An in-depth look at the vicious smear campaign initiated by anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace and promoted by City Council members, that made Durham, NC, the first city in the U.S. to boycott police training in Israel.
A year ago today, on April 16, 2018, the Durham North Carolina City Council passed the “Israel Resolution” making Durham the first city in the United States to boycott police trainings specifically with Israel.
Background: Durham City Council Boycott’s Police Training with Israel
This began on April 5, 2018 when local activists led by the anti-Zionists of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) presented a petition to the Durham City Council demanding that Durham ban police training with Israel. It took the City Council just 11 days to do so.
Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson sent 46 emails describing the “statement [as] affirming a city policy against police exchanges with Israel.” Eleven local rabbis called the City Council’s action a “punch in the gut.” In an extraordinary moment just minutes before the Council voted, Council member Javiera Caballero told the packed chambers, “I will vote for this statement. I understand that it’s hurtful.”
Several versions of the petition written to the “Durham Mayor and City Council Members” allege that the training of police in Israel “helps the police terrorize Black and Brown communities here in the U.S.” (Bold in original). Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson reportedly signed one such version.
The Council was well acquainted with the petition – six out of seven Council members had already signed it before multiple versions were collapsed into a single, sanitized document with all the combined signatures and delivered to them on April 5 by JVP-led activists. What a bizarre moment in Durham politics and virtue signaling – by signing the petition the City Council was actually lobbying itself. Jillian Johnson even reportedly told local Jewish leaders that she helped activists rewrite the petition so it would be more suitable to give to the City Council.
At the April 16 meeting, Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton referred to the Council’s anti-Israel statement as a “compromise” with JVP. In August of 2018 Durham City Attorney Patrick Baker told me that JVP appears to be a large player in this. Now JVP is using this “victory” to raise money for continued targeting of the US and Israel.
Local JVP leader Sandra Korn lobbied Council member DeDreana Freeman on this issue. Korn and JVP have drawn strong criticism from the Jewish community for an array of anti-Israel zealotry such as protesting AIPAC with the grotesque messages “down with fascism” and “here’s to the end of collaboration between zionists and nazis.”
JVP member and Johnson campaign donor Elyse Crystall wrote the City Council in support of the anti-Israel statement and also wrote Johnson in opposition to a Jewish candidate for City Council because the candidate – a Latino immigrant from Colombia – attends Beth-El synagogue in Durham. In a thinly veiled comparison of Israelis to Nazis, Crystall recently told the Durham Human Relations Commission that Israel experiments on Palestinians.
Why would the Durham City Council collaborate on foreign policy with the anti-Semitic extremists of JVP?
Before the Council voted on April 16, Israel was targeted for hours at City Hall with Council members and many citizens speaking on the issue. A local Nation of Islam leader spoke in support of the Council stating that Jews have a “synagogue of Satan.” The Durham City Council had clearly become a “safe place” for anti-Semitism and targeting Jews.
Since then, three lawsuits have been filed against Durham on this matter. Lawyers estimate Durham will now spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, defending the City Council’s decision to target Israel.
I have written at length how the Durham City Council fast-tracked anti-Israel foreign policy, used personal email to conduct public business (thus keeping important emails outside of the eyes of the media which monitors Council members official email inboxes), and even waived a rule of procedure to benefit their anti-Zionist supporters. Legal Insurrection has covered these issues in great detail in articles such as Demonization: Durham NC City Council bans police exchanges with Israel, Durham rejects recommendation to revise anti-Israel police policy, and Durham rejects recommendation to revise anti-Israel police policy.
When I met with Durham City attorney Patrick Baker in August of 2018, Baker told me that the first time he was made aware of the Council’s proposed anti-Israel statement was on the morning of April 5, 2018, a few hours before the Council were to meet, during a regularly scheduled meeting with City Manager Thomas Bonfield. Baker told me, “We were like, what the heck is this? And what are we supposed to do with it?” Attorney Baker went on to make it clear that he did not understand why the City Council would write a statement in response to the JVP-led petition because it simply wasn’t necessary.
