Israel/Palestine Debate Erupts in a Southern City

100 Palestinians gathered

Israel Defense Forces

Palestinians in the West Bank without arms facing teargas and bullets from Israel's occupying army.

Durham Goes to Schewel
How a Middle East controversy blindsided a popular Southern Jewish mayor

{Editor’s note: Instructive article about the way the debate about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians can divide liberals and progressives to the detriment of both. I sense that those who are outraged at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians yet not supportive of BDS might need to find a more sensitive way to raise these issues, rather than avoid them, particularly now when a new government is about to escalate Palestinian suffering and seemingly prove the case that Israel doesn’t care that if it annexes part of the West Bank it can no longer claim to be a democracy. –Rabbi Michael Lerner}

As the popular, progressive Democratic mayor of the booming city of Durham, Steve Schewel has been pretty fortunate. The town’s retro charm and buzz, coupled with its explosive prosperity, have prompted a shower of accolades: Vogue has dubbed it “North Carolina’s Hippest City;” Southern Living calls it “The South’s Tastiest Town;” and sites like Forbes and CNN list it among America’s Best Small Cities, Best Places to Live and Best Places to Retire.

Schewel was elected in 2017 with 60 percent of the vote, and by most measures, he appears to be making good on his frequently repeated pledge to make his booming town “a beacon of the South.”

However, one dark cloud for the 68-year-old former campus activist and community organizer was his handling of a lingering controversy involving – incongruously – Mideast politics. Two years after the controversy erupted, it has continued to dog Schewel’s otherwise successful mayoral administration. This includes a distracting series of acrimonious city council meetings, law suits, dozens of time-consuming public records requests and political challenges. Years later, the affair remains an open wound in the area’s Jewish community, once Schewel’s strongest allies in promoting his ambitious reform agenda.

The question is, was all this necessary?


Durham, a majority-minority city of 263,016, boasts a downtown that has come back from the dead over the past two decades. It is attracting millennials and other creatives and entrepreneurs from around the country, with an estimated 20 new people moving to town daily. Many of these newcomers have no connection with Duke University, the local academic powerhouse, with both a world famous medical center (Durham brands itself as “The City of Medicine”), and a perennially top-ranked men’s basketball team. The result is a place that is exuberant, diverse, navigable and affordable – although the growing popularity is making it considerably less within the reach of renters and would-be homeowners. (

The recent arrivals are flocking to a historic town once reliant on textile mills and tobacco factories – all long-closed. Today, the red brick shells and polished wooden beams of these defunct industries have been preserved and repurposed into upscale restaurants, retail shops, apartments, condos and office space. A thriving performing arts center sits next to a vest-pocket gem of a stadium for the Durham Bulls minor league baseball team, both built under previous mayoral administrations. Across the street from this dual venue is a refurbished American Tobacco Co. campus, with everything from high-tech start-ups and brewpubs to a public radio studio and a theater devoted to documentary films.

Even as a steel and glass tower nears completion downtown, and assorted sterile apartment complexes spring up nearby, the heart of Durham retains its vintage look and feel, setting it apart from more generic-looking Sun Belt cities like Charlotte and Raleigh.

While Schewel did not create Durham’s boom, managing this prosperity is his responsibility, which carries with it numerous, familiar challenges. Chief among them is gentrification, which is nibbling away at historically African American neighborhoods bordering on downtown. With such gentrification come attendant issues: displacement, eviction, and the need for affordable housing. In 2018, the city saw 9,335 evictions, roughly 180 a week, according to The Indy, the area’s alt-weekly. An angry, grassroots movement has recently sprung up opposing evictions, evident in lawn signs all over town.

Schewel is well aware of these related challenges. In his February 2019 State of the City address, he proposed a remedy: a referendum on a $95 million affordable housing bond, which would be one of the most expansive in the nation. He said he wanted to make downtown Durham accessible for all – not just “upper middle class white people… It’s a big lift, I know. But it’s time one city in this nation did it, and I know that city can be Durham.” (

However, rivaling gentrification in importance are the issues of identity politics and crime rates, linked to the perception of racially unequal law enforcement. Again, Schewel, a vocal supporter of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and an opponent of ICE raids in the city, stated in his February address that the city was making progress on that front. In 2017 there were 14,000 fewer police traffic stops than in 2013, when written consent began to be required to search vehicles, Schewel said. Published reports noted that 60 percent of those stopped were people of color. Searches are down from 1,200 annually to 400. And, for the growing immigrant community, there is also the matter of how to deal with ICE.

