Rabbis, politicians, activists and others gathered Tuesday night to find common ground in the aftermath of a Durham City Council statement on policing that some saw as anti-Semitic.
Some are still disappointed at the outcome.
The council approved a policy statement in April 2018 that put the city on record opposing military-style police training with foreign countries. The statement, which mentioned only Israel by name, has drawn criticism, international attention and two lawsuits. The city’s Human Relations Commission has now weighed in, too, with a report on the statement it says caused tension in the community.
But after months of discussions and a final three-hour meeting and vote on their report, commission members stopped short of asking the council to remove the reference to Israel, even though an earlier version of their report did.
Instead, the advisory board called for continued work to “educate about and speak out against anti-Semitism, and all forms of religious discrimination and other forms of oppression rooted in white supremacy.” The City Council should also do outreach to the Jewish community and be more transparent in its policy making , and the Police Department should continue to eliminate racialized policing practices, the final report says.
The commission does not consider the reference to training exchanges with Israel — which are not happening — anti-Semitic or discriminatory, according to the draft and final reports.
But within the commission, one member who initially agreed to say the statement was not discriminatory later changed his mind.
Commissioner Ricardo Correa said if people feel discriminated against, then they are.
“I personally do believe it was discrimination against part of the community,” he said.
Voting on the final report
Some Jewish groups and leaders wanted the council to revise the statement and take out the reference to Israel. The commission’s draft report included the same recommendation.
But Tuesday night the commissioners acknowledged the City Council has made up its mind. Mayor Steve Schewel has said he does not plan to reopen the issue, although council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, who attended the meeting, said he is always willing to revisit council decisions.
Commission Chair Diane Standaert proposed adding a sentence to the final report saying the commission understands that it is up to the council to decide whether or not to revisit the issue. The motion failed.
Correa also made a failed motion to combine the draft and final reports, keeping the recommendation to remove Israel from the council’s statement.
Before the meeting, he was tired and afraid to say so, he said. Then an email from former commissioner Phil Seib helped change his mind. Seib told him the commission has sometimes had to take uncomfortable stands.
Correa said a “lack of clarity from City Council to the community” heightened tensions in the community. “The way they went about it amplified the statement to a thousand degrees,” he said. “Personally, I was very discouraged.”
But Commissioner Andrea “Muffin” Hudson opposed asking for any changes.
“It was already written. We should not change it, even if we don’t stand behind what he said,” Hudson said. She said she is against oppression, no matter who does it.
Lama Hantash, a Duke University student, said the commission did not include enough Muslim, Arab and Palestinian perspectives in studying the council’s statement.
Hantash is in Duke Students for Justice in Palestine and Demilitarize! Durham2Palestine — the coalition that includes Triangle Jewish Voice for Peace and Durham for All — that first brought the policing concern to the council. Durham2Palestine supported the council’s statement as written.
Local Jewish leaders, who supported the first draft of the commission report, were disappointed in the final vote.
Jill Madsen, head of the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill, said Jewish leaders appreciate the transparency of the Human Relations Commission’s process, and criticized the council for passing a statement without speaking to the Jewish community first.
“When you’re singling out one person or one place, it is discrimination,” she said.
“We were very disappointed the second draft does not call for a revision of the original statement,” said Rabbi Daniel Greyber of Beth El Synagogue in Durham. He and other Triangle rabbis, as well as the federation, have repeatedly called on the city council to remove the reference to Israel from the policing statement.
“We believe the Human Relations Commission can make a strong statement that the City Council, in the way they formulated [the statement] and its content had a terrible effect on the fabric of the community,” he said.
Greyber said, regardless of what the council does, he wanted the commission to acknowledge the harm that has been done, and ask for a revision so they could move on.
Rabbi Zalman Bluming of Chabad of Durham and Chapel Hill said he’s not accusing anyone of being anti-Semitic. But he said, “I think today, anti-Israel is often a thin veil for anti-Semitism.”
“It’s a very raw nerve in the Jewish community,” Bluming said. “People who are Jewish disagree, but the people who represent our community are united,” he said.
Standaert said the commission has received about 100 comments since releasing its draft report in November, on both sides of the issue, from a range of faith traditions, and from inside and outside Durham.
Standaert said people felt hurt, wanted to feel safe and welcome, and had real fears about racism, anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia.
“The common thread of dangerous white supremacy and white nationalism” is something that “we have to keep our eye on,” she said.
Commissioners talked about their responsibility to unite the community of Durham, and not wanting to be divisive with their decision.
What the HRC recommends
In its recommendations the commission says:
▪It echoes the call to action in an op-ed by 12 local rabbis, which states: “we invite the City Council members to increase their outreach to Jewish institutions and local community members to foster meaningful relationships and restore trust between the Jewish community and the city of Durham.” “We know much of this is already underway, and encourage such work to continue,” according to the report.
▪ The Durham Police Department must continue making efforts to eliminate racialized policing practices in our community.
▪ The City Council should adhere to better practices, as it relates to City Council work sessions, email communications, and transparent processes for placing City Council statements on public agendas for work session and council meetings. This is critical to ensure fair and equitable access to the business of the City of Durham for all residents.
Schewel had circulated the policing statement via a private email account to other council members before a council meeting.
▪ “As one Community, we must continue inter-faith, inter-racial dialogues and partnerships on an on-going basis to further understanding, deepen relationships, and together seek changes to oppressive systems existing in our city,” according to the report.