Baker told me that he has been “annoyed” with the City Council since April 5th and did not want his City Council focusing on Israel or on what he called “pie in the sky.” Instead, Baker wanted the Council to focus on paving roads and other basic duties of city government. Baker said that while he can’t speak for Bonfield, if the City Council had approached them ahead of time on this issue, he and likely Bonfield would have advised them not to proceed with the April 16 statement. Baker also felt the Council’s statement was disrespectful to Durham police officers who are protecting the community.
It is not surprising that just last month Baker left Durham and took a job elsewhere.
How Did Durham Come to Single Out Israel?
How did the Durham City Council come to single out Israel and the Jewish people? How did we get here? This column seeks to answer these questions by highlighting the anti-Israel activism and fringe political positions of Durham City Council members that needlessly led to Durham’s boycott of police trainings with Israel.
I will also discuss the challenges of accessing the public record in Durham, the lack of transparency and accountability of the Durham City Council, and the bias and conflict of interest of high ranking members of the Durham Human Relations Commission (HRC).
Much of the information reported in this column is the result of my year long investigation which has included dozens of public records requests, meetings with Durham City officials, and attending a number of Durham City Council and Human Relations Commission meetings.
Mayor Steve Schewel
According to City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, “Our mayor [Steve Schewel] exclusively penned the statement we voted on.”
Mayor Schewel was a member of Jews for a Just Peace-North Carolina (JFAJP-NC) which was known for noxious anti-Israel activism such as protesting Israel on Yom Kippur – the holiest day of Judaism – and protesting an Israeli dance company visiting Durham. JFAJP-NC later morphed into the local chapter of the anti-Zionist JVP. Mayor Schewel has admitted donating to JVP.
When speaking at the largest Jewish congregation in Durham in October of 2018, Schewel was greeted with widespread anger and frustration and was repeatedly interrupted with pleas from the congregation to remove the specific targeting of Israel from the Council statement. Strikingly, this was Schewel’s very own congregation and it overwhelmingly rejected his anti-Israel foreign policy.
The mainstream Jewish community, including the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill, the local synagogues (including Schewel’s own synagogue), many prominent community members, local rabbis, and even several holocaust survivors wrote strong letters opposing Schewel’s targeting of the Jewish state. An 87 year-old Holocaust survivor wrote that Schewel contributes to “hate and intolerance.”
A 2015 campaign report by “Steve Schewel for City Council” indicates that one of Schewel’s campaign donors is Thomas Stern, who was a JFAJP-NC leader and is now a local JVP leader. Stern, representing JVP and other local groups, lobbied Schewel and City Council members to boycott police trainings with Israel.
Members of The North Carolina Coalition for Israel, who filed the third lawsuit against Durham and city officials, have been recently speaking at City Council meetings on anti-Semitism. In a move that has hurt the Jewish community, Mayor Schewel limited some public commenters to just one minute to speak on this important topic, not the customary three minutes. A fellow member of Schewel’s synagogue decried this as “Jew time.”
Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson
Durham’s Mayor Pro Tempore, Jillian Johnson, has been an anti-Israel activist since at least 2002 while a student at Duke. There she signed DukeDivest which called on the university to “end military ties to Israel.” In 2002 she wrote a editorial in the Duke Chronicle in which she called for “military divestment from Israel,” yet admitted that her “argument can be used to promote divestment from dozens of countries.” Johnson explained, “but change must begin somewhere.” In other words, Johnson believes that targeting Israel – the only Jewish majority country on the planet – is where to begin foreign policy. Johnson clearly took this Israel first worldview into her role as a member of the Durham City Council.
Johnson was one of two editors of the 2002-2003 Duke “Disorientation Guide” which included articles with titles such as “Are You an Anarchist?” Johnson’s website featured a section titled “Diary of a Pregnant Anarchist…February 2006-September 2008.” In 2009, Johnson presented at a conference devoted to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
In 2015, after being newly elected to the Durham City Council, Johnson was a featured speaker at a Duke University event titled “Building Solidarity from Palestine to Durham,” which the Duke chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) sponsored. The Anti-Defamation League reports that SJP chapters “regularly demonize Jewish students who identify as Zionists.”
