled” JVP quickly deemed the vote as a victory for its campaign. Subsequently another pro-BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) group eager to capitalize on the perceived success in Durham announced that it would be organizing similar local-level efforts across the country, Alert: Anti-Israel coordinating group to launch municipal-level campaigns against Israel in June.
But as highlighted in a local news story last week, “Durham’s debate over Israel is not over.” Below I provide a brief background for readers unfamiliar with the issue, followed by an update.
Based on the recent developments which I detail below, there’s nothing to indicate that a retraction of the City Council statement is imminent. But local Jewish organizations and community leaders opposed to the measure are effectively using various avenues available to them so that a reversal of the City Council decision has now become a distinct possibility.
Background: How Durham’s City Council Promoted Anti-Israel Discrimination
In a recent post we covered the Durham City Council’s unanimous decision to endorse a statement which essentially makes it impossible for the city’s police department to benefit from police exchange programs in Israel.
These trainings in Israel are designed to equip U.S. law enforcement officers with the knowledge to safeguard communities from a range of threats, including terrorism and bombings to active shooter situations.
In the Durham City Council statement, only Israel is mentioned by name in the opening paragraph of the document and all types of police exchanges with Israel are barred, while only “military-style training” with foreign countries is opposed.
As we highlighted, the statement was passed after an intense lobbying campaign by anti-Israel activists and over the objection of police groups and high-ranking police officers, local rabbis, the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill, and the Anti-Defamation League.
what an incredible coalition of communities in Durham came together to say no to police exchanges between the U.S. and Israel! Enormous congrats to @Durm2Palestine for your historic victory, the first of the #DeadlExchange campaign! https://t.co/6pJgF7R6UU
— Rebecca Vilkomerson (@RVilkomerson) April 17, 2018
In our prior post we provided an overview of the April 16th City Council meeting on international police exchanges, highlighting the public comments delivered there and also the remarks by various council members and the Mayor. A video of the proceedings along with excerpted clips can be found in our prior post. It’s worth watching them to get a sense of the kind of anti-Jewish hostility and divisiveness that JVP brings into a community.
We showed how members of the Durham Jewish community who pre-registered to attend the meeting to voice their concerns were subjected to a barrage of gross bigotry from those who came to support the statement. At one point during the proceedings, a minister from the Nation of Islam delivered a 2-minute anti-Jewish rant, referring to a “synagogue of Satan” and accusing Jews of having an “inordinate amount of control” in city politics:
We also noted that Mayor Steve Schewel’s closing comments were highly problematic. Schewel acknowledged JVP’s accusations to be false but nonetheless supported the statement singling out Israel anyway:
The mayor provided Jewish ‘cover’ and stamp of approval for this pernicious City Council statement in much the same way that JVP provides the Jewish cover for BDS statements and other events and programming where Israel is slandered and defamed.”
Aftermath: An Action Alert and Condemnatory Statements
On April 16th, the City of Durham shamed itself by singling out Israel based on the conspiracy theory that programs for American law enforcement personnel in Israel are to blame for alleged police brutality against, and inequality among, non-whites in the U.S.
Basically, what happened in Durham is another cautionary tale of how racial issues and other progressive causes in America unrelated to Israel are being exploited and hijacked by anti-Israel activists:
A key component of these hijackings is so-called ‘intersectionality,’ the concept that Israel is the unifying evil force in the world that ties together problems far distant from Israel…Israel thus serves the organizing purpose that Jews historically served in international conspiracy theories.”
Durham’s Mayor and City Council allowed anti-Israel, pro-BDS, and antisemitic voices to gain strength and to claim victory, and so in the days and weeks after the vote much of the pushback focused on this.
On April 23rd, the Zionist Organization of America issued an Action Alert calling for the Durham City Council to rescind its “discriminatory, false statement libeling Israel.” The Action Alert, which urged ZOA members to call and email Mayor Schewel and the City Council, noted that the statement “ignored the pleas” of Durham’s rabbis, police, and civic groups and also “frightened and concerned Jewish and pro-Israel community members.”
The pro-Israel organization StandWithUs also released a statement calling on the Mayor and City Council to publicly condemn the antisemitic diatribes at the April 16th Council meeting. The StandWithUs statement noted that while the Mayor had denounced the NOI minister during the Council meeting, neither he nor the City Council had yet issued any public statement condemning his slurs.
Much of the media coverage of the Durham City Council move centered on the fact that several JVP activists who helped to pass the April 16th statement are employed by the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill and local area synagogues (see, for example, here, here and here). Critics claimed that this “gave them legitimacy” in the “eyes of the city council.”
As we argued in our prior post, it’s worth focusing on the local JVP activists and how they used their “involvement as members of the local Jewish community” to mobilize support for their cause.
In this regard, it’s important to realize that all the Council members (except the mayor) had already signed an online petition based on the “Deadly Exchange” campaign weeks before the April 16th City Council meeting and vote.
