Supporters of a petition calling on the Durham City Council to condemn police exchanges with Israel gather before a council meeting Monday.
A debate that divided Durham's Jewish community and prompted accusations of anti-Semitism culminated Monday night with the City Council's approval of a statement opposing international military-style police training programs.
The unanimous vote came after two hours of tense public comment. At one point Mayor Steve Schewel condemned remarks by one speaker who said Jews had "an inordinate amount of control" over politics, and council member Jillian Johnson was interrupted by a man in the crowd calling the officials liars, drawing calls from the audience to throw him out.
Much of the opposition began with a petition, by a coalition known as Demilitarize! From Durham2Palestine, the preceded the statement. The petition, which by Monday evening had garnered nearly fourteen hundred signatures, asked
the council to condemn police training exchanges with Israeli forces.
"The Israeli Defense Forces and the Israel Police have a long history of violence and harm against Palestinian people and Jews of Color," it reads. "... These tactics further militarize U.S. police forces that train in Israel, and this training helps the police terrorize Black and Brown communities here in the US.
Since the petition was made public, the council's email inboxes have been flooded by messages in support and opposition. Schewel, who is Jewish, said the past few weeks have been an "emotional roller coaster." Several members of the council said they were troubled by rhetoric being used, to include Schewel apparently being called a "Nazi-sympathizer."
Council members on Monday said they would oppose exchanges with militarized police forces in any country, not just Israel, and that criticism of Israeli forces for engaging in such tactics shouldn't be conflated with anti-Jewish sentiment.
The statement passed Monday makes one reference to Israel, in a quote from Chief C.J. Davis saying “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.”
It goes on to say "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."
"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, and that is what we are doing in Durham now." (See the full statement at the end of this post).
Fifty people signed up to speak.
Opponents said the statement vilified and singled out Israel, making it anti-Semitic. The council received emails from the Anti-Defamation League
as well as local rabbis and Jewish groups condemning the statement and the campaign that prompted it. The Durham County Lodge #2 Fraternal Order of Police also voiced its opposition.
Proponents said the issue was about human rights, not religion, and that they rejected any support for their cause that was rooted in anti-Semitism. In addition to the groups that make up the Demilitarize! From Durham2Palestine coalition — including Jewish Voice for Peace-Triangle, Durham for All, Inside-Outside Alliance, Black Youth Project 100 — the People's Alliance
supported the campaign.
Addressing why Israel was even mentioned, council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said "the chief was asked about Israel so she responded." Schewel said if Syria or North Korea, for example, was offering to train Durham police, the council would address that, but he isn't aware of any such exchanges.
Durham police chief C.J. Davis coordinated exchanges with Israel in her previous role in Atlanta. Former chief Jose Lopez attended a counter-terrorism training program in Israel.
Schewel said both sides were guilty of spreading misinformation: Opponents suggested the council had acted in concert with the petitioners to craft and rubber-stamp the statement ultimately approved, and the petitioners asserted that DPD and Israeli forces were "intimately involved" and that Israel had contributed to racialized policing in America.
"We've done that all on our own," he said.