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Israeli Oppression Comes to Durham

The city council’s 2018 vote on Israel left many local Jews feeling unwelcome. Is it the new normal across midsize-town America?

Sean Cooper
October 20, 2020
Durham City Council meeting, April 16, 2018YouTube
Durham City Council meeting, April 16, 2018YouTube

On the night of April 16, 2018, an unusually large crowd streamed into a city council meeting in Durham, North Carolina. While city council meetings may seem utterly banal in an age obsessively focused on operatic national news stories and the minutiae of ego-driven Washington politics, it is local governing bodies that define the character of most places in America, including Durham. The topic that garnered such intense interest that evening wasn’t a minor municipal matter like building a playground or deciding on waste removal budgets but something much more elevated and controversial: The elected leaders of this Southern city were going to publicly debate and vote about Israel.

For Durham’s 11,000 Jews, the general response over the previous several weeks had been riffs on Whatdoyoumean—Israel?!?!… How else to react to their city council’s spontaneous interest in the affairs of a Middle Eastern nation 6,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean.

It was strange, not just because the city council was taking up Israel (Israel?!) in an official Durham forum, but because the council vote had been quietly rushed through the normal pipeline, with flurries of private emails (Gmail, Yahoo) skirting public record disclosures, and a rare waiving of the council’s own otherwise dutifully enforced procedural regulations on waiting periods for public review. Small stuff in the cosmic scheme of things, sure. But this is the genuine fiber of meaning at city level.

Likewise peculiar was the manner in which such a sensitive issue landed on the docket. It was not just an issue that the city council had randomly decided to discuss, but one about which the city of Durham would take a stance. There would be an official Durham resolution about Israel, on which the council would vote, followed by an official, city hall-backed declaration, signed-sealed-and-delivered into the eternal records of the city.

But this was the key thing that tipped the scales from unusual to quite problematic in the eyes of many when they learned of this wrinkle later—that a resolution so obviously divisive and inflammatory, especially among the city’s Jewish residents, would be handled in a way that everyone agreed was abnormal. It would proceed without any of the usual, drawn-out pre-vote pageantry required of anything with even the whiff of controversy. It would be a major resolution, speaking in the name of the city and its residents, adopted without the usual weeks of stale coffee private-public agency meetings and publicized open forums and voluminous public input which are the yawning standard tedious operational procedure for city government. Indeed, the city council vote on Israel was about to take place without any real community involvement whatsoever, and especially without any input from Durham’s establishment Jewish clergy.

And yet for all the glaring defects, there was no effort made to spackle over this poor municipal workmanship: a whole resolution on Israel and they couldn’t find even one rabbi who owed a favor to someone in city hall, not a single symbolic religiousy-looking guy with a long beard and kippah on his head they could drag downtown for 15 minutes to give the whole affair a token kosher blessing.

There were a few in the auditorium crowd that night, rabbis and lay people alike, who realized—too late, they’d admit later—that something serious was afoot in their own backyard. Scattered among the aisles were those who’d read about something called the Demilitarize Durham campaign a couple of months ago in the local alt-weekly. The toss-off article happened to mention a website petition started by a cohort of college groups and a local chapter of the activist collective Jewish Voices for Peace, who were running around Duke and UNC campuses getting students to sign up on their iPhones.

Establishment Jews in Durham—Durham is a bigger city than you might think, a Research Triangle hub, with plenty of college professors and lawyers and old tobacco-curing floors turned into loft apartments, even as it retains a polite Southern feel, surrounded by deep countryside—got the drift, at least they thought they did back in February, that this Demilitarize Durham campaign was a JVP production. But they didn’t pay it much mind. It was just another online whatever by the Boycott Israel folks—those self-contradictory JVP Jews who loved their people by accruing social media likes and clicks for a fashionable cause that no doubt seemed entirely right-on thanks to the padding of the great distances between them and the reality of life in Israel, and of the actual lived experience of people not unlike themselves who inhabited a reality where the margins are much thinner and the connection between words and deeds is much shorter, and everyone, everywhere, must bear all of the consequences—not simply a self-curated set—of their chosen stance toward a reality that in some respects hasn’t changed all that much, despite social media avatars and laptops and PayPal, since the Bronze Age.