JVP and its allies had been circulating this petition for months—so the council members had conflicts of interest and none of them were impartial (back in 2015, for example, council member Jillian Johnson allegedly forwarded information about Durham’s ‘investment portfolio’ to local JVP activists along with a note that said, ‘Thought I’d send this to y’all in case it has any use for future BDS purposes.’).
The online petition falsely claimed that Israel trains police to “terrorize Black and Brown communities here in the U.S.” Given their enthusiastic support for it, the City Council members were all bound to endorse the watered-down statement drafted by the Mayor which was couched as a “compromise.” So, as we noted,
it’s not really clear what the point was of inviting the public to weigh in [on the April 16th City Council meeting]…the reality was that the fix was in…It’s hard not to conclude that the City Council was just going through the motions, so that they could show the semblance of a vote that was based on the public’s feedback at the meeting.”
The Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill Finds Its Voice
Last Tuesday, representatives from Voice for Israel and the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill spoke to the Durham Human Relations Commission (HRC), asking the city advisory board to “recognize the hurt” caused by the City Council statement.
Voice for Israel is a small pro-Israel group in the Triangle area that just last year incorporated into a 501(c)3. In our prior post, we described the group’s efforts to mobilize against the “Demilitarize! Durham2Palestine” coalition and how the diffuse and informal nature of the group, along with its lack of financial support, hindered its counter-campaign.
As we noted, in the run-up to the April 16th City Council meeting and vote, local Jewish Federation officials took a backseat to Voice for Israel’s much more vocal opposition. The Federation didn’t officially support the JVP-promoted campaign and CEO Jill Madsen and the Federation Board President did submit letters to the City Council, informing them of the Jewish community’s concerns. But these Federation leaders could’ve taken a more pro-active stance—making themselves available for media interviews, for example.
Since the vote, the Jewish Federation serving Durham and Chapel Hill appears to be doing just that. Madsen, in particular, has been a far more visible presence in recent media coverage of the issue. In recent interviews, she’s helpfully alerted the Triangle community to the offensive nature of the City Council statement, and how it’s both led to a “great deal of tension” and caused Jews to feel like “they have lost their place within Durham.”
In a recent interview, Madsen also suggested a link between “recent acts of anti-Semitism in town” and the City Council statement, which may have worked to “open the door for people to feel like these behaviors are acceptable.”
Now the Federation is making amends for its lackluster engagement prior to the April 16th vote by taking a front-and-center role in opposing the move.
June 5: Durham Jewish Groups Meet with the City’s Human Relations Commission (HRC)
Voice for Israel and the Jewish Federation recently filed a joint complaint with the Durham HRC, a city advisory board, denouncing the City Council for basing its actions on “propaganda lies” promoted by JVP, “a group that has a well-documented animus toward the Jewish state.”
Last week their representatives were invited to present their complaint in person to the commission. Four speakers from the Federation and Voice for Israel reportedly spoke to the commission on June 5th, while other members of the two organizations attended the meeting.
There, they raised concerns about procedural irregularities which led to the City Council’s April 16th decision. In a recent op-ed for the Algemeiner, Voice for Israel Board member Peter Reitzes exposed some of these questionable procedures which have come to light from more than two dozen public records requests that he has made.
"Why is the Durham City Council fast tracking anti-Israel policy behind the veil of personal email accounts?" https://t.co/vtVtE2u2LB
— Algemeiner (@Algemeiner) June 6, 2018
Many of the requests are still pending, but a troubling picture is emerging about “exactly what happened.”
As Reitzes describes, one fulfilled request reveals fraud in the process by which the online petition from “Demilitarize! Durham2Palestine” was forwarded to the City Council. The records show that a different, less-offensive and sanitized version of the petition was created, and this is the version that was delivered to the council members (even though six out of seven of them had already signed the offensive online version).
An information packet given to the Durham City Council was also obtained by a public records request. Reitzes says:
It reveals that elected officials were encouraged to ‘boycott and divest from the brutality of policing by both the U.S. and Israeli government’…[but] the online version of the petition…notably didn’t explicitly frame their call as a ‘boycott’.”
Reitzes also found that the City Council “appears to have flouted its own rules in order to quickly consider” the JVP-sponsored proposal (apparently because university students participating in the “Demilitarize! Durham2Palestine” campaign would soon be leaving campus for the summer). Reitzes points out that
By breaking the rules and proceedings with unusual hast, the City Council prevented those who support equality for all people and faiths from fully participating.”
At the HRC meeting, Jewish Federation and Voice for Israel representatives also raised another issue listed in their written complaint and revealed by the FOIA requests: Mayor Schewel’s ‘Statement on policing from the Durham City Council’ was sent from his personal email account to the personal email accounts of City Manager Thomas Bonfield and all the city council members, thus
keeping the statement out of the eyes of the media, which regularly monitors city council emails…Mayor Schewel wrote policy that demonizes Israel without allowing even a single minute of public discussion.”