In 2015, as one of her first acts as a member of the Durham City Council, Johnson sent an email that included Durham’s “Investment Portfolio” to three members of JVP – Jade Brooks, Tema Okun and Noah Rubin-Blose. Johnson wrote, “Thought I’d send this to y’all in case it has any use for future BDS purposes.” Brooks responded, “Wow, thanks Jilly…awesome looking out!”
The Committee to Elect Jillian Johnson reported Brooks as a “precinct captain” and that Okun and Rubin-Blose both donated to Johnson’s election. In other words, Johnson used City Council resources to promote boycotting Israel by sharing information with her anti-Israel donors and supporters.
In 2016, after serving on the Durham City Council for a year, Johnson wrote on social media, “the most dangerous people with guns are cops and soldiers.” Johnson’s comments received widespread condemnation.
Retired Durham Deputy Chief of the Durham Police Department, Steve Mihaich, wrote to Johnson, “You should be ashamed of yourself for making such comments…At a minimum you owe all law enforcement officers and members of our military an apology and quite frankly you should resign your position on the Council.” Three JVP members who are donors to Johnson – Noah Rubin-Blose, Tema Okun, and Elyse Crystall – wrote the City Council in support of Johnson’s hateful comments.
JVP member Beth Bruch also donated to Johnson’s campaign. On April 5, 2018, just two weeks before the Council passed its anti-Semitic statement, Bruch presented at a work session of the Durham City Council on why Durham should boycott police trainings with Israel. Saying she was quoting a friend, Bruch told the Council, “We know Israel is the last country in the world to respect human rights.” Bruch added that if the Durham police were to train in Israel, “They’re going to come back as killers.”
I was in the room when Bruch said these things. Bruch even sat down next to me. Johnson sat and listened and never mentioned that Bruch was a donor to her campaign. Not a single member of the Council showed any concern at all about Bruch’s demonization of Israel nor objected to her statements.
Ajamu Dillahunt was the other anti-Israel activist who spoke and presented directly after Bruch. Johnson did not mention that Dillahunt campaigned for her by being prominently featured on a campaign banner.
Mayor Schewel waived the mandatory procedure to sign up ten days in advance to speak at the April 5 City Council work session for these anti-Israel activists. To many, it appears that the Durham City Council fast-tracked foreign policy and changed the rules of government for Jillian Johnson’s campaign supporters.
After the April 5 Council meeting, Mayor Schewel even sent an email to Tom Stern of JVP saying “I thought Beth and Ajamu did a great job.” Apparently, Mayor Schewel thinks that demonizing Israel and holding Israel to a different, double standard qualifies as a great job.
City Council members have received many emails about their targeting of Israel. Jillian Johnson took the time and highly unusual step of forwarding about 80 of these emails on Israel to Rann Bar-On who is a self declared anti-Zionist who has said, “I call for boycott against the State of Israel in order to harm the State of Israel by means of boycott.”
City Council Members Mark-Anthony Middleton and Charlie Reece
In 1990, Mark Anthony-Middleton, then a student at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, NC coordinated the visit of Louis Farrakhan, a notorious anti-Semite to his university. Middleton’s fraternity paid Farrakhan. The city of Greensboro made the appalling decision to award Farrakhan the key to the city. Middleton told his college newspaper, “To the point, that he (Farrakhan) should not be given the key because of his record…I don’t know of anyone who has a clean record.”
In 2015, Middleton chaired the Local Organizing Committee of the Durham, NC Million Man March. This committee actively sought donations for the organization Justice or Else, which works towards “the vision of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan.” The “Team Member” running this LOC’s Facebook page was Amon Muhammad, the Durham representative to Farrakhan. Muhammad is a local anti-Semite who has tweeted, “Education is a tool of the Satanic Jews. Learn how Americans are being controlled. #FarrakhanTwitterArmy.” In what one might call an “anti-Semitic fail,” the Durham Justice or Else website was created using Wix, an Israeli website company.