Thus it should have come as no surprise that policing was the wedge issue through which Mideast politics landed on the city agenda. When it did, in the spring of 2018, it threatened to blow up in Schewel’s face and to endanger his progressive program.


Politically, Steve Schewel played a classic long game over 40 years, patiently working his way up the community and political ladder. He parlayed a combination of charm, unfailing civility, optimism and laser-like focus on making change, together with a reputation for coalition building. His core support has been a cadre of 1960s and 1970s Duke lefties, many in the local, activist People’s Alliance (PAC) organization. The group’s initial core was made up of those who either stayed in Durham or found their way back, and who in one way or another have been with him since the beginning. But this group is now dwarfed by later comers who have joined in significant numbers.

Schewel came to Duke as an undergraduate in 1969 and, except for a short stint earning a master’s degree at Columbia, has remained in Durham since. Fresh off the campus in 1974, where he had a history of activism, he worked as a community organizer. His signature campaign was trying to keep a freeway from flattening a historically African American neighborhood, an effort that was partially successful. After earning a Ph.D. in education at Duke, he joined the faculty of the university’s Sanford School of Public Policy. In 1982, he founded and served as longtime publisher of the Independent Weekly, (later shortened to The Indy), an award-winning alt-weekly, which he sold in 2012. He also joined the community board of WUNC-FM, the local public radio affiliate.

He paid his political dues as well, first as a member of Durham County’s elected school board and then of the city council. With an army of accumulated activists behind him, he ran for mayor in 2017, succeeding a long-serving, well-respected African American mayor who was retiring, and defeating an inexperienced younger African American opponent. A gray-haired man of compact stature, who wears glasses, Schewel is not physically imposing. And by the time he was elected, the jeans and work shirts of his youth were long gone. These days he rarely appears in public without a tie and jacket. He could easily be mistaken for an amiable furniture salesman.

The new mayor is also a second generation Southern Jewish politician; his father was in the furniture business but was also a Virginia state legislator. Steve grew up in Lynchburg, where his family belonged to a local temple and as a teenager was active in a Reform youth group. In Durham, he has been a member of several local congregations, most recently Judea Reform. Deeply embedded in the Jewish community, he taught at the Triangle Children’s Schule, which his sons, Abraham and Solomon, attended, and helped organize numerous Jewish cultural gatherings, called fabrengens in Yiddish.

In May of 2018, Schewel addressed Duke’s Jewish baccalaureate service and, according to the Duke Chronicle, “he talked about his own journey at Duke as well as the connection between Jewish values and social justice.”

None of this kept him from being blindsided earlier that spring by some left-wing Jewish activists, including some of his otherwise erstwhile allies, as well as pro-Palestinian groups and the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).

The controversy grew out of the worldwide Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. It began with some disingenuous mischief-making on the part of the JVP, through a local organization called “DemilitarizeDurham2Palestine (DD2P),” which circulated an inflammatory petition.

“We demand that the City of Durham immediately halt any partnerships that the Durham Police Department has or might enter into with the Israeli Defense Forces and/or the Israel Police,” the petition (in one of its various iterations) read, alleging that this training “helps the police terrorize Black and Brown communities here in the U.S.”

One of those who circulated the petition was Lee Mortimer; an older progressive activist and a board member of one of the anti-Israel groups, the Coalition for Peace with Justice.

“I have been a supporter of Palestinian rights for many years, particularly since the first Intifada in the late 1980s,” Mortimer said in an interview. “I’ve long been aware of Israel’s brutal repression of Palestinians. But I was not aware of the training exchanges Israel uses for political and public relations gain with police departments across the U.S. So, when I heard about the DD2P campaign, I wanted to help prevent our police personnel from being trained by a government with Israel’s record of human rights violations.”

The main problem with the petition was that Durham had never been involved in comprehensive, front-line, hands-on, police training in Israel, nor was any contemplated. So the petition was essentially a calculated, opportunistic solution in search of a nonexistent problem. Nonetheless, the controversy soon assumed a symbolic life of its own, just as the petition’s sponsors planned.