But here everyone was stewing anxiously together in the same auditorium, the temple board members and the third-generation Jews and the campus activists and the JVP petition authors, sitting and standing elbow to nervous elbow under harsh city hall fluorescents, crammed in to listen to reports about municipal vendor budgets until the council opened up public comments on the resolution, the one that had started with that petition to Demilitarize Durham.

But what did that even mean? This was part of the confusion for those who first read about it in February. The purpose of the petition was to keep Durham from sending their law enforcement people over to Israel to receive counterterrorism training. The petition asked the city council to forbid the Durham police from attending programs hosted by Israeli law enforcement—training seminars, increasingly popular as of late, offered up to squads of city cops and European rank and file sergeants and interstate highway patrollers the world over who wanted to learn anything that might stop terrorist attacks in their own cities, thwart radicalized far-right basement fascists and manifesto mass shooters with techniques honed by the Israelis, who after decades of sad experience, had become something like experts in the business. That part was clear.

The confusing part—which remains as confusing now as it was back in February—was that Durham didn’t send its cops to Israel. In plain language, the Durham police leadership had never once signed off on shipping even a single officer over to Israel to attend one of these programs, virtuous or not. It wasn’t something that was going to happen later in the year, either. Nor was it a proposed police training item for next year, or the year after, or the year after that. It wasn’t a thing. So why go through a big dog and pony show to shut down something that didn’t exist?

This is like a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode. The mayor wrote this resolution, and then he says he’s a Zionist. It’s just so much doublespeak.

Up at the big wooden rotunda, Durham’s chief, the head guy himself, Mayor Steve Schewel, had something like an answer. He was a petite man of 67 with feminine shoulders and gray hair cropped short over a narrow face that opened like a hinge to let out a mild man’s polite Southern-accented voice. He wore a blue suit and plaid bow tie, which proved the point that bows under their chin rarely avoid sabotaging a man’s presence.

“I want to start with speaking to the folks from Jewish Voice for Peace. I really mainly want to speak to the Jews in the room, my fellow Jews,” Mayor Schewel told the crowd.

If the mayor’s first thought associated with “my fellow Jews” was the folks from JVP, this made quite a good deal of sense. For a time, Schewel had been a patron of JVP. And though he eventually stopped sending them donations, as he explained to the local Herald paper a little while back, “I do deeply understand why they have the politics they do.”

The mayor’s understanding of JVP’s political project certainly helped engender his support for their resolution. As it turned out, rewriting the JVP petition—the one all the college kids signed on campus— into the city council resolution was the mayor’s own doing. He himself had penned the final draft of the document.

The mayor continued his address to city hall: “A great question that people who are against this statement are asking is—why Israel? Why not North Korea, or Syria?”

This confused some of those in the crowd, actually—as no one who was against the resolution would suggest Israel would or should be more fairly treated if they were considered alongside the likes of North Korea and Syria. One might even consider the comparison of a democracy to brutal authoritarian regimes that murder hundreds of thousands of their own people even more questionable than prohibiting police training in Israel.

No matter, the mayor continued to explain his political rationale: “The statement is explicit in saying that we oppose all militarized exchanges with other militarized police forces, but there are these exchanges with Israel,” Schewel said. He acknowledged that though there had been no exchanges previously, presently, or planned with Israel, it was important to make a resolution about Israel just in case. And, he added, “we have had our police chief participate in them, so that’s the reason.”

This was an interesting justification from the mayor—the police chief, newly installed in Durham, had come from Atlanta, where she went through a program at nearby Georgia State University with some Israel officials to combat the surging homelessness problem in Atlanta—the thought behind that program being that Atlanta might do well to seek Israeli advice on their experience with the homeless migrants in their own nation. Guilt by association? Or not quite? This program wasn’t even the counterterrorism military trainings that the resolution was supposedly so concerned with condemning. If this was why Durham had to pass a resolution it didn’t add up to much.

