Local groups asking the Durham City Council to oppose police training with Israel ran into some opposition Monday.
The council was set to approve — and eventually did approve — a statement that the "council opposes international exchanges with any country in which Durham officers receive military-style training since such exchanges do not support the kind of policing we want here in the City of Durham."
During two hours of public comments, however, some speakers urged the council to leave Israel out of its statement. Some asked why a resolution was even needed since no such training is taking place.
A memo from Police Chief Cerelyn "C.J." Davis referenced in the statement says, "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."
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The statement came in response to a petition from Demilitarize from Durham2Palestine, a group supported by Jewish Voice for Peace - Triangle, Durham for All, Inside-Outside Alliance, Black Youth Project 100 - Durham Chapter and other groups calling on the city to cut any police partnerships with Israel. They held a peaceful rally outside City Hall before the meeting Monday night.
Inside City Hall, during the meeting, dozens of people signed up to tell the council what they think about the statement, the original petition, the Israel-Palestine conflict and policing. Several speakers were from other Triangle cities. Council members also made comments after hearing from all the speakers.
At one point, a man began shouting when Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson was speaking. Two Durham police officers at the meeting walked slowly toward the seating area, but City Manager Tom Bonfield waved them off. The man calmed down and the meeting continued.
Mayor says 'truth matters'
Schewel, who is Jewish, said that it pains him "that so many people are being given completely false information that our police are training with the Israeli army and would be again ... it’s so damaging to police-community relations. The truth matters, especially in the era of Donald Trump." He said that attacking the police department with "exaggerations and in some cases falsehoods" is only going to hurt the city's ability for police reform.
"If you want to make change in the American Jewish community’s response to what’s happening in Israel and Palestine, then you have to be truthful. Remember who we are as Jews. I’m 67. Six years before I was born ... the Holocaust wiped out half of us on earth," Schewel said. He said that the prelude to the Holocaust and what made it possible was the lies told about the Jews, so of course the Jewish community is sensitive, he said.
Schewel also said he believes in the existence of a Jewish state. He said he also believes in justice for Palestinians.
Richard Ford, who has served on the Durham Human Relations Commission, is chair of Friends of Durham, one of Durham's three main political action committees. Ford said the Friends of Durham doesn't have a position on the issue and wonders why the council is taking one since the Police Department does not currently send any officers to train in Israel.
"There are real problems facing this city, and the Palestinian situation is not one of them," he said. Ford called the entire discussion "much ado about nothing" and urged the council to concentrate on Durham issues.
However speaker Lavonia Allison, former leader of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, told the council that "this is about peace, doing what’s right, not what’s wrong."
"When you do something right, you’re not anti-Israel," Allison said.
Sandra Korn of Demilitarize from Durham2Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, told council that they may be accused of anti-Semitism for passing the statement, but that is "just meant to threaten you away from sticking to your own values."
Duke University student Max Cherman called it a non-issue.
"If cooperation between local police and any country’s military forces were ever to be proposed, it would be appropriate to discuss here. But no specific program exists or has been proposed. There should be nothing to discuss," Cherman said. "Rather, a vocal minority of petitioners has exploited a non-issue for an anti-Israel political agenda. Like hawks circling their prey, they are political opportunists targeting this council."
Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said the council statement is not the petition submitted by Jewish Voice for Peace and other groups. The statement is a compromise, he said.
"The chief answered a question about Israel — I’ll tell you why — because she was asked a question about Israel. She was asked specifically about Israel. That’s how Israel got in here. The council did not single out Israel, it’s a quote. I am deeply troubled by some of the rhetoric that has surrounded this debate. I’m deeply troubled by this mayor being called a Nazi sympathizer," Middleton said.
Carole Fox asked the council to remove the word "Israel" from the statement. "Israel has no relevance to how Durham police does its job," she said.
Ahmad Amireh asked the council to reject police militarization. "Let’s demilitarize Durham and free Palestine," he said.
What the rabbis said
Seven Triangle rabbis have told the council they opposed the petition, calling it biased and bad policy. 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.
During the meeting Monday night, Bluming told the council that he had been to Israel a few weeks ago by the Gaza border and knows "it is not simple at all." He asked the council why its statement singles out Israel. "Language matters," Bluming said.
The council received a letter from the Anti-Defamation League's Washington, D.C., Regional Director Doron F. Ezickson who calls Jewish Voice for Peace "a small and unrepresentative group whose fiercely anti-Israel organizational views are overwhelmingly rejected by the larger Jewish community, its institutions, and leaders."
"Far from training that 'helps the police terrorize black and brown communities,' ADL's law enforcement programs, including those in Israel, are designed to equip officers with the knowledge, understanding, and sense of accountability necessary to help safeguard all of our communities and ensure that our civil rights and liberties are rigorously protected," Ezickson wrote.
The Fraternal Order of Police Durham County Lodge #2 also wrote to the council stating its "profound opposition" to the petition, saying it serves "to push their anti-police agenda."
Michelle Laws, who is running for Congress, told the council Monday that she offers her approval and "just my hats off to the police chief for standing in a very difficult and uncomfortable place."
The Council all approved the statement, in its original form.