Durham County

Bull City Politics: Jewish leaders tell council member, take Israel out of statement

Demilitarize! Durham2Palestine rally at Durham’s City Hall

Manal Sidawi speaks against police training with Israel during a rally outside Durham City Hall on Monday, April 16, 2018.
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Manal Sidawi speaks against police training with Israel during a rally outside Durham City Hall on Monday, April 16, 2018.

Six months after the Durham City Council issued a statement opposing militarized policing and mentioned Israel in it, some members of the Jewish community are still upset. The mayor and a council member are meeting with various groups to listen to their concerns.

On Thursday, Mayor Steve Schewel and Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton will go to a congregation meeting of Judea Reform Congregation. Also this month, the pair will speak to residents of Carolina Arbors retirement neighborhood. And last week, Middleton met with some of his most vocal critics in his office at Durham City Hall.

The policing statement

In April, Jewish Voice for Peace and others brought a petition to the city opposing Israeli training for Durham police. They asked the council for a resolution. Instead, Schewel wrote a statement, ran it by council members and extended discussion to the next meeting so the public could weigh in.

The statement said 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.”

The statement also includes a quote from Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis: “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.”

During two hours of public comments, some speakers urged the council to take Israel out. Some asked why a statement was even needed since no such training was taking place.

The council endorsed the statement, including the Israel reference. It did not give Jewish Voice for Peace and others the resolution they had asked for, but Demilitarize Durham2Palestine, the group that had circulated the petition that started the discussion, still considered it a win.

While resolutions passed by the council direct city staff on policy decisions, there was no policy implemented with the statement.

That didn’t mean it wasn’t controversial.

Demilitarize from Durham2Palestine is 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 ties to Israel.

When Schewel issued his statement, Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said it was different than the Demilitarize Durham2Palestine petition that she had signed.

Johnson said she does not believe “it is inherently anti-Semitic to criticize Israeli policies and practice, just as I don’t believe it’s anti-American to criticize the practices of the U.S. military and police, which I do often.”

In the weeks and months that followed, the Durham City Council received national attention.

The aftermath

Schewel and Middleton have met with concerned residents, including rabbis, throughout the past six months. Several Triangle rabbis asked council members not to pass a resolution, which they did not, and also not to mention Israel in the statement, which they still did. Other council members have responded by email.

In June, Judea Reform Congregation, which is Schewel’s synagogue, sent him a letter on behalf of its Board of Trustees in support of the City Council policing statement “rejecting the militarization of our police force,” but rejecting “the implied linkage in the Durham City Council April 16th statement banning police exchanges with Israel.”

The reference “has caused harmful speculation of its intent and has led to pain and anger for many of our Judea Reform members. There is a need to heal that wound,” the letter stated. The event with Schewel and Middleton on Thursday will be part of that healing. Judea Reform, which is a Reform synagogue, also asked the city to stand against any boycotts of Israel. The meeting with Judea Reform members on Thursday will be a discussion planned with the congregation’s Israel Discourse Advisory Committee.

Schewel and Middleton have also been invited to speak to residents of Carolina Arbors in Southeastern Durham about their work in government and answer any questions related to the policing statement, too.

Some of the most vocal critics of City Council have been retired Duke University Dr. Robert Gutman of Durham and Peter Reitzes of Carrboro, who met with Middleton at City Hall last week. Also at the meeting was Jill Madsen, who is CEO of the Jewish Federation of Durham and Chapel Hill; and pastors Angelo Burch and Bishop Ronald Godbee.

In a recording of the meeting Middleton gave The Herald-Sun, they requested the council amend the statement to exclude Israel.

Madsen told Middleton that the Jewish Federation represents seven congregations and close to 11,000 people, a “big tent,” and they wanted the word “Israel” taken out.

“Remove the word Israel, and it’s taken care of,” she said.

Middleton said Ferguson — the police response to protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer — helped form his opinion on militarized policing years before he’d heard of Jewish Voice for Peace and the petition.

Midway through the meeting, Middleton reminds them that they’re at City Hall and the meeting is being recorded. In emails with Gutman and Reitzes days later, he found out that Reitzes was also recording the meeting, but did not mention it. He doesn’t have to, by North Carolina law.

Middleton described that as a hiccup in an otherwise “good meeting and good exchange” he said this week. He said he didn’t have a problem with Reitzes also recording the meeting, “but from a good faith point of view, why wouldn’t you disclose that? It just felt a little icky,” Middleton said.

In email exchanges this past week, Gutman told Middleton he had asked Reitzes to record the meeting, believing Middleton was, too.

“’This was not a ‘secret’ meeting. City Hall does not lend itself to those types of gatherings. In fact, Councilor [Charlie] Reece would have been at our meeting were it not for a scheduling conflict,’” Middleton wrote.

If a majority of council members are at any gathering and discuss city business — which means four — that would constitute a quorum and need to be a public meeting.

What’s next

The Durham Human Relations Commission, which is appointed by the council but offers independent reviews and reports, has an ad hoc committee reviewing “Concerns About April 16th City Council Statement on Police Exchanges.” The commission may issue a report to the council with their findings and recommendations.

Bull City Politics is an occasional Durham politics column by Durham government reporter Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan. She live-tweets council meetings. Follow her at @dawnbvaughan and the hashtag #BullCitypol on Twitter.
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