C.J. Davis, the police chief, had herself only been looped into the debate a few days before the evening’s hearing, whereupon she’d fired off an email to the mayor’s office. She wanted to clear up what seemed like some serious confusion emanating from the top offices in city hall.

“There has been no effort to begin any discussions related to the involvement of [Durham] officers in an exchange to Israel, nor do I plan to establish such an exchange program in the future,” Davis wrote.

“During my short tenure, I have been quite focused on building strained police and community relations here in Durham, and find this issue to be an unnecessary distraction and potential roadblock to that progress.”

But such assurances fell on deaf ears. As the mayor wrapped up his comments to the auditorium, he made clear exactly why the resolution on Israel was so important.

“I’m a Jew and I am a Zionist,” he declared. “I believe in the existence of a Jewish state. I fear for its survival. But I know the terrible traumas visiting on us as a people, we are now visiting on others in Gaza and on the West Bank,” the mayor claimed, somehow turning the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust into a motive for the infliction by Israel—a Jewish state, yes, but most of whose inhabitants were either born in Israel or in other countries in the Middle East—of equivalent horrors on Palestinians, a charge for which there is zero evidence.

“Not only are our mortal souls in danger because of that, but I also believe that the survival of the Jewish state is dependent on doing justice to the Palestinians, and I do not believe that we are—and when I say we, I include myself. So, that is the context in which I view this statement.”

In the seats, Deborah Friedman, a member of a Durham pro-Israel group, who would later become a kind of later-day prophet, rending her garments on social media, as a result of what felt to her like an out-of-body experience or alien abduction, whose blatant illogic she nonetheless bent every fiber of her being toward understanding, couldn’t believe what she was hearing from her mayor. “This is like a Twilight Zone episode,” she later remembered thinking. “The mayor wrote this resolution, and then he says he’s a Zionist. It’s just so much doublespeak.”

Friedman, like many of the Jews in Durham, felt a sense of vertigo shot through with bewilderment while enduring the wildly destabilizing experience of watching in real time as the city she’d called home for decades leveraged the seal of its elected officials and state bureaucratic power to condemn what was being formally called “Israel,” but which to her and others was really a resolution about the Jewish people, including herself.

Sitting there, Friedman remembered, “We were in a state of shock. We were under the illusion we were welcome. We’d raised our children here. My son was raised in the Durham city school. And here the city is, rejecting the Jewish community.”

For all the painful confusion, there was a clinical logic that dictated what was unfolding there in the auditorium. In the spring of 2018, when the resolution was being celebrated across Durham’s college campuses, the Black Lives Matter movement was ascendant, as was wokeism—the new religious order of American elites that posed to absorb the Black lives movement and renegotiate American power dynamics in such a way that all groups which could be defined on the basis of race, gender, or sexuality were now redefined as victims of systemic forms of oppression by white people.

The new woke religion was a pretty good deal for its most fervent apostles, who were mainly also white people. The elites that operate America’s levers of power and money and populate the vast strata of the professional managerial class could maintain their class positions and lives of comfort so long as they gave ceremonial acknowledgement to wokeism’s empty words and actions—of which passing a city council resolution was just one visible example.

That the resolution targeted precisely and only Jews reflected the difficultly that Jews, unfortunately for them, posed to this new order. The nature of that difficulty is worth examining. As the single most oppressed group of people by any standard account of human civilization and as the victims in recent memory of what is usually presented by textbook authors as history’s single greatest crime, Jews might reasonably be seen as possessing history’s greatest ever claim to historical victimhood, which is to wokeism as carbon fuel is to cars.

Yet, in deference to America’s long history of chattel slavery, the term minority in America is applied on the basis of skin color, thus inverting and recapitulating the terminology of the American color line. Because many Jews in America have white skin, they are, in the language of oppression, white people—and are therefore inherently racist and oppressive. Jews therefore pose the ultimate test for woke theology—either they are white people, in which case the entire religion is true, or else they occupy the very apex of historical victimhood or something close to it, in which case the entire edifice of wokeness comes crashing down.

