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Durham's debate over Israel is not over. Why these groups want a rewrite

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Jewish community members have asked a city advisory board to recognize the hurt caused by a recent Durham City Council statement that mentions Israel in opposing military-style police training with foreign countries.

"We ask that you issue a statement of findings indicating that the committee understands that this was, and is, an act of governmental discrimination," Robert Gutman, co-chair of Voice for Israel, told the Durham Human Relations Commission on Tuesday night.

Representatives from Voice for Israel and the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill, as well as a Jewish high school student, spoke to the commission about the statement endorsed by the City Council on April 16.

The statement included a quote from Police Chief C.J. Davis stating that, “there has been no effort while I have served as Chief of Police to initiate or participate in any exchange to Israel, nor do I have any intention to do so.”

The speakers said Israel was unfairly singled out in the statement, despite Davis praising training she had there while working in the Atlanta police force in the rest of a memo to City Manager Tom Bonfield.

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Council members and the mayor endorsed the statement as a compromise after receiving a petition asking them to ban any possible partnerships with Israeli police and Israeli Defense Forces. All members of the council, though not Mayor Steve Schewel, had signed the petition.

The speakers called upon the Human Relations Commission to encourage the City Council to retract its statement and possibly put out a new one, excluding any mention of Israel.

Jill Madsen, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Durham Chapel Hill, said the “anti-Semitic” petition was a growing cause of concern due to other recent anti-Semitic acts.

She referenced the anti-Semitic fliers found in Durham in May and the anti-Semitic slurs said during the April council meeting, when a man in the audience referred to Jews attending “the synagogue of Satan.” Schewel immediately condemned the outburst.

“In just the past year and a half, the Jewish campus was victim of a bomb threat and there was no public response from the local government condemning such actions,” Madsen added. A bomb threat was reported Feb. 22, 2017, at the Lerner Jewish Community Day school in Durham. Police found no bomb.

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Although only four speakers spoke to the commission, other members of Voice for Israel and the Jewish Federation attended.

Tom Stern of Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the groups that submitted the original petition, said he came to listen to the speakers and was not there to present the other side.

“I thought, there’s not enough listening about this issue,” Stern said, adding he was concerned about anti-Semitism being conflated with concern about the state and the government of Israel.

“It’s not about anti-Semitism,” Stern said. “It’s about policy.” He asked for another meeting time to allow more people to speak on the issue before the commission makes any decisions.

The Human Relations Commission decided to process the information it received Tuesday before issuing a statement condemning the anti-Semitic comments at the April 16 City Council meeting and the fliers. It also decided to form a subcommittee to create more conversation between all sides in the issue before making any recommendations to the City Council.

Members of the commission expressed their sympathy for all of those upset by the City Council statement, and the discussion surrounding these events. “The hearts of the commission are with those who are hurt right now,” said Commissioner Ricardo Correa.

Christy Kuesel: @christykuesel
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