“We were caught off guard,” said Dr. Robert Gutman, a leading local Israel supporter who left his Durham Reform congregation because he felt the then rabbi had become “a very pushy anti-Zionist.” It was only later that local Israel supporters learned that the JVP had coordinated its campaign with a coalition of local and national anti-Zionist, leftist and Palestinian organizations. “We didn’t see it coming,” Gutman said.

While unexpected by many, the linked issues of Durham police training and Israel, and BDS, had some context and history, and did not come out of nowhere. Largely out of public view, the ground had been prepared for the unfolding BDS controversy.

In 2008, then Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez Sr. underwent police leadership training in Israel focused on responding to terrorist incidents and mass casualty events – training that Schewel has since characterized as militarized. Also while Lopez was chief, several of his commanders traveled to Washington, D.C., for training with an Israeli security firm. (

In 2015, not long after she was elected to the City Council, Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, a BDS supporter since her Duke undergraduate years, sent an email to the local JVP, later obtained by a public records request. It contained information on Durham’s “Investment Portfolio,” which included Israeli companies and companies that did business in Israel. In the email, Johnson wrote, “Thought I’d send this to y’all in case it has any use for future BDS purposes.”

And, before assuming her post in the spring of 2016, Durham Police Chief Cerelyn Davis had been deputy chief of the Atlanta Police Department. During that time, in 2012, Davis took part in an executive exchange session with the Israel National Police, in the cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Netanya (, which she called a positive experience. In a March 30, 2018, memo, requested by the city manager, to the Durham City Council, Davis wrote that the training she received in Israel was “based on developing leadership academies, leadership principles, and building community and police relations with the growing Homeless population in the U.S.” That the training drew on the Israelis’ experience in dealing with Ethiopian refugees. Davis added that she was willing to share with council the “curriculum and course outline” from her that training “if it helps to quell this evolving matter” in Durham.


Events then accelerated, to the dismay of many in the Jewish community. Some contended later that Schewel, who had supported Jewish groups opposed to Israel’s Occupation policies for years, was fast-tracking the issue for political purposes, currying favor with his leftist base.

“The city council and mayor disregarded the wisdom and the urgings of the major leaders and their boards and plunged forward in a foolhardy way that led to division within the city,” said Rabbi Daniel Greyber, of Beth-El synagogue, a Conservative congregation located just off the Duke campus.

Other observers disagreed.

The issue “came upon Steve pretty unexpectedly,” said Bruce Jentleson, a professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, a friend and colleague of the mayor’s. As a result, “It succeeded before the other side knew it was coming…

“Steve had a lot on his plate” at the time the issue surfaced, said Jentleson, who took no position in the subsequent BDS debate. “This wasn’t his issue. He tried to find a middle ground. I think he’s tried to massage it after it was handed to him in really awful shape.”

Jentleson has abundant experience in these incendiary Mideast policy debates, although his role has been at a national and international level. He held policy and State Department roles in the Clinton and Obama administrations, and is one of Joe Biden’s advisors on Middle East policy. One lesson he learned, he recalls, is that “any criticism of Israeli policies is instantly equated with hating Israel.”

The JVP/BDS petition was presented at a Durham City Council work session on April 5, 2018, after the activists secured the signatures of all six council members – but not Schewel’s – on various wordings of the document. Some of those who signed later said they did not read it carefully. Four speakers at the work session, two in favor, two opposed, made statements.

One of the opponents, Rabbi Zalman Bluming, of Durham-Chapel Hill Chabad, said that publicity about the proposed anti-Israel resolution had sparked broader concerns about what they perceived as implicit anti-Semitism.

“My phone has been ringing non-stop over the last week, [from] young adults that live here that feel unsafe, that feel marginalized, that feel as if for some reason they’ve been singled out,” he recalled.

JVP member Beth Bruch told council members that “training police with the Occupying power of an apartheid state will not help us.”

After the hearing, Schewel emailed another JVP leader saying that he thought that Bruch and the other resolution supporter who spoke “did a great job.”