The Jewish Federation/Voice for Israel joint complaint to the Durham HRC also noted a glaring omission in the City Council’s statement, which we flagged in our prior post, namely that it selectively quoted from the Durham Police Chief’s memorandum on the topic of police exchanges with Israel.
As we wrote, the statement:
Reitzes’s public records requests for City Council business emails reveal efforts by at least one council member to hide from public scrutiny the public records contained in her personal email accounts (according to Reitzes, one of those emails includes an exchange between the mayor’s wife, Lao Rubert, and a representative of the Durham People’s Alliance, a “powerful political organization” that endorsed the “Demilitarize! Durham2Palestine” campaign early on. In the email, Rubert offered feedback and advice on a People’s Alliance’s letter to Schewel which asked him and the City Council to “turn their anti-Israel statement into a resolution”).
doesn’t include Police Chief Davis’s positive depiction of her own experiences participating in one of these police exchange programs—a depiction which strongly refutes JVP’s assertion that these are ‘racist police exchange programs’. Instead the Mayor chose to leave out Davis’s glowing words. As a result, the statement implies that Davis has a negative view of the police exchanges with Israel because she hasn’t initiated any and doesn’t plan to. It’s a completely false and misleading way of representing Davis’s position on the issue.”
Will Durham’s HRC Instruct the City Council to Rewrite Its April 16th Statement?
On the basis of these salient findings from the recent public records requests and the lack of “transparency and integrity” of the City Council proceedings, the Jewish Federation and Voice for Israel speakers at last week’s HRC meeting called upon it to “encourage the City Council to retract its statement and possibly put out a new one, excluding any mention of Israel.”
Jill Madsen again said that the “antisemitic petition” was a “growing cause of concern” due to the recent anti-Jewish acts in the city, including the flyers found around Durham in May and the NOI minister’s outburst at the April 16th City Council meeting.
Voice for Israel co-chair Robert Gutman, who spoke to the commission last week, specifically asked the HRC to
issue a statement of findings indicating that the committee understands that this was, and is, an act of governmental discrimination.”
The HRC reportedly decided to “process the information it received” before issuing a statement. It also decided to form a subcommittee to “create more conversation between all sides in the issue” before it would make any recommendations to the City Council.
So it doesn’t look like the Durham HRC will decide in favor of the Jewish Federation/Voice for Israel formal complaint any time soon. Still, it’s clear that members of the commission are “sympathetic” for “those upset” by the City Council statement. One commissioner noted that “The hearts of the commission are with those who are hurt right now.”
In an email, Peter Reitzes also told me that
The Commission received our detailed information with great interest…We expect appropriate action over the next year based on the responses we heard. They are in a position to publicly ask the City Council to take corrective action.”
Last Thursday (June 7th), a group of 11 rabbis from Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh wrote that the Durham City Council unanimous vote banning police exchanges with Israel “felt like a punch in the gut.”
In their letter, the rabbis note that “many Jews are feeling hurt” by what the City Council did because it ran roughshod over what the “modern State of Israel means” to Jews and why they “feel protective” of it.
The published letter by these Triangle rabbis is remarkable for several reasons.
First, it explicitly states that the City Council statement crossed the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism. That’s a critical point to keep making because local JVP activists are still trying hard to convince people in Durham that the statement is “about policy” and “the state and the government of Israel” and accordingly shouldn’t be “conflated” with antisemitism.
Second, the signatories to the letter are a diverse set of Jewish faith leaders, and include rabbis from the Triangle’s progressive contingent. They note at the start of the letter that they “rarely agree” on anything but “do all oppose” the City Council statement. This is important because it puts Mayor Schewel, himself a Jew with deep roots in the area’s progressive Jewish scene, at odds with other left-wing Jewish leaders in the Durham area.
Schewel remains convinced that, even though exchanges between the Durham police force and their counterparts in Israel “aren’t actually happening” and even though he’s “acutely aware” that the vote left members of the Jewish community “feeling vulnerable and concerned”, passing the City Council statement was “the right thing” to do.
But he also doubled-down on his support for the resolution, claiming that it was “worth the controversy” because it’s consistent with his progressive values and with the larger progressive agenda that he and many others in Durham support. The letter by the rabbis though shows that the Mayor is actually an outlier on this issue, even among left-wing members of the Durham/Chapel Hill/Raleigh Jewish community.
Bottom line: Durham’s Jewish community is uniting against an April 16th City Council resolution which, on the basis of spurious accusations drawn from JVP’s undeniably antisemitic “Deadly Exchange” campaign, singled out policing partnerships with Israel for prohibition. Some are focusing on the divisive, erroneous, and “distressing” and “insulting” aspects of the statement, while others are concentrating on the fraudulent ways in which it came together. Many people of good will are devoting considerable amounts of time and energy to overturning the obnoxious statement and to getting the policy that it mandates rescinded. We will continue to provide updates as new developments emerge.
Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter @MiriamElmanDONATE
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