In October of 2015, Middleton updated his Facebook cover photo to feature a picture of himself with Muhammad. In 2016, Middleton posted a photo on Facebook speaking at a lectern in front of a huge banner of Louis Farrakhan with Muhammad sitting to Middleton’s right. In 2016, Middleton made a post that included the same image of Farrakhan.
In the comments section of the 2015 post, Durham City Council Member Charlie Reece wrote to Middleton, “We are blessed to have you at work in our city, and I am honored to call you my friend.” Reece did not challenge Middleton’s decision to share a stage with Muhammad – a blatant anti-Semite – while speaking behind the banner of Farrakhan. Why didn’t Reece speak up about Middleton’s decision to stand with anti-Semites? Would Reece have been silent if Middleton had stood with an image of David Duke? Of course not.
In addition to being a Council member, Middleton is a pastor. The Jewish community has been deeply hurt by the actions of the Durham City Council and we have tried to share our pain with all Council members including Middleton. Middleton has repeatedly responded to our pain by playing what some have called the “race card.”
For example, a well-respected and beloved Durham rabbi wrote Middleton to express his concerns. Middleton, who is African American, responded by lecturing the rabbi on “’the Uppity Negro’ syndrome” which Middleton said “can get you arrested in a Starbucks or hung from a tree.” Accusing the rabbi of being racist, Middleton asked, “…is there something going on deeper in your heart?”
Later the same month, Middleton told a local newspaper, “[Mayor] Steve Schewel wrote the statement. Why is special attention reserved for me? There’s something about when black men speak up in this country — it makes people nervous. I call it the ‘uppity Negro syndrome.’ I’m the only black man on council. Sometimes when black men speak up, people get nervous.”
Middleton doesn’t seem to understand that Jewish constituents and Jewish clergy are contacting him because he is their elected official, not because he is black.
City Council Member DeDreana Freeman
In April of 2018, the same month that Durham passed the “Israel Resolution,” I learned through a public records request that Council member DeDreana Freeman proposed a Malcolm X Day proclamation for the Council to pass. The proclamation repeatedly mentioned the Nation of Islam (NOI) in positive ways. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the NOI as a hate group and explains that its leaders, which include Louis Farrakhan, engage in “deeply racist, antisemitic and anti-LGBT rhetoric.”
Freeman’s draft proclamation made no mention of the NOI’s bigotry, preferring to treat the NOI as a respectable or normal organization. Would Freeman ever mention other hate groups in a city proclamation, such as the Klu Klux Klan, in such positive and neutral terms? Of course not.
At the time that Freeman’s draft proclamation was discovered, a Jewish resident of Durham wrote to Mayor Schewel, “Now you are preparing to have a city council proclamation that positively presents the Nation of Islam while ignoring the fact that it is a hate group. Why would the Durham City Council present the Nation of Islam so innocently while ignoring their virulent homophobia and anti-Semitism?”
Mayor Schewel responded, “I have no idea what you are talking about when you refer to a resolution honoring the Nation of Islam.” Even Mayor Schewel did not know what was on his own City Council’s agenda. After I alerted other local media to this matter, Durham quickly withdrew this proclamation from the City Council agenda. Mayor Schewel never wrote his constituent back to apologize for his tone, to thank her for alerting him to what was on his own Council’s agenda, or to let her know that the proclamation had been removed from the agenda.
The Durham Human Relations Commission (HRC)
After Durham passed the “Israel Resolution,” The Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill and Voice4Israel (I am a board member of the latter) jointly filed a complaint in May of 2018 with the Durham HRC to protest Durham’s anti-Israel statement. The HRC subcommittee tasked to research our concerns responded with a draft report asking the City Council to remove the singling out of Israel from their April 16 statement. The full HRC then rejected its own subcommittee’s report, refusing to condemn the Council’s anti-Semitic targeting of Israel. I wrote about this at length as did Legal Insurrection.
Four members of the Durham Human Relations Commission (Diane Standaert [Commission Chair], John Rooks [Commission Vice Chair], Mikel Barton, and Andrea M. Hudson) signed the anti-Israel petition given to the Durham City Council on April 5, 2018. All four were appointed by the Durham City Council to the HRC. All four are now being sued for allegedly “not reveal[ing] their conflict of interest.”