More petition signatures were gathered, including from the local Palestinian community and from other leftist groups. Some wording changes were discussed with Schewel and other council members, and a revised version of the petition was scheduled for a full hearing at the regular April 16 evening session.

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson sent a mass email to constituents and other interested parties, saying “I do not believe that the statement we will be supporting defames or demonizes Israel. I do not believe that it is inherently anti-Israel, much less anti-Semitic, to criticize Israeli policies and practice.”

Still, the petition coalition produced no credible evidence to support their charges that Durham police had or planned to undergo significant militarized training abroad. Nonetheless, Israel supporters throughout the Research Triangle area went on full – if belated – alert and mobilized under a group called Jewish Voice4Israel. They were joined by the Triangle Jewish Federation, an umbrella organization representing seven congregations and nearly 11,000 people.

“I am deeply concerned that the rhetoric in the petition… portrays an anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiment,” said Jill Madsden, the Federation’s executive director.

The proposed resolution prompted a letter signed by 10 area rabbis and Jewish organizational leaders. They included some leaders who oppose the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, but who may have felt pressured into a tribal posture, which made some of them uncomfortable.
Nonetheless, the letter charged that the JVP petition did demonize Israel, charging that “The petition is biased and bad policy for Durham and its police department.”

In the eyes of some, the growing dispute rapidly took on the aspect of a Jewish family feud, and not without reason.

“I think the first step is to acknowledge the fact that the debate is not about anti-Semitism, and it is not between Jews and non-Jews, but internal to the Jewish community,” said Shai Ginsburg, Duke University professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.

“I actually do not think the debate is symmetrical, where both sides can negotiate on equal grounds to reach reconciliation,” said Ginsburg, who took no position on the BDS conversation. “I think they have to do serious soul searching about how they view the Jewish community, their role in it, and their relationship with people who think very differently about Israel than they.”

Mayor Schewel and others were “marginalized, even muted in the course of the debate,” he said, “and feel that whatever they do will be interpreted as taking sides and, hence, undercut their ability to mediate the different parties in their community and, in effect, to lead.”


On the plaza outside Durham City Hall on the evening April 16, 2018, feelings ran high, and the rhetoric occasionally turned vile. One protester named Jihad Shawwa, a Gaza native and retired engineer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, told the crowd: “These are savages that are controlling Israel. These are not human beings.”

Inside the chamber, Schewel read the portion of Chief Davis’ memo saying that the Durham department had never engaged in any training in Israel, and that none was planned. (Davis’ laudatory observations about her own training were deleted from the original memo). Still reading, Schewel continued that the city council “endorses this statement by Chief Davis and affirms as policy” its substance.

Schewel then read the rest of council’s proposed resolution (, which stated that 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.”

So, while the council’s wording did not itself mention Israel, by incorporating that section of the chief’s memo, the resolution effectively and specifically banned any cooperative police training with Israel.

If the resolution’s artful construction was designed to defuse the distracting dispute, it was nearly a complete and immediate failure, with both sides.

One pro-Israel website described it as “as a sly…sleight of hand.”

In the view of Israel advocate Robert Gutman, Schewel’s aim was to “cut the controversy short and rewrite the petition so it would not anger either side too much… Then he had the chutzpah to later say the word Israel does not appear in our statement.”

Some on the other side had the same view.

“Mayor Schewel may have created some confusion and problems for himself from both sides of the issue when he redrafted language the Durham2Palestine coalition originally submitted to the Council,” said Lee Mortimer, who had been lobbying council members in support of the original petition, and who spoke at the April 16 Council meeting. “Because his rewritten version shifted the focus to ‘any country in which Durham officers would receive military-style training,’ Israel’s role in the statement was unclear.”

The architects of the resolution had probably hoped that it would make the ensuing city council debate moot. But the controversy had taken on a life of its own. So supercharged was the issue that for the next three hours, nearly 50 speakers took to the podium – limited to just two minutes each – as if they hadn’t heard what Schewel just said.

Both sides continued firing away, all captured and preserved on YouTube.

While Palestinian and pro-BDS adherents claimed victory, speakers proceeded as if they were debating a real issue in the UN General Assembly, rather than an imagined municipal one. They engaged in surrogate, partisan dialogue on the Occupation and on Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Palestinians and anti-Zionist Jews denounced what they called atrocities by police and the Israel Defense Force in Gaza and the West Bank. Leftists attacked U.S. racism and imperialism.

