The Bull in Durham: Jewish Leadership Betrayal

It’s clear that a Jewish community is morally confused when its synagogue leadership invites a BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) activist to speak on a panel that will advise parents how to talk to their kids about antisemitism.
February 10, 2023
Steve Schewel (center) with an anti-Israel candidate (left), Nida Allam, and (right), a city council member who voted for the BDS resolution, Javiera Caballero. Photo Credit: Nida Allam Twitter Feed, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

It’s clear that a Jewish community is morally confused when its synagogue leadership invites a BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) activist to speak on a panel that will advise parents how to talk to their kids about antisemitism. Evidently, such leaders do not understand the full scope of antisemitism that Jews now encounter, or perhaps they are simply unwilling to face it. Whether it’s the result of ignorance or denial, this poses a threat to their congregation and future generations.

On January 8 of this year, Judea Reform (JR), a synagogue in Durham, NC convened just such a panel. The synagogue invited Steve Schewel, who is a JR member and also the former mayor of Durham, to be an honored member of the panel.

Yet when he was mayor of Durham, Schewel guided the city council into passing a BDS resolution against Israel, unleashing antisemitism in our town. Here’s a short version of a long story:

In 2018, the radical anti-Israel Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) circulated a petition demanding that Durham never send police officers to train in Israel, claiming that police exchanges with Israel drive officers here in America to “terrorize black and brown communities.” This is in fact not only untrue, but also it is a blood libel to charge Jews with helping police brutalize minorities. That Durham had no plans for training with Israel didn’t matter to the defamers, who thought they could get this passed in Durham and make it a model for other cities to adopt. They had good reason to think they’d be successful: Mayor Schewel has a history of supporting JVP.

Schewel worked hard behind the scenes to ensure a win for JVP’s libel. First, at the request of JVP and their allied groups, he agreed to waive the standard 10-day rule so the petition could be presented just three days later, on April 5. This would allow the item to be formally voted on in the next city council session. It also made life easier for some of the petitioners who had already arranged to take off work on the 5th; another date would have inconvenienced them. Also, scheduling the session according to regular town rules would have pushed it to a time that university students—said to be “key participants in this effort” by petition leaders—would have left campus. Finally, Schewel’s accommodation to the petitioners placed the session during Pesach, when many of the Jews who would want to defend Israel were otherwise occupied. However, there was no urgency, since training with Israel was not even planned. Schewel of course understood all of this. He knew that such a last-minute scheduling would prevent the pro-Israel community, including local rabbis, from having time to prepare and stand up against JVP’s defamation. The tactic of scheduling important resolutions damaging to Jews over Jewish holidays has become common, especially in academia. Although he had already put JVP on for April 5, he waited until late April 3 to tell the rabbis that it was only “quite possible that the council will take it up preliminarily.”

Having tilted the game board, Schewel fully expected the item to pass on to a formal vote. He wrote his resolution on April 4, so that on the 5th when it passed the work session it would go to press immediately. Schewel’s resolution twisted the testimony of Durham’s police chief Cerelyn Davis, who actually praised the training she received in Israel before coming to Durham. Davis also related that there had been no effort during her tenure to initiate such training. Schewel’s resolution stated that Davis “affirms as policy that the Durham Police Department will not engage in such exchanges.” This was simply not true.

The next step was a formal city council vote, which took place on April 16. Three hours were given for public comment, and during this time hate-filled lies about Israel and Jews came out in full force. We heard statements like “IDF solders incarcerate, mutilate, and often kill young Palestinian men to prevent them from fighting back against apartheid,” “Israel turns a blind eye to virtually every brutality it commits,” and “the Israeli army is one of the best equipped, best fed terrorist organizations.” By April 16 area rabbis were able to send a letter to the city council condemning the petition, but their pleas to dismiss it were ignored.

The resolution boycotting Israel passed unanimously. After the vote, Schewel, the Jewish mayor, compared Israelis to Nazis, saying “the terrible traumas visited on us we are now visiting on the people of Gaza.”