Hudson, who goes by Undreya Hudson on Facebook, is a public, vocal supporter of Farrakhan, having posted recently on Facebook, “Minister Farrakhan always speaking truth!”
Hudson led the charge in having the HRC reverse itself to reject its own subcommittee’s condemnation of the City Council’s anti-Semitism. Hudson promoted the bizarre position of comparing the April 16 anti-Israel City Council statement to the bible and stated that even if HRC commissioners disagreed with the statement, they should not ask for the Council to change a policy it had written because, like the bible, the policy had already been written.
During the meeting, not a single HRC commissioner nor any of the four City Council members who attended objected to Hudson’s comparison of anti-Israel policy to religious scripture. Even Council member Middleton, who is a pastor and sat at the table with the HRC commissioners, did not object to such a sacrilegious statement. In fact, soon afterwards, Council member Middleton invited Hudson to appear on his radio show.
The timeline related to Hudson’s HRC appointment is of great interest. In May of 2018, the complaint against the Durham City Council was filed with the Durham HRC. In June, the Durham City Council appointed Commissioner Hudson to the HRC. Hudson was then appointed to the four-person HRC subcommittee tasked with researching our complaint. Hudson then led the charge in support of the Durham City Council’s targeting of Israel. It appears to many observers that Hudson was appointed to the HRC to prevent the HRC from recommending that the Durham City Council remove Israel from their anti-Semitic statement.
The Durham City Council’s Lack of Accountability and Transparency
North Carolina State Law requires advance notice of public meetings. Public meetings, such as City Council meetings, are defined as consisting of a “majority of the members” and specifically include electronic meetings.
One of the lawsuits filed against Durham claims that the City Council held electronic public meetings without notifying the public, thus being in violation of open meetings law. At the heart of this lawsuit are two emails regarding the Council’s Israel Resolution that Mayor Schewel sent from his personal email account to the personal emails accounts of City Council members (I am proud to say that I unearthed these emails using public record requests). Each of the two emails consists of a quorum or majority of City Council members. To put it simply, the Council met electronically and privately without public notice.
Oddly enough, Mayor Schewel has indicated that he is well aware that meeting online with a quorum of Council members is a “violation of the open meetings law.” Writing to his fellow Council members concerning a different topic, Schewel stated, “We can’t ‘meet’ as a group via email outside of the sight of the public and press, and I think that’s a good law and practice. But we can correspond in two’s and three’s–fewer than a quorum.”
In July, in a brazen continuation of “business as usual,” Mayor Schewel and the Durham City Council met online again, via personal email, to draft a Council Statement opposing an upcoming speech in Durham by psychologist Jordan Peterson. This time, it wasn’t just two quorums of the Council that met online, but the entire City Council met electronically for the purpose of drafting and approving a Council statement against Peterson.
These electronic meetings led to the Durham City Council publishing a statement accusing Peterson of “racist, misogynist, and transphobic views.” One local columnist wrote, “With blithe recklessness, these leaders present no evidence to support their claims.” Of equal or greater concern is that the Durham City Council appears to have repeatedly met online, with quorums, to conduct the public business using personal email accounts, without providing public notice.
Durham Public Records
In Durham the City Council has a public email folder that media monitor on a regular basis. This folder includes “inbox” emails sent to the City Council and only some of the Council’s “sent” emails. When the City Council uses personal email accounts to conduct the public business, as they did with the Israel Resolution, one cannot see those emails without filing a public records request.
In April of 2018, I was granted access to the public email folder by Durham and have used this and other public records requests to uncover what many feel is unethical and suspect City Council behavior.
I was told by Patrick Baker, who was the Durham City attorney at the time, that Durham has no rules for access to this public folder. Even so, Mayor Schewel and the City Council revoked my access to the public folder. This begs the question, does Durham have different access rules to public records for Jewish or pro-Israel media and citizens?
When Mayor Schewel spoke at my synagogue which is also his synagogue, Schewel stated that my public records requests made his family feel unsafe. It is clear to many that the Mayor and Council simply did not like what my investigative journalism has uncovered.
