GREENSBORO, N.C. (CN) – A North Carolina Jewish group and rabbi claim in a federal lawsuit that the Durham City Council’s adoption of a policy barring city police from training in Israel spreads anti-Semitism and deepens racial tensions.
The North Carolina Coalition for Israel and Rabbi Jerome Fox filed the complaint Tuesday in Greensboro federal court against the city of Durham, its mayor, City Council members and the Durham Human Relations Commission.
Durham residents Kathryn Wolf and Perri Shalom-Liberty are also listed as plaintiffs in the 36-page complaint, filed by Brooks Pierce attorney D.J. O’Brien III, that accuses the city of promoting anti-Semitic rhetoric and violating open-meetings laws.
The Durham City Council voted in April 2018 to approve a policy statement banning the city’s police department from engaging in international exchanges where officers could receive “military-style training” from foreign countries.
It became the first U.S. city to ban its police from these exchanges, specifically barring training in Israel.
The council voted 6-0 that night to adopt the statement, which explains “such exchanges do not support the kind of policing we want here in the City of Durham.”
Tuesday’s lawsuit questions the intentions of city officials who voted to single out Israel in their statement, which did not mention any other country specifically.
The issue arose after a coalition called Demilitarize Durham2Palestine, which includes the group Jewish Voice for Peace, created an online petition in 2017 asking the city to “immediately halt any partnerships that the Durham Police Department has or might enter into with the Israeli Defense Forces and/or the Israel Police.” Jewish Voice for Peace is an activist organization focused on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
According to local NBC affiliate WRAL-TV, former Police Chief Jose Lopez once participated in a weeklong training session in Israel, but there have been no reported exchanges since the current chief, C.J. Davis, took office in 2016.
Proponents of the petition claim racial bias and militarization of police could arise from the adoption of Israeli-style tactics.
“Defendants and organizations such as Demilitarize Durham2Palestine conflate issues of police brutality in the United States against African-Americans with Jewish and Israeli allegations of behavior which are patently false,” the lawsuit states., “The purpose of defendants is to create a negative sentiment against Israel, the Jewish people, and those Jewish residents of the City of Durham who support the State of Israel.”
According to the complaint, multiple versions of the petition presented to the city council in Durham falsely stated that Israel training “helps the police terrorize black and brown communities here in the U.S,” driving a wedge between Jewish residents and other groups who are in Durham’s minority.
The mayor’s office, Jewish Voice for Peace and the North Carolina Coalition for Israel did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.
Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, who is Jewish, told attendees of the meeting last April that the city never included that language in its drafting of the statement. He criticized both sides for undercutting trust by exaggerating the facts.
Schewel acknowledged the rhetoric was false during the meeting, in which he also said Jewish Voice for Peace unfairly sought to blame Durham’s connection with Israeli police for racially biased policing in the city.
“I feel really strongly that this is a basic misunderstanding of how racialized policing happens in America, including in Durham. We live in our own country with a history of racial oppression and all of our institutions,” he told attendees, according to the meeting record. “The problems with discriminatory policing in our country which have been enormous and which continue to be enormous have virtually nothing to do with Israeli society and everything to do with our own.”
Schewel sided with proponents of the petition in agreeing that foreign military influence on local police was not in Durham’s best interest, but he argued that the rhetoric in the petition falsely portrayed the police force as being heavily involved in Israeli training programs.
In addition to claims of discrimination, the plaintiffs also accuse the city of violating open-meetings laws by not including the police-training policy on its meeting agenda.