Throughout the process Schewel acted as an innocent caught in the middle of a controversy. On April 16 he posed as neutral and unbiased, chastising both JVP and the pro-Israel community. However, through FOIA requests we learned that Schewel was never impartial. A city council member wrote, “Our mayor LED this effort with great courage and erudition.” The city council member reported that there was even an effort to table the Israel resolution, but Schewel refused.

The Jews of Durham paid for this betrayal almost immediately: After the JVP win, antisemitic posters were found in public Durham locations, and Jew hatred continued unabated.

Imagine the shock then, in 2023, when we learned that Schewel—who was not only duplicitous about his role, but also helped unleash antisemitism in our area—would be invited by Judea Reform to be on the “Antisemitism Panel Discussion Communicating with Kids.”

Members of the community who had been betrayed by Schewel, and some JR members as well, expressed their outrage to the synagogue leadership. One JR member, Kathryn Wolf, sent a congregation-wide letter that began, “With due respect, there is a rot in this house.” She outlined Schewel’s complicity in the damage done to the community, along with other anti-Israel actions JR had taken, for example, hosting talks by people who claim that Israel is an apartheid state and only supports gay rights to “pink-wash” supposed atrocities. JR also planned a discussion on “disturbing parallels between Nazi concentration camps and U.S. detention centers.” The synagogue gave Schewel a Volunteer of the Year award and hosted a JStreet speaker while refusing a ZOA one. They even planned a session inviting Jewish teens to discuss their white privilege, promoting an ideology that casts Jews as oppressors.

They even planned a session inviting Jewish teens to discuss their white privilege, promoting an ideology that casts Jews as oppressors.

Wolf, a member of their Social Action Committee, had proposed raising money for victims of antisemitic violence and teaching parents about anti-Israel instruction in schools. In her letter to the JR community, she reminded them of JR’s absurd reason to deny her proposal: “providing a platform for a conversation around antisemitism and anti-Zionism will only serve to divide our sacred community.” She said the threat to Jews is existential. She urged the rabbi to clean house. It was only after years of having her polite entreaties ignored by the JR leadership, and seeking others who share her concerns, that Wolf made the decision to send her letter.

The response? JR sent out a mass e-mail to the congregation condemning “a congregant who chose to disparage our community, our Rabbi, and a fellow congregant (Schewel) in a very public manner.” Soon thereafter another mass e-mail went out stating “the Board of Trustees wishes to state its unanimous, unequivocal support for Rabbi Soffer, who was unkindly and unfairly targeted in a congregant’s inaccurate e-mail … we also want to offer our support to congregant (and former Durham Mayor) Steve Schewel.” Schewel got to play the victim again. Wolf reported that she was excluded from both e-mails.

The panel discussion went on as planned. JR’s Rabbi Matthew Soffer was proud to host Schewel. Others, including the University of North Carolina’s Rabbi Melissa Simon, and Duke University’s Director of Jewish Life at Duke, Joyce Gordon, seemed happy to sit with him. The focus was entirely on right-wing issues. There was no discussion regarding left-wing, Islamic, or minority attacks on Jews. Schewel downplayed the problem, saying that antisemitism is “important and real but it isn’t dominant” so children should be reassured. Questions submitted in person by the audience, were not addressed, and no discussion involving the audience was allowed. The Jewish tradition of discussing different points of view seemed lost during the event.

Perhaps Rabbi Soffer and JR leaders were not aware of Schewel’s dubious history. Even so, rather than shutting down concerns from Wolf and others, perhaps they could have taken the time to listen instead.

Some congregants may not know what BDS is, and how it discriminates against Israel and Jews. They may not understand the irony of inviting a BDS activist, who has himself engendered antisemitism in our community, to be on a panel advising parents about antisemitism. Many in Reform and Conservative communities are ill-informed about the full scope of threats to our communities that endanger American Jews. The most important way a Jewish community can repair the world, or tikkun olam, is to educate Jews and non-Jews alike about ALL forms of antisemitism. The future of American Jewry depends on it.

Amy Rosenthal is a believer in peace in the Middle East and co-founder of the North Carolina Coalition for Israel.

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