Israel’s defenders, some from Voice4Israel, repeated their claim that singling out Israel in the resolution amounted to anti-Semitism.

Just two speakers seemed to take note of the resolution actually before the council.

As community activist Richard Ford, the fourth speaker, put it, the unfolding debate had become “much ado about nothing.” Twenty speakers later, Evelyn Mulder complained that the discussion “seems to be a response to a nonexistent problem,” that the city council had become “a pawn in a publicity initiative.” Still, the shadow play continued for more than an hour.

Just once did Schewel intervene in the debate, when an imam from Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam went on a rant about the “synagogue of Satan,” and complained about “the inordinate control that some Jews have over the political system in this city.”

Barely containing his anger, Schewel said, “I’m one of those Jews…. I can’t describe that as anything other than anti-Semitism … Don’t bring that in here again!”

Rabbi Greyber, who signed the letter opposing the resolution, later gave Schewel credit for his reaction, saying the mayor “did an excellent job in reprimanding and rejecting him.”

After the final speaker, Schewel and other council members voiced their frustration and exasperation that they had been distracted from more concrete and pertinent issues facing Durham police, like resisting ICE raids and reducing racial disparity in law enforcement.

Council Member Mark-Anthony Middleton, acknowledging that he initially signed the petition without fully considering its divisive implications, asked plaintively: “How did we get here?” He said the wording represented a compromise, yet wondered why the council was involving itself in foreign policy.

Council Member Javiera Caballero said, “I will vote for this statement,” while adding, “I understand that it’s hurtful.”

But other council members voiced their “solidarity” with the allegations about Israeli military and police actions. Mayor Pro tem Jillian Johnson, who worked out the final wording with Schewel, later told a reporter that she did 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.”

Schewel spoke last, saying he wanted to address both sides of the issue.

“I mainly want to speak to the Jews in the room, my fellow Jews,” he said, in particular the two-month campaign launched by the Jewish Voice for Peace. Based on the training taken by the city’s former police chief, “I feel like the folks from Jewish Voice for Peace, have given the impression that the Durham police department is intimately involved in training with the Israeli police. I feel like you have sought to blame Durham’s connection with the Israeli police for racially biased policing in Durham.”

This, he said, represented a basic misunderstanding of the source of American racism, and the enormous problem of racially discriminatory policing. “We live in a country with our own history of racial oppression. These have virtually nothing to do with Israeli policing and everything to do with our own,” later adding, “We have done that on our own.”

Schewel said he was doubly pained “that so many people are being given completely false information that our police are training with the Israeli army and that this should not happen again. This is so untrue. Our police have not been training with the Israeli Army. There’s no factual basis for that. There’s not even a rumor about it … It’s so damaging to police-community relations… The truth matters, especially in the era of Donald Trump. No desire to win political advantage justifies making up stuff that isn’t true about Durham’s police department.”

As a supporter of a two-state solution who has visited Israel twice, Schewel said, “If you want to make change in the American Jewish community’s response to what is happening in Israel and Palestine, then you have to be truthful. Remember who we are as Jews. I’m 67. Six years before I was born, the Holocaust wiped out half of us on earth…What made that possible were the lies people told about the Jews.”

Admitting that he had been on an emotional roller coaster over the previous weeks, he said, “I am a Jew and I am a Zionist. I believe in the existence of a Jewish State. I fear for its survival.”
These remarks, as well as Schewel’s reference to the Holocaust, infuriated some Israel supporters.

Only later did Schewel acknowledge that he has a complex history on Israel and Palestine. While he opposes BDS, he contributed to Jewish Voice for Peace five years earlier, as well as to other groups which have been critical of Likud policies and security measures in Gaza and the West Bank, like Jews for a Just Peace-North Carolina, J Street and the New Israel Fund.

Still speaking to the council and the packed chamber, the mayor then attempted to thread the needle on the larger issue before them. Schewel said he personally opposed any militarized training of Durham police by Israel. “I know the terrible traumas visited on us as a people, we are now visiting on others in Gaza and on the West Bank. And to me, 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 for the Palestinians. And I do not believe that we are. And when I say ‘we,’ I include myself.”

