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Part 1: How Durham Came to Discriminate Against Israel and the Jewish People 

The deceptively named group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) opened its first campaign to engage elected city officials in government-sanctioned discrimination with a highly organized, nationally-assisted attack on the Jewish people of Durham, North Carolina. JVP persuaded the Durham City Council to officially adopt an anti-Israel position, without any effort at fact-finding or appropriate open and public procedures. Following this success in Durham, JVP adopted the rallying call, #DoItLikeDurham, signaling their intent to bring their anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist tactics to other communities.

Over the past few months, I have filed about three dozen public records requests with the City of Durham in an effort to understand what exactly happened, and what procedures were used by city officials prior to conceding to the anti-Israel demands of JVP. With these results of my efforts now starting to produce valuable information, this three-part series will summarize and update the situation in Durham. I will be drawing on public records, notes from meetings we held with elected officials, and my experiences speaking at and attending the Durham City Council meetings that targeted Israel.

JVP Petition and April 5 City Council Work Session

A group calling itself Demilitarize from Durham2Palestine, led by JVP, became active in 2017. They circulated several versions of a hateful, anti-Israel petition, alleging that the training of Durham Police in Israel “helps the police terrorize Black and Brown communities here in the U.S.” One statement that is consistent across different versions of the petition states: “We demand that the City of Durham immediately halt any partnerships that the Durham Police Department has or might enter into with the Israeli Defense Forces and/or the Israel Police.”

To our great dismay, six out of seven city council members signed the petition. One of the council members told NC-based, pro-Israel grass roots organization Voice for Israel (V4I) that she actively helped rewrite the petition to make it acceptable for submission to the council. We know now that JVP used different petitions for different audiences and then collapsed the signatures together into a single document.

On April 5, Mayor Steve Schewel allowed JVP to present their petition at a city council work session, waiving the mandatory procedure to sign up ten days in advance. It appears that the mayor bypassed established policy so that JVP-lead college students would not miss their summer vacations. By fast-tracking this process, Schewel denied the mainstream Jewish community, who are full time residents of Durham and surrounding areas, the time to which we were entitled to learn about the hearing, fully prepare, and participate.

Because V4I board members had previously met with the mayor and most city council members to protest the government’s demonization of Israel and collaboration with JVP, and because V4I and Jewish Federation members sent an avalanche of emails to the City Council, Schewel allowed two V4I board members to speak as well.

Emails I have obtained via public records requests reveal that this entire process was a city council-orchestrated sham. I recently discovered that about 12 hours before the April 5 work session was to begin – the first public discussion of this topic – Schewel sent City Manager Thomas Bonfield and all members of the city council statement on policing from the Durham City Council.

This directive, which would become city policy on April 16, banned all exchanges with Israel including police training. Schewel confirmed later with Jewish leaders that this was both the meaning and intent of the council’s statement. Schewel sent the statement from his personal email account to the personal email accounts of Bonfield and all council members, thus keeping the statement out of the eyes of the media, which regularly monitors council emails.

Consequently, the mayor proposed policy that demonizes Israel before allowing even a single minute of public discussion. This is in direct opposition to the Council’s Code of Ethics, which grants “every citizen a fair and impartial hearing on any matter which may be heard before the public official.”

Beth Bruch, one of the petitioners and a donor to council person Jillian Johnson, benefited from the sign-up rule being waived. She spoke first at the work session, expressing the sentiment to the city council, “We know Israel is the last country in the world to respect human rights.” Only four speakers – two proponents and two in opposition – were permitted to present their views, each limited to three minutes.

I spoke after Bruch and was dismayed to see the anti-Israel statement was published by the media just ten minutes later, while the meeting was still in session. It was clear that the mayor and council pretended to listen, but had already made up their minds and didn’t wait until the meeting was over to make their position public. Shouldn’t elected officials write policy after, and not before, a public hearing?

April 16: Durham City Council Unanimously Votes to Boycott Police Exchanges with Israel

On April 16, 2018, The Durham City Council in North Carolina voted unanimously to single out Israel as the only foreign country where Durham police training is not permitted. Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton charged that the council’s policy statement was a “compromise” with JVP, but it was much more than that. The city council passed a policy statement that clearly submitted to JVP’s demand, discovered in recent public records requests, that Durham “boycott and divest from the brutality of policing by both the US and Israeli governments.”

Just before the council’s vote, many speakers, including myself, pleaded with the Durham City Council not to discriminate against Israel and Jews. V4I and the Durham Chapel Hill Jewish Federation packed the room with speakers and supporters. Rabbi Zalman Bluming stated, “My phone has been ringing non-stop over the last week, [from] young adults that live here that feel unsafe, that feel marginalized, that feel as if for some reason they’ve been singled out.”

One of the most bizarre aspects of this entire episode is that, contrary to numerous statements by members of the JVP, the Durham police have not trained with Israeli police, and no such plans are in the works.

This article is part of a three-part series on anti-Semitism in the city of Durham, North Carolina. Part two and three will run in The Tower on Wednesday and Thursday respectively.

[Photo: CityofDurhamNC / YouTube ]