At one point Durham threatened to charge me about $125 an hour for processing my public records requests. However, Baker withdrew this threat of exuberant fees when I met with him and when he realized the huge amount of public business that Council members were conducting on personal email. Baker admitted that the experience has been “eye opening” for him because he was not aware of just how much public business some Council members were conducting on personal email accounts. Baker added “it is definitely not a best practice.”
On April 24, 2018 Mayor Schewel wrote, “I drafted a statement, circulated it to them [Council members], got their comments, and re-drafted.” I repeatedly asked Durham and Patrick Baker for a copy of this first draft of the Israel Resolution. Hundreds of days later, on March 7, 2018, Baker wrote me, “It is my understanding that a draft was prepared and edited into the document that was ultimately published. My understanding is that essentially one draft was edited and saved over another until the final draft was released.”
How is it possible that Mayor Schewel circulated a first draft of the Israel Resolution to Council members, but not a single copy of this first draft exists?
I have repeatedly requested meeting notes taken by Council members during their many meetings on Israel with JVP-led activists and others. Durham has never provided me a single page of meeting notes. I have requested copies of all letters written to Durham on this issue including emails and handwritten letters. I have never received a single handwritten letter from Durham.
In 2018, JVP member Thomas Stern made a huge public records request with Durham related to Israel, even asking for information going back 20 years. I made a public records request with Durham asking to see the results of Stern’s request. Patrick Baker readily admitted to me that after contacting a number of city employees and departments, he was unable to determine if Durham ever responded to Stern’s request at all. When I told Baker that Durham’s response to public records requests is a mess, he quickly agreed saying, “There is no question that it is a mess…That is the first thing I conceded is that it is a mess.”
On April 26, 2018 I made a public records request that asked for 2015 and 2016 appointment calendars for Mayor Schewel and Mayor Pro Tempore Johnson. On May 18, 2019 I was told it was in the “queue for processing.” In August of 2018, Baker told me in a meeting that getting me the calendars was a high priority for him. On March 7, 2019 Baker wrote me, “there are no calendar records available from 2015-16.” It took the city of Durham 315 days to determine that the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tempore do not have appointment calendars from 2015 and 2016.
How is it that the Durham City Council can propose and pass foreign policy boycotting police trainings with Israel in just 11 days, but can’t make make accessing the public record efficient, timely, and organized?
Durham Has Many Pressing Issues – Israel Just Isn’t One of Them
In an email appropriately titled “Priorities?” sent after the April 16 Council meeting that focused for hours on Israel, a Durham realtor expressed the outrage of many, writing to Mayor Schewel, “Can you please explain to me why citizens with a huge, costly sewer project issue must wait at a Durham City Council meeting until after midnight while the Council wastes most of the meeting discussing the training of Durham police officers in Israel? Do you control the agenda?” The mayor acknowledged that the City Council meeting on Israel was “perhaps the longest meeting in my seven years on the council.”
Many in Durham have questioned why the City Council is focused on foreign policy with Israel while local issues appear to be neglected and mishandled. For example, following almost 20 years of planning, in March of 2019 the Durham City Council and other neighboring areas such as Orange County failed to secure a light rail project that ranked high on the Council’s priority list. In the end, Duke University would not agree to the light rail project, but this was only one of a number of issues. Many have since asked, shouldn’t the City Council have paid more attention to City issues rather than squandering its time boycotting Israel, protesting Jordan Peterson, and targeting the police and military on social media?
I have worked full time in Durham for the past seven years and my family attends synagogue in Durham. I have never heard colleagues or friends in Durham express the view that the City Council should concern itself with Israel. I have heard concerns on a wide range of local issues such as affordable housing, crime, gun violence, immigration, the safety of immigrants, LGBTQ rights, racism, and even affordable parking. For example, one teacher I know takes his girlfriend to work and picks her up every day because she can’t afford to park. I have heard school staff members talk about moving back in with their parents because of the high rents in Durham. These are the types of issues a City Council needs to address.
The Durham City Council has spent endless hours focusing on Israel. Now Durham will spend many more hours and likely hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars defending its Israel foreign policy in court.
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