The city council then voted unanimously to endorse the resolution.


Reaction to the vote was predictable, with web platforms and publications in the U.S. and around the world, falling along local partisan fault lines. Area rabbis and Jewish community leaders called the resolution a “punch in the gut,” and called on the council to rescind its mention of Israel in the full resolution, which in its final form incorporated Chief Davis’ memo that no such training was contemplated, and Schewel’s statement that the council affirmed and endorsed that as policy.

“I had members of my community who were at the city council meeting who were traumatized,” said Rabbi Greyber.

Some more militant Israel supporters, like Deborah Friedman, placed the blame for the vote squarely on Schewel.

“If there had been a massive protest at city hall before this happened,” she said, the outcome might have been different. “Steve was dishonest with us…He really conned the Jewish community; they felt that they had a friend in the mayor. The Jewish community feels very betrayed.”

Nationally, the JVP lost no time in adopting the rallying call, #DoItLikeDurham.

For its part, “The Daily Wire,” affiliated with the pro-Israel public policy group Haym Solomon Center, cited the city council action as more evidence that “2018 has been a banner year for anti-Semitism in Durham, North Carolina.”

In the Durham-Chapel Hill Jewish community, there was even a whiff of a witch hunt. Several pro-Israel websites wrote that two local JVP supporters, whom they named, held positions as teachers, youth workers and synagogue board members with several area congregations, as well as the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill. A local Jewish Voice4Israel supporter, Dr. Amy Rosenthal, said in an interview, “I don’t think that anyone who actively advocates for the destruction of the only Jewish state in the world should be allowed ‘in the tent.’ Tolerance is one thing, but self-destruction is another.”

But Beth-El’s Rabbi Greyber demurred, addressing the witch hunt issue only obliquely. He said his congregation, where one of the two women works, “includes a diverse range of views and offers every Jew a place to study and pray.”


Initially, Steve Schewel’s election had been a source of pride within the area Jewish community. At Beth-El, where the newly elected mayor had once belonged, he was given an honor of blessing the Torah reading on the pulpit, and a blessing for his health was offered. “We gave him an aliyah, and made a mi sheberach,” recalled Rabbi Greyber. But in the wake of the controversy, across the Jewish community there was grumbling that they wished the mayor had alerted established, mainstream Jewish groups about the controversy in time for them to adequately mobilize.

Some Israel supporters felt more strongly, and for them the controversy degenerated into poisonous internecine warfare. These advocates pursued their fight with the Durham City Council as if they were in hand-to-hand combat with Hamas or Hezbollah – personified by Schewel. So wounding has the controversy been that, two years later, the mayor – who I have known for 50 years – politely declined to comment for this article. He explained in an email that revisiting the subject at this point would “only re-inflame the ‘angry Jews’ from all over the world who have finally stopped sending me hate emails, and it would re-inflame the situation here in the Jewish community.”

Not content to wage their efforts in a Jewish communal setting, Israel supporters launched what would become a protracted, seemingly unending, long march against Schewel and the policing resolution on several fronts: legal, bureaucratic and political.

Almost immediately, Israel supporters began appearing at the city council’s bi-monthly work sessions to berate Schewel and council members, repeatedly accusing them of anti-Semitism. Frustrated, Schewel limited future public comments on the subject at full sessions to one minute.

By August of 2019, approximately $20,000 has been spent defending against the various Israel-related litigation, according to Durham City Attorney Kimberly M. Rehberg.

On June 17, 2019, more than a year after its police vote, the Durham City Council took up a “Resolution Against White Supremacy, Anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia,” which called anti-Semitism “repugnant and repulsive.” To no one’s surprise, the hearing immediately turned into an abbreviated version of the April, 2018, session about policing and Israel. However, this time session was more sparsely attended, and there were only five speakers. Four, most of whom had spoken the first time around, opposed the measure.

Israel supporter Amy Rosenthal, accusing the council of “prejudice against the Jews,” advised them to “go on with your little resolution.” Deborah Friedman said that as a result of the April 16 vote, “our lives changed forever…Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”

Only one of the return speakers, Israeli anarchist Rann Bar-On, a Duke lecturer, supported the new resolution, and attacked the Likud government in his native country, including its alliance with the Trump administration.

Councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton, who drafted the new resolution, acknowledged that it was linked to the previous one on policing and Israel. He was obviously still smarting from blowback for what he thought was an inaccurate and unfair interpretation of his April 2018 vote. He defended his vote for earlier resolution, but made clear that if Police Chief Davis came to the council with a proposal for non-militarized training in Israel, he would support it. Again, the resolution passed.


In the weeks and months running up to the October, 2019, city primary, pro-Israel activists nursed their grudges, filing more lawsuits and looking toward the fall election. There was little likelihood of unseating the still popular Schewel in the nonpartisan primary, in which he had only token opposition for a second, two-year term. Instead, the mayor’s opponents mobilized voters against three incumbent city council members up for reelection, who were running as a slate. Pro-Israel activists supported three challengers who pledged to overturn the April, 2018, resolution.

“The major goal is to wound Schewel by removing his allies,” said Robert Gutman, one of the leading pro-Israel activists, before the vote. Gutman said he would seize the opportunity to vote against Schewel in the future – “anytime in my lifetime” – if he had credible opposition.

Notwithstanding, all three incumbent candidates survived the primary and were reelected in November – although one by less than 500 votes. Schewel’s $95 million affordable housing bond issue also passed handily, with the promise of building, preserving or refurbishing 2,000 units for low and middle- income residents.

However, the wild card for Steve Schewel’s long term future is race and Durham’s identity politics, rather than the feelings of disgruntled members of the Jewish community.

Durham’s last Jewish mayor, E. J. “Mutt” Evans, served six terms in the 1950s and early 1960s. Evans is still revered as a moderate civil rights advocate whose conciliatory and bridge-building skills helped the city avoid upheaval. However, Durham has changed dramatically since then, and even more so over the four decades of Schewel’s rise. It is now 38 percent African American, 15 percent Latinx and 5 percent Asian, many of them young and relative newcomers. A majority of the council members are young women of color, and only two are white, including Schewel. Thus, despite his reelection, Schewel may turn out to be a transitional figure, much like Atlanta’s Jewish Mayor Sam Massell in the early 1970s, as Durham moves definitively from white leadership. On the other hand, the boom-fed white influx may provide him with a reprieve.


For the Jewish, pro-Israel, partisans, this was an all-consuming struggle, yet it is not clear how important and lasting the controversy was for those not directly involved. Two Jewish groups, each with a distinct and opposite national and international political agenda, tried to make their symbolic points on a local level. Inasmuch as this debate is likely to be replicated around the country in the future, what lessons does Durham provide – if any?

These BDS-related controversies, said Duke’s Jentleson, are an outgrowth of the early 1970s movement to “think globally, act locally,” involving issues like ecology, opposing the Vietnam War and, later, boycotting the apartheid regime in South Africa. In more recent years, similar measures opposed the Iraq War and engaged on climate change, including divesting municipal investments in carbon-based industries and investing in green technologies. Around the country, localities declared themselves sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants, and refused to cooperate with ICE raids.

Absent national referenda on policy issues which would allow people to express themselves on the national level about important national and international issues; and in the face of a gerrymandered and often paralyzed Congress, or a timid, tepid, or temporizing president; this is a legitimate, grass roots response. Of course, on issues where there is no consensus, much less unanimity, like BDS, the debate runs the risk of becoming contentious, as it did and Durham, and has elsewhere.

In these rare, superheated cases, taking such positions “doesn’t always lead to good policy and good decisions,” Jentleson says, especially when they turn rancorous and divisive.

Even so, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as the debates ventilate issues and bring them to a larger audience.

“If this were brewing in another city,” Jentleson said, “I would say to wait, think about this as a complicated issue that people have strong feelings about. Let’s not make a decision now. This deserves more deliberation in the age we live, in which everything is too rapid. Let’s give this a little more thought. Let’s think about what’s right on the issue. Is this our responsibility as mayor and city manager and city council members? This might have a broader impact than we intend.”

“I think there was mischief making on both sides,” said one area rabbi, who after all this time, still asked not to be identified. “One side beating up on the other…. It was a major distraction from what our government officials should be doing.”


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