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Part 3: How Durham Came to Discriminate Against Israel and the Jewish People

On April 16, 2018, the city of Durham in North Carolina became the first U.S. city to ban police exchanges with Israel, following a campaign orchestrated by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and other Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)- supporting organizations.

As hurtful as the Durham City Council’s discrimination against Israel and the Jewish people has been, it has also brought the gift of unity to the local, mainstream, Jewish community. I will list and summarize just a few of the many highlights.

The Local Jewish Community Unites with National and International Support

Strong letters of support were sent to the Durham City Council opposing their demonization of Israel by the Anti-Defamation League [1], the President [2] of the Durham County Fraternal Order of Police, and by retired Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey [3].

Eight rabbis [4] representing local congregations and a range of political perspectives wrote a very strong letter to the council stating, “The petition is biased and bad policy for Durham and its police department…We believe that once you examine the matter carefully, including listening to experts in security, you will reject the petition and instead, embrace the myriad of proven activities that can be done in the City that promote less bias at home without singling out one of the World’s strongest democracies for unfair and false charges.” Sadly, the council ignored the rabbis.

On behalf of the Jewish Federation of Durham Chapel Hill, CEO Jill Madsen was one of the first to speak up and told [5] the city council, “I am deeply concerned that the rhetoric in the petition, and in the recent article [6] in the Indy [a local paper], portray an anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiment. Both provide, what many would argue, are inaccurate facts that are one sided, from an organization that supports boycotting Israel.”

A self-described “old Jewish lady” wondered, “I am curious as to why you won’t allow Durham cops to train with Israelis? Are you anti-Semitic? Or are you afraid you might get some REAL training?” Local resident and active member of Voice for Israel, a pro-Israel grass roots organization, Gabriel Szulik politely scolded the council, “A community is built when people meet in a central place, and not when personal agendas, extremism, ignorance and lies win.” Durham City Manager Thomas Bonfield may have been impressed with Szulik’s letter – public records indicate that Bonfield forwarded the letter to his wife.

A rabbi in California tried to speak with Mayor Schewel about this issue. Schewel told his staff, “I don’t know this Rabbi, so I expect he lives in another city. I won’t be calling him back therefore.”

A writer in Austria wrote, “I am the only Jewish criminal attorney at law in Vienna and member of the Executive board of Austria’s oldest, main and central synagogue…Boycott is a form of violence. In our long Austrian Jewish history we all know what it means if Jews are victims of boycotts. We have experienced those boycotts against Jews and against Jewish organizations and Jewish companies.”

Durham’s decision to boycott police training with Israel is troubling, but public records indicate it is not surprising. Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson is a prominent activist in the boycotts movement against Israel. Soon after being elected to the city council, Johnson sent out an email [7] with information on Durham’s “Investment Portfolio” saying, “Thought I’d send this to y’all in case it has any use for future BDS purposes.” A member of JVP responded, “Wow, thanks Jilly…awesome looking out!” Clearly, Johnson has no qualms about using her position on the council to promote boycotting Israel.

Where We Are Now: Fighting Discrimination in Durham

On May 15, Voice for Israel and the Durham Chapel Hill Jewish Federation submitted a detailed complaint [8] to the Durham Human Relations Commission (HRC), stating: “On April 16, 2018, the City Council unanimously endorsed a statement imposing a total ban on police exchanges with only one country in the world: the Jewish nation of Israel. There was no evidence to support the City Council’s actions, only propaganda lies promoted by a group that has well-documented animus toward the Jewish state.”

The statement continued: “The City Council’s actions against the Jewish community in Durham and its surrounding area have created unnecessary tensions and a deep divide in our community, indefensibly giving anti-Semites a platform and sending the message that anti-Semitism will be tolerated, and perhaps even encouraged, in our community. We need your help in addressing these problems, to restore respectful relations among the people of Durham, and promote mutual understanding and regard for all citizens.”

On June 5th, representatives from both organizations presented our case to the HRC about the severe discriminatory effects of the recent Durham City Council Statement [9] regarding Israel. The HRC received our detailed information with great interest. They also learned from four impact statements of the harm that was done to the mainstream Jewish community. We expect appropriate action over the next year based on the responses we heard. The HRC are in position to publicly ask the city council to take corrective action.
On June 7, two important columns were published in our local media.

In Rabbis call Durham City Council statement citing Israel a ‘punch in the gut’ [10], eleven local rabbis powerfully stated: “That six of the seven members of Durham’s City Council signed a petition holding responsible Israeli police training for helping local police ‘terrorize Black and Brown communities here in the U.S.’ is extremely concerning for many Durham Jews. This assertion has no basis in fact, and there was no evidence presented to support it.”

President Steve Simon of Judea Reform Congregation, who also signed the rabbi column, met with Mayor Schewel and sent a follow-up letter [11] stating, “We would like to see the City of Durham stand against boycotts of Israel.” Simon shared that the “reference to Israel in the [city council] statement…is unsubstantiated in its unique identification of Israel. This reference has caused harmful speculation of its intent and has led to pain and anger for many of our Judea Reform members.”

Also on June 7, the local paper published Support police participation in exchange programs with Israeli counterparts [12] by Steven L. Pomernatz, who is former assistant director of the FBI and director of Counterterrorism Programs at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). Pomernatz points out that Durham’s boycott of training with Israel impedes the ability of law enforcement to protect the people of Durham: “In the aftermath of 9/11, JINSA established the Law Enforcement Exchange Program to forge a ‘best practices’ exchange between active-duty American law enforcement and expert Israeli counterterrorism practitioners. Contrary to the baseless allegations made in Durham, programs like these do not provide military-style training to participants, nor do they encourage suppression of political rights and civil liberties.”

Pomernatz continued: “Police chiefs and commissioners, sheriffs, state Homeland Security directors, representatives from the FBI, DEA and other federal agencies – all of them learn from some of the world’s foremost experts how to defend American citizens by preventing acts of terrorism and responding effectively when such acts occur. Israel is the best place to learn these lessons.”

The Durham City Council has singled out and demonized Israel at the behest of Jewish Voice for Peace, without evidence and without cause. Having been frustrated by federal and state laws prohibiting boycotts against Israel, including NC’s House Bill 161 [13], JVP succeeded in having Durham become the first city in the country to boycott all exchanges with Israel including police training.

This is discriminatory and has marginalized the Jewish community and has made many of us feel unwelcome in Durham. The mainstream Jewish Community is united and is fighting back. Jewish communities across the country should be aware of how Durham came to discriminate against Israel and the Jewish people and anticipate similar attacks in other local governments.

This article concludes a three-part series on anti-Semitism in Durham, North Carolina. You can read parts one [14] and two [15] of the series on The Tower website.

[Photo: CityofDurhamNC / YouTube ]