Was ‘Mensch Mayor’ Steve Schewel Good for Durham’s Jews?

A successful Jewish mayor's unexpected descent into political struggle
A smiling, clean-shaven man with white hair stands in front of foliage.

The panel last Sunday morning at the Judea Reform synagogue in Durham, North Carolina provided what has become standard, if inevitably uncomfortable, fare for American Jewish congregations: “How do we talk to our school-aged kids about antisemitism?” Outside, the gray sky was raw and rainy. Reflecting the new reality of heightened concern about safety, patrol cars from both the county sheriff and the city police were visible in the parking lot of the campus, which includes the Jewish community center and day school. 

By contrast, the mood among the 75 people gathered in the glass-walled social hall was warm and reflective. The panel included several rabbis, an educator and a mental health professional and the discourse was civil and tightly focused on the topic. Only once did a panelist mention, in passing, that opposition to Israel “sometimes spilled over into anti-Semitism.” That was congregation member and former Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, whose civic involvement stretched over forty years, making him the pride of Judea Reform.

The backstory for Schewel’s appearance on this rainy morning, however, was anything but warm. Just two days earlier, an embittered member of the congregation, former journalist Kathryn Wolf, (contributor to the Forward, Tablet and Jewish World) had sent an open letter, via email, to every member in the temple’s directory, harshly attacking not only Schewel but also the congregation’s Rabbi, Matthew Soffer, along with the congregation itself (for among other things sponsoring a discussion for teens on the nature of “white privilege;”) and even Moses Mendelssohn, the 18th-century father of Haskalah (“Jewish Enlightenment”).

But her venom was concentrated on Schewel, a 71-year-old progressive Jewish Democrat who she charged was “infamous for purportedly spearheading, as mayor, an historic boycott against Israel…[thereby helping to unleash] hatred of Israel and its supporters.”                 

For many Jews in the Research Triangle area of North CarolinaDurham, Raleigh and Chapel Hillthis latest revival of the bitter controversy seemed like a video-game zombie emerging from its hiding place: Here we go again.

*** 

Elected in 2017, Mayor Schewel inherited a promising civic environment. The economy was well into its fourth decade of an accelerating economic and cultural boom. After he took office, Apple announced it would locate a half billion facility in the nearby Research Triangle Park, and Google, Oracle and Lenovo have offices in Durham. The diverse city of just under 300,000 routinely ranks high in most lists of desirable places to live and work. 

However, like other Sun Belt cities experiencing dramatic growth, Durham encountered attendant problems: gentrification at the expense of affordable housing, displacing vulnerable African-American homeowners and renters; crime and the racial dimensions of policing; and the sometimes divisive rise of identity politics.

Schewel’s election capped a lengthy career in local politics and journalism. The year after he took office, however, he faced an unexpected challenge when he found himself in the middle of an incongruous fight over the purported training of Durham police in Israel which rapidly devolved into a proxy battle between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli partisans, most of whom connected the issue to the incendiary Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Schewel was no stranger to political action, nor Jewish involvement. He had been an activist leader as a student at Duke in the 1970s, and at different times Schewel has been an active member of both Reform and Conservative congregations in Durham. He describes himself as a long-standing Zionist in the J Street camp, dating back to the 1970s when he was part of the Breira movement, which brought together Jews, Muslims, Arabs and progressives in search of peace in the Mideast. Since well before being elected mayor, he has tried to walk the line between his own progressive Mideast politics, and angry pro-Israel activists. He supports a two-state solution and opposes BDS, while criticizing excesses of the military occupation in the West Bank.

But none of this insulated him when, in early 2018, a petition generated by local members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) demanded that Durham ban police training with Israel, something other U.S. cities, including Atlanta, have done in recent years.  

At its core this demand was a solution in search of a problem. No such training program took place in Durham, and none was ever even contemplated. Schewel insists he was blind-sided by their petition and says the fight was almost entirely symbolic. Yet for a time it divided Schewel’s political base of progressive activists and many Jewish liberals. “I had no idea it would blow up like it did,” says Schewel. “It was very personal; there was a lot of heat.”

Normally unflappable and courteous, Schewel admitted losing his temper twice during the controversy.  During one pivotal city council debate on the petition, a speaker who identified himself as an imam from Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, went on a diatribe about the “synagogue of Satan” in which he railed against “the inordinate control that some Jews have over the political system in this city.”

