A coalition of 10 local groups wants the Durham City Council to cut any police ties with Israel, but several local Jewish leaders don't want that to happen.
The Triangle chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace and other groups started circulating a "Demilitarize from Durham2Palestine" petition in October. It has more than 1,200 signatures, but the petition does not show if those who signed are from Durham or not.
Other groups in the coalition are the Abrahamic Initiative on the Middle East, Black Youth Project 100 - Durham Chapter, Durham for All, Inside Outside Alliance, Muslim American Public Affairs Council, Muslims for Social Justice, SpiritHouse, Students for Justice in Palestine at Duke University and Students for Justice in Palestine at UNC Chapel Hill.
"We are members of Durham’s community committed to peace and justice from Durham to Palestine," the petition states. "We want to live in a Durham that ensures true collective safety for all, and so 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."
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The Action Network website introduces the petition by claiming "the Israeli Defense Forces and the Israel Police have a long history of violence and harm against Palestinian people and Jews of color."
Ahmad Amireh of Duke Students for Justice in Palestine spent his winter break in Bethlehem and Ramallah in the West Bank. He said his parents were born and raised in Palestine. Amireh is a freshman who heard about the student group when he visited campus, but the chapter wasn't active when he arrived, so he and fellow students revived it.
Amireh said the Durham community should know more about the Israel/Palestine issue. He hopes the City Council says the Durham Police Department has nothing to learn from traveling to Israel.
Ajamu Dillahunt, a student at N.C. Central University, is part of the Black Youth Project 100 — Durham Chapter, another part of the coalition.
"I’ve known for a long time about the Israeli occupation and inhumane treatment of the Palestinian people," Dillahunt said. He hopes the council passes a resolution supporting the petition and then later a statement "in opposition of the Israeli occupation."
"Durham identifies as a progressive city, so I think it’s an obligation that Durham does so," Dillahunt said. "This is what a progressive city council looks like."
Triangle Jewish Voice for Peace is one of 70 chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization based in Oakland, California, that is critical of Israeli policy and actions in the West Bank.
Beth Bruch of Triangle Jewish Voice for Peace said she is concerned with the way Israel's military has been training local police departments.
"We are certainly not blaming Israel for making U.S. police forces racist, we know there’s a long history of racism in the U.S.," Bruch said. But she thinks training makes it worse in terms of racial profiling and use of force in crowd control.
"Durham is my home. I grew up in Durham," Bruch said. She said the city needs affordable housing, health care and food that's accessible and affordable. She doesn't think training with Israeli police will keep Durham safe.
"I just want to talk about the way that we don’t want the sort of crowd control being used in Gaza and elsewhere. That’s not what we want in our neighborhoods in Durham," she said.
Seven Triangle rabbis signed a letter urging the Durham City Council to reject the petition.
Their letter calls the petition biased and bad policy for Durham and its police department. It was signed by Rabbi Larry Bach of Judea Reform Congregation; Rabbi Zalman Bluming of Chabad of Durham and Chapel Hill; Rabbi Daniel Greyber, Rabbi Jerry Fox and Rabbi Steven Sager of Beth El Synagogue; Rabbi Lucy Dinner of Temple Beth Or and Rabbi Eric Solomon of Beth Meyer Synagogue.
"The rationale for the 'demand' surrounds false and inflammatory claims that Israel international expertise in counter-terrorism is directly linked to bias and racism in the Durham Police Department. To link Israel to white supremacy and other forms of hate speech in the U.S, to insinuate that Israel teaches American police to attack minorities in our country, or that problems in U.S. policing are due to the Israel/Palestinian conflict are insulting and will only serve to demonize Israel and the Jewish people," the rabbis wrote.
"Efforts to delegitimize Israel are a purposeful strategy by some organizations, part of a broader strategy to promote Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, and one that is purposefully targeting Durham to accept terrible lies. No evidence exists that sharing best practices on counter-terrorism in society cannot be beneficial to those that listen, reflect and make decisions for their own communities. The events that unfolded in Austin Texas, Parkland, Florida, and many more communities are great reminders that domestic terrorism does exist in the U.S. and can affect anyone and any community."
"As rabbis who serve the majority of Jewish families across the region, and who strive for social justice each and every day, we pray that you will take the time for due diligence before acting," they wrote.
Beth El Synagogue in Durham and Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh are Conservative denominations. Judea Reform Congregation in Durham and Temple Beth Or in Raleigh are Reform. Chabad of Durham and Chapel Hill is a Chabad group that holds services and events in both Durham and Chapel Hill, serving UNC and Duke students.
Bruch said this is not only an Jewish issue, but it is also a Jewish issue. She hopes the rabbis acknowledge that the Jewish community is divided on the issue.
Jill Madsen, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill, also emailed Mayor Steve Schewel on behalf of the federation. "This is a deeply complicated issue that stirs many strong emotions," Madsen wrote, adding that she hoped a decision would not be based "on the simplified portrayal of a complex political situation that is Israel, but rather based on what benefits such a partnership may bring to Durham." She also offered to meet with Schewel.
Of more than a dozen emails sent to the mayor and council members in support or opposed to the petition, only Schewel has responded via his city email. Schewel thanked residents for writing and said he would keep their ideas and views "in mind as we deliberate."
Schewel is a member of Judea Reform Congregation.
On Durham Police Chief Cerelyn "C.J." Davis' resume, she notes her work on the Atlanta Police Department force launching the Atlanta Police Leadership Institute, which graduated 200 upper rank and file leaders in partnership with Georgia State University. Her resume also includes that she "established the APLI International Exchange program coordinating all aspects of Israeli exchange and curriculum for annual Atlanta Police visit, and coordinates annual APD Command delegations to Israel."
The Durham Police Department has not responded to a request for comment.
Ihab Mikati is not part of the groups supporting the petition, but signed it.
"The two matters at hand here — harmful police tactics in the United States and human rights abuses abroad — are issues that I've always cared about, but viewed as distinct for a long time. The parallels became striking as I became older, though," Mikati said.
He said he learned more about militarized policing in the U.S. at an event last summer at the Durham library.
"People talk about safety and security as if it's somehow limited to policing. For us to be truly safe, there's a lot Durham needs to do beyond passing this particular resolution," he said, mentioning affordable housing, bail reform, safety of undocumented residents and health care.
A proposed resolution is not on the agenda for the council's work session on Thursday, but multiple people are listed as speakers under the "Citizens' Matters" portion of the meeting, including Bruch. The coalition plans to submit the petition to council during the meeting.