A Learning Opportunity for All

Written by Rachel Kohn on . Posted in Community News

In the past six weeks, DC Councilmember Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) has been called out for claiming that “the Rothschilds” manipulate the weather; ducking out early from a subsequent tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; and making a $500 donation from city funds to the Nation of Islam, an organization known for its anti-Semitic rhetoric.

In a statement released April 20, DC Councilmember Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who is Jewish, addressed White’s constituents.

“To the people of Ward 8 who know too well how hard it is to rise up from bigotry, hate, and dangerous stereotypes, I ask that you understand how hurtful this has been, and that you too, hold your Councilmember accountable,” she said.

On Monday, April 23, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser called on White to make an unequivocal statement denouncing anti-Semitism. “The people of the District of Columbia don’t tolerate hate or anti-Semitism in any way, shape, or form, and I believe that the councilmember has to make that abundantly clear as well,” said Bowser.

The saga began when White uploaded a video to Facebook on March 16 in which he blamed the unseasonably snowy weather on climate manipulation by the Rothschilds, a European Jewish banking family and longtime subject of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

This was not a one-off incident. Video footage from a DC Council breakfast in February, released by the council on March 19, showed White matter-of-factly describing the Rothschilds as controlling the World Bank and holding financial sway over the U.S. federal government. Bowser and others have disturbed expressions on their faces, but no one addresses his statements.

After the story went viral and drew the attention of organizations like the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington, White made a public apology and attended a Passover Seder with Jewish DC Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I-At-Large). White said he was unaware of the connection between the conspiracy theories he referenced and anti-Semitism.

Following his unfinished tour of the Holocaust Museum, which received critical coverage in the Washington Post, reports emerged of White’s $500 donation to the Nation of Islam from a constituent services account. According to DC Code, funds from these types of accounts “shall be expended only for an activity, service, or program which provides … services to the residents of the District of Columbia,” including “community events sponsored by the constituent-service program or an entity other than the District government.”

The donation is in “clear violation” of the DC code, said lawyer Steven Lieberman, since it went to the organization’s Chicago headquarters. Lieberman is filing an ethics complaint against White on behalf of DC resident Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld.

In an April 20 statement, Silverman acknowledged the challenge posed by the reality that the Nation of Islam “does needed anti-violence and economic empowerment work in communities like Ward 8” while at the same time “it is undergirded by Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic rhetoric, which in no way can be tolerated or condoned.”

“To me, this is not about black-Jewish relations,” said Rabbi Herzfeld, rabbi of Ohev Sholom - The National Syangogue. Rather, as a DC resident, he is deeply disappointed and very concerned. “It seems like it was against the law, and that should not be business as usual.”

Rabbi Batya Glazer, the JCRC’s Director of DC and Maryland Interfaith Relations as well as DC Government and Community Relations, was with White, his staff, and their tour guide at the Holocaust Museum.

“I can say that while I consider his decision to walk away from the tour extremely problematic ... I do believe he was sincere,” said Rabbi Glazer. “His participation in the trip demonstrated his willingness to learn. I don’t think I understood how little was understood before I went to the museum with the group, but he genuinely wanted to go.”

The prospect of having reporters present while trying to have a private and meaningful learning experience was something that concerned White greatly, she said. While they were assured by the museum that no official media accompaniment would be allowed, the museum is a public space and the Washington Post reporter was able to “just show up” and shadow the group.

“I wish [White] had taken some time, when he did speak to the reporter, to explain why he walked away,” she said.

Rabbi Glazer’s experience with White’s staff during the duration of the tour offered a window into what Holocaust education looks like outside the Jewish community: When it is limited to a semester or field trip as a child, it doesn’t leave people with the same understanding as learning about it in full or as an adult, she said.

Additionally, Rabbi Glazer has found in recent conversations with “really smart, engaged people” that the role of conspiracy theories in Jewish persecution is not well-known outside of the the Jewish community. White told her he was unaware there was a difference between the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers, and didn’t know there were any implications in the Rothschild name at all.

“Things that are very obvious to the Jewish community are not obvious to everyone” she said.

Asked for her thoughts about “the bigotry of low expectations,” a phrase being used on social media to counter those excusing White for his statements because of his underprivileged background, Rabbi Glazer said: “It’s true there are things that one should have known; but at the same time, there are lots of things that we all ‘should have known’ that we didn’t know.”

“The Rothschilds being a Jewish name? I don’t know that that’s so obvious. Knowing that anit-Semitism is dangerous? That’s an easier reach,” she said.

“Black and Jewish communities have a history of overcoming oppression and working together to combat racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry,” said Councilmember Silverman in her April 20 statement. “Councilmember White and I have had difficult conversations about race, religion, and hatred these past few weeks, and it is clear that we need to have many more … I have been talking to Jewish leaders and others about having more regular get-togethers in which we break bread and truly build relationships to make our city stronger.”

Councilman White’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

By Rachel Kohn

 Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.