“I’m one of those Jews!,” Schewel snapped back. “I can’t describe that as anything other than antisemitism…Don’t bring that in here again!”

“I slammed down my gavel,” Schewel recalled, adding that for him to do something like that, “You’ve got to push me pretty hard.”

At another public comment session of the council, well after the controversial resolution had been passed, a pro-Israel group tried to present him with a sarcastic trophy, engraved with the words, “BDS MAYOR OF AMERICA—Scapegoating Jews since 2018.” Schewel ordered the speaker to remove the trophy with the warning that if it wasn’t moved, the speaker would be ejected.

“I am a Jew, and I am a Zionist,” he said, exasperated, at the city council hearing where the resolution was debated. “I believe in the existence of a Jewish State. I fear for its survival.”

With the goal of ending the controversy, Schewel put forward a compromise resolution, which pro-Israel activists felt was duplicitous. For the hard-line, pro-Palestinian activists, the resolution was insufficient. But the results were trumpeted nationally and internationally among partisan Zionist and anti-Zionist groups and websites, for their own purposes. Schewel was even vilified by some members of the two local congregations where he had been active over the years, as well as by the local Jewish federation.

“Steve Schewel looks to political expediency and aligns himself with votes, not what is best for his multiple constituencies,” said Dr. Stanley Robboy, a Duke Medical School faculty member and pro-Israel activist, who left Judea Reform in protest to what he felt was the congregation’s anti-Zionism. The crucial city council hearing itself was “a repugnant sham,” Robboy added. “The entire Jewish community, in particular, suddenly felt threatened.”

For Schewel, a committed optimist, there was a bright side to the battle of divisive rhetoric. “In retrospect, it was painful and harsh, but it was a discussion we need more of…Where does such discussion happen, except for the UN Security Council?”

 ***

Long after the issue had faded for most, Schewel felt the lingering hard and hurt feelings. Following a handy reelection in 2019, he decided not to run again in 2021, proud of the numerous programs initiated during his administration, particularly in combating gentrification inherent in Durham’s boom, and in reforming police practices. “Steve Schewel was the finest mayor the City of Durham has had in many decades,” said former North Carolina State Sen. Wib Gulley, who served two terms as Durham’s mayor in the late 1980s, and is credited with launching the city’s rise. “With strong public engagement and grace, Steve lifted up and defined what a mayor can do,” Gulley said. 

Finally, out of office, Schewel thought he was finished with his messy fight with pro-Israel activists. But a hard-fought battle this spring for an open U.S. House seat, to succeed U.S. Rep. David Price, a long-serving congressman in a safely blue district, brought Schewel back to the fray.

National and local pro-Israel activists were spooked by one of the Democratic primary candidates, first-term Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, the first female Muslim elected to office in North Carolina. They feared she might join the “The Squad”—three members of which endorsed her—in opposing support for the Jewish State. So AIPAC and several allied AIPAC-aligned PACs poured more than $3 million into the Democratic primary.

Angered by AIPAC’s involvement, Schewel risked reopening the old wounds and further alienating old adversaries in the Jewish community by denouncing the effort he saw as trying to buy the election.

“That much PAC money—that’s wrong,” he said in an interview. “I’m totally disappointed with their basic premise on how to support Israel…Those folks, they just don’t care about the Palestinians. I do, and guess what? Most American Jews do too.”

Allam was decisively defeated by State Senator Valerie Foushee, who is African American, and who was endorsed by the AIPAC PAC. Previously, Schewel had endorsed a Latina city council member as his successor as mayor, but she was trounced by an Elaine O’Neal, an African American woman who was a judge. “I’ve endorsed a lot of people who’ve lost,” he said. “Durham is a rough and tumble political town.”

What advice, if any, would Schewel give to other Southern Jewish mayors in small and middle-sized cities—like developer Craig Greenberg, who was recently elected mayor of Louisville, Kentucky—to avoid stumbling into a BDS shoot-em up?

The mayors, Schewel said, should ask themselves, “Is this issue something that is truly relevant to what is going on in your city? If it isn’t, there’s no reason to get involved. If it is, hit it head on.”

PHOTO CREDIT: SARAH M. BROWN 

Durham-based journalist and author Mark I. Pinsky, a graduate of Duke University, has reported on Southern politics and Southern Jewry for national publications and platforms since 1972.

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