Rabbis call Durham City Council statement citing Israel a 'punch in the gut'

Flag of Israel
Flag of Israel

Rabbis rarely agree, but we, rabbis from Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh, do all oppose the petition and subsequent City Council statement on April 16 banning police exchanges with Israel.

For many Jews in Durham, that vote felt like a punch in the gut. In reflecting on that moment in civic life, we realize there is much about Judaism and the Jewish relationship to Israel that is not understood by many of our neighbors. We hope to clarify some of what the modern State of Israel means to many (but not all) Jews, explain why so many Jews are feeling hurt by the City Council vote, and invite a dialogue between the leadership of the Jewish community and that of our city.

Judaism is not solely a religion; our tradition makes no easy distinctions between belief and belonging. Indeed, historical efforts to require certain religious beliefs as a condition for being Jewish inevitably failed.

Who are we then? Jews are a family that has a particular religion. When the biblical Ruth became Jewish, she told Naomi first, “your people shall be my people,” and then, “your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).”

To be Jewish is to bind one’s destiny with that of the Jewish people, not just in theory, but really. Israel protects nearly half the world’s Jewish population (as of 2018, 6.6M of the world’s 14.5M Jews live in Israel). That alone makes Israel’s survival a religious concern for Jews everywhere.

This is why Israel has such significance for modern Jewish identity and the boundary between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is so slippery and complicated (We recommend a recent Washington Post column by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a prominent human rights activist who often speaks on issues of Palestinian rights).

But modern Israel is not merely a refuge; it is a long-yearned-for home.

For two millennia after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, Jews prayed toward Israel to celebrate “next year in Jerusalem.” Building and maintaining Israel is the most audacious project of the Jewish people since then.

On the streets of Israel are Jews of all colors and backgrounds, from Yemen and France, to Russia and Ethiopia. Israel is the only place in the world where Jewish school children get off for Hanukkah and Passover; where most stores close on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath; where poetry and music and the evening news are in Hebrew.

Israel also gives Jews power to do tremendous acts of goodness, such as opening field hospitals in earthquake zones and helping Syrian refugees oppressed by a brutal dictator and civil war.

And, Israel presents Jews with tremendous moral challenges, as the conditions of Palestinians living under Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel is a religious concern for Jews everywhere.

Israel provides a refuge for Jews and, through Israel, the fate and purpose of the Jewish people come together for the first time in two thousand years. Which is at least part of the reason why Jews feel protective of Israel and why the City Council statement singling out partnerships with Israel for prohibition, but no other country in the world, was so distressing for many Jews in our community.

That six of the seven members of Durham’s City Council signed a petition holding responsible Israeli police training for helping local police “terrorize Black and Brown communities here in the U.S.” is extremely concerning for many Durham Jews. This assertion has no basis in fact, and there was no evidence presented to support it.

The fact that the petition was initially circulated by people who are Jewish provides no comfort to the many Jews who interpreted council members’ signing of the petition as, at best, insensitive and, at worst, offensive.

Jewish tradition teaches we should assume the best of others whenever possible. We do not believe that our City Council members are anti-Semitic or that they wish ill upon the Jews of Durham. We believe the City Council unwittingly made many Durham Jews feel marginalized and unjustly singled out. We believe they profoundly misunderstand what the modern State of Israel means to much of the American Jewish community, and we invite 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.

Most importantly, part of why this hurts so much is that the Jewish community here loves Durham. We have been here since 1887. The community has stood up for integration and for civil rights. Mutt Evans, Durham’s first Jewish mayor, who served from 1951-63, found a way around the law which prohibited racially integrated restaurant seating, by removing the seats from his store’s lunch counter area so customers of all races could continue to eat together while standing.

Today’s Jews are committed to building a Durham for tomorrow that is equitable, diverse, affordable and a beacon of what’s possible in North Carolina. We pray we can come together as a community, heal, and rededicate ourselves to building a city of equality, justice and understanding for all of its citizens.

This letter was signed by Rabbi Zalman Bluming; Rabbi Lucy Dinner; Rabbi Jen Feldman; Rabbi Jerry Fox; Rabbi Elana Friedman; Rabbi John Friedman; Rabbi Daniel Greyber; Rabbi Laura Lieber; Rabbi Melissa B. Simon; Steve Simon, president, Judea Reform Congregation; Rabbi Eric Solomon; and Rabbi Jennifer Solomon.

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