We might note here that JVP, which along with other Israeli boycott groups, has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund since 2013. As the architects of the Durham campaign, and perhaps the most ardent American group seeking to undermine the world’s sole Jewish state, JVP has helped spearhead the effort on behalf of American legacy money and establishment elites to transform the Jews’ unimpeachable record of centuries of oppressive suffering into the necessary if cognitive-dissonance-inducing status of oppressors, thus preserving the faith, or scam.

One can see this tension codified plainly in Durham’s resolution, which reads: “Black Lives Matter. We can make that phrase real in Durham by rejecting the militarization of our police force in favor of a different kind of policing.”

We might remember, again, that Durham had no actual plans to train with Israelis. Yet, Durham’s council was so moved by the possibility of how such training would encroach upon the lives of its minority population they preemptively decreed that such an evil could never happen. Which is to say, they guaranteed that Durham’s police force, now and forever in the future, would never be associated with Jews, even if such an association might save money or lives. If Israeli police oppress people of color in Israel, then American police who train with these Jews will continue to oppress American people of color. Boycott the training with Jews, fight oppression.

The purpose of this formulation, of course, is that it returns Jews to their proper place within the monolithic bloc of American white-skinned oppressors. Because Jews oppress Palestinians in Israel, the logic goes, American Jews therefore share in the sins of their co-religionists—and thus in the sins of their fellow white oppressors in America. This is a rather elegant solution to what we might call another variation on the Jewish problem— a way to reclassify Jews with other white Americans as responsible for systematic oppression of darker-skinned people while erasing all the aspects of Jewish history in America, Israel, and Europe that are problematic—meaning nearly all of it.

Beth Bruch, one of the Durham JVP leaders, explained rather plainly how the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement was transformative for the group’s Israel-boycott efforts, describing it to one reporter as an “opportunity to oppose militarization of police in Durham and to oppose brutality happening in Palestine.” Where JVP previously advocated simply for boycotts of Israel, the BLM movement afforded them a chance to shift their language and stated purpose. No longer did JVP campaigners have to contend with critics who might point out that Omar Barghouti, a BDS leader and JVP board member, had called for the elimination of Israel. Instead, JVP worked the law enforcement training program angle, and Mayor Schewel received entreaties from guys like Tom Stern, a local life coach and lead member of the JVP campaign, who lobbied city hall to adopt the resolution which called “for an immediate end to any partnerships that the Durham Police Department has or might enter into” with Israel, because Israel trained American law enforcement in “technology and tactics … [which increased] criminalization of everyday life of community of color.”

It just seems that with Israel, people don’t take discrimination quite as seriously.

After Mayor Schewel read the resolution to the city hall auditorium, and just before the council cast its vote, one by one some 50 Durham area residents came forward to the podium, to fight for either side of what was clear, from anyone who’d just heard the resolution, a foregone conclusion.

Deborah Friedman’s concerns about the resolution centered on the fear that condemning the Jews would bring out acts of bigotry throughout the city. “If you do something anti-Semitic, it lets others fly their flags. It energizes them,” she said. She saw her fears come to fruition when Minister Rafiq Zaidi of the Nation of Islam came forward. “I thank the council very deeply from my heart because the movement that you have made to approve this petition was one against forces that are unseen,” he said. “Jews have taken over the political system in this city and I praise you and thank you.”

With a look of wide satisfaction on his face for entering his own take on the malignancy of the Jewish threat into public record, Zaidi sat down.

Other speakers, who still lived on planet Earth, expressed bafflement at what the council was doing and why. “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,” a local man named Max Cherman reasoned. Rabbi Zalman Bluming said, “My phone has been ringing nonstop over the last week of young adults that live here that feel unsafe, that feel marginalized, that feel that they have been singled out. I’m wondering why you would single out Israel?” he asked, though he could easily have answered the question himself.

The city council then passed the resolution, in a decision which was felt throughout Durham. In an op-ed, a group of 11 rabbis wrote that the “statement singling out partnerships with Israel for prohibition, but no other country in the world, was so distressing for many Jews in our community … the vote felt like a punch in the gut.”

Kathryn Wolf, a Durham resident, reflected that “the resolution has wreaked havoc on the Triangle’s Jewish community.” She added, in a published letter, that two weeks following the public hearing, posters began appearing in downtown Durham. “One showed a man pointing a gun at a bearded man with a long nose and kippa, saying, ‘Your ancestors threw off foreign oppression, time for you as well.’”

For Mayor Schewel and his fellow Democratic Party members, though, the incident brought additional outside support for their political ambitions—much of it from Jews. Over the past 13 months, some $266,000 has poured into the Democratic Party platform campaigns. For State Attorney General Josh Stein—who was once a partner in a firm with JVP chapter leader Tom Stern—some 30% of his campaign support has come from donors outside of North Carolina, including $5,400 from George Soros and 290 donations from individuals in California, where JVP is based.

The rapid political progress in Durham has likewise attracted repeat marquee visits from BDS activist Linda Sarsour, who shared the city council’s misprisioned understanding of the Israeli law enforcement programs when she said elsewhere that American police are sent to be trained by “Israeli police and military, and then they come back here and do what? Stop and frisk, killing unarmed Black people across the country.” After Sarsour’s keynote last February at a UNC Chapel Hill public health conference—where Sarsour, who has no medical background, weighed in on the public health issues of the day by explaining that “I believe and I support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement”—she was brought back to give a $9,000 main address focusing on intersectionality and activism at a women’s history month Courageous Conversations event.

Wolf, Friedman, and others in the Durham community filed what would total three lawsuits against the city and leadership for both discrimination and violations of public records laws for using personal email accounts to communicate about the resolution before it was debated publicly. Two of those suits were eventually dismissed, and the third is now pending in a federal appeals court.

“In my view, making these sorts of announcements is discriminatory and illegal. However, it’s very difficult to get a court to agree to that,” David Abrams, a lawyer who represented one of the dismissed suits, told me. “If a town announced that we’re no longer hiring people of race X for position Y, and then it turns out that later they say, ‘well, we weren’t going to hire anyone for position Y,’ I don’t think a court would have a problem saying that the announcement itself is unlawful. It just seems that with Israel, people don’t take discrimination quite as seriously.”

In March, following the passage of the resolution, there was perhaps some indication that courts might wish to take anti-Semitic hate and its connection to passing purely speculative resolutions targeting the world’s only Jewish state more seriously. At a conference in Durham hosted by the Duke-UNC Middle East Consortium, a rapper named Tamer Nafar opened the performance of his song, “Mama, I Fell in Love with a Jew” and asked for assistance from the energized crowd. “This is my anti-Semitic song … I know it sounds like R&B stuff, but don’t think of Rihanna when you sing it,” Nafar said. “Think of Mel Gibson … Go that anti-Semitic … Let’s try it together. I need your help. I can’t be anti-Semitic alone.”

A video of the performance posted online led to outrage in some quarters of Durham. Others took a blithe view of the incident, including a UNC professor and adviser for JVP who challenged the logic of how someone could be anti-Semitic if they openly announced themselves to be anti-Semitic. “If your song is anti-Semitic, you’re not going to say that,” Eyse Crystall told one reporter. “The song was about being in love with a Jewish woman.”

Looking back since the passage of the resolution, Kathryn Wolf told me that she anticipated the template used to pass the resolution in Durham would be implemented in progressive strongholds. “People think Durham is an isolated case. Actually, we’re the canary in the coal mine.”

For Deborah Friedman, the whole encounter with JVP and the institutions which rallied around them ultimately left her feeling unsure of her place in her own city. “You raise your kids here, they go to school in Durham, and you think you’re welcomed in the community. And you’re not. It really felt like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you suddenly don’t know who your friends are anymore,” she said.

“They don’t care if they’re lying, or what they need to do. They just want to take their big old intersectional measuring stick and whack you over the head with it.”

Sean Patrick Cooper is a journalist who has contributed narrative features and essays to The New Republic, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, and elsewhere. His first book, The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided will be published in April 2024 by Penguin.