What began as an embarrassment for White, a first-term lawmaker from the District’s most impoverished ward, turned into a test of the ability of city officials to handle the explosive race and class resentments that can arise in a city whose prosperity masks a troubling gap between its haves and have-nots.
Critics say it is a test that elected leaders have failed or at best barely passed.
It was only last week that the D.C. Council — comprising Democrats and two left-leaning independents — unanimously condemned hate speech against Jews. Their statement, made at a news conference, came after a rabbi barged into a meeting of lawmakers to denounce their inaction.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), has also come under fire for her mild response to one of her political appointees and former campaign operative, Joshua Lopez, who organized a rally on the steps of the District’s government building where a speaker representing the Nation of Islam lobbed anti-Semitic slurs at a Jewish council member. Bowser denounced those remarks but resisted calls that she remove Lopez, who eventually resigned.
D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), the Jewish lawmaker who was targeted at the rally, said elected officials’ reticence stems from the uncomfortable way in which the episode has exposed the viability of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in the poor and overwhelmingly African American neighborhoods of Southeast Washington.
Those areas — where the Nation of Islam has historically been active, and where it still commands allegiance among residents who remember its community involvement at the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s — have seen comparably little benefit from the District’s rapid economic expansion.
White’s supporters have frequently cast criticism of the council member as attacks on a popular African American leader who is calling attention to the ways in which his constituents have been left behind.
White’s comments about the Rothschilds “were made by the person who represents the poorest parts of our city, and whose residents feel like they haven’t benefited, and the remarks were directed at a community that’s largely affluent here, and seen as powerful,” Silverman said. “It gets into these difficult issues about race and class, and equity and religion. These are all things that are difficult to talk about.”
Silverman, who is running for reelection citywide and has often been an ally of White’s on the council, wrote in an open letter to city officials last week that White “shouldn’t have to be the lone leader to bear the burden” of what she described as “a collective, overall toleration for anti-Jewish sentiment” among the District’s elected leaders.
“I will admit even I’ve been guilty of letting anti-Jewish remarks slide, because I didn’t want to cause friction or disruption,” she wrote.
White, who declined to comment for this article, has attended a bagels-and-lox breakfast and Passover Seder as he tries to mend fences with Jewish leaders. He and his staff even visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Southwest Washington. But White left his tour early, confusing the rabbi who arranged it and drawing further criticism.
Further initiatives are planned in the coming weeks between Jewish groups and African American leaders. But some question whether the efforts just paper over lasting fissures.
“I don’t think we’ve gone anywhere, and part of me thinks it’s gotten worse,” said Michael Bekesha, a Republican candidate for the Ward 6 council seat who has called for White’s resignation.
Bekesha, who is Jewish, said that the council’s action was “too little, too late” and that events had spiraled out of control because elected officials remained silent for such an extended period of time.
Many of city’s leaders rose to their positions during the past five years, after a wave of corruption scandals swept several politicians from office. That period has been marked for the most part by tidy, low-drama governance and an economic boom that has left tax coffers overflowing. Political debates, often focused on how best to steer those dollars to progressive programs, tend to be more technocratic than visceral.
By contrast, the controversy over White — which was compounded by the revelation that the Ward 8 lawmaker donated $500 from his constituent services fund to a Chicago rally at which Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan denounced Jews — has often seemed a throwback to the more emotionally charged era when former mayor and council member Marion Barry Jr. presided over the city’s political life.
White made the parallel explicit last month in a 36-minute Facebook Live video filmed at Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues in Southeast, in the heart of the poor and overwhelmingly black neighborhoods he represents.
Invoking the late Barry — who also represented Ward 8 and often returned to themes of race and personal persecution when facing scandal — White refused to apologize for his ties to the Nation of Islam and suggested his supporters would flood city hall if his colleagues tried to reprimand him.
“I am not resigning, I’m not backing down, I’m not discouraged, I’m not depressed, so run all the media stories you want because my people are going to support me,” White said.
Barry often marshaled the volatile forces of race-based politics, arguing that the city’s white economic elites were lined up against the interests of black residents. But he did so while deftly retaining the support of some liberal whites west of Rock Creek Park, and his famous tirades against the news media were offset by phone calls in which he sought to charm or pressure the reporters he was bashing in public.
By contrast, White’s defiant message was tailored to his political base in Ward 8. In the absence of a sure hand to calm tensions citywide, worse was to come.
Five days after White posted his Facebook video, Lopez, then a former Bowser campaign aide whom the mayor appointed to the board of the D.C. Housing Authority, organized an event he billed as a “unity” rally in support of White. White had no role in organizing the event and did not attend.
It was there that Abdul Khadir Muhammad, a Farrakhan representative, called Silverman a “fake Jew” and referred to Jews as “termites.”
Bowser said she asked Lopez to apologize, but she did not call for his resignation. Only five of the council’s 13 members called for Bowser to dismiss him. Privately, some in city hall said they were stunned that the mayor did not put a stop to the rally beforehand.
“The mayor was in a position to put her foot down and make some kind of declarative statement at numerous junctures throughout this wildfire, and she didn’t,” said Chuck Thies, a political consultant and frequent Bowser critic. “I think they were trying to figure out how to politically lead during this moment, and this moment didn’t call for political leadership. It called for moral leadership.”
Asked for comment, Bowser aides pointed to a long message she wrote last week on the Facebook page of Shmuel Herzfeld, an Orthodox rabbi who had described her inaction as “personally painful.”
“I do not believe that the rise in anti-Semitic remarks over the last several years can be attributed to two individuals, nor do any of us think their punishment would solve the problem,” Bowser wrote. “As mayor, it is my hope that the name calling among officials and calls for retribution do not obscure the real issues.”
Herzfeld — who interrupted a meeting of District lawmakers Tuesday, shouting “shame on you” — said in an interview that both the mayor and council had taken the easy way out, mouthing platitudes rather than condemning specific actions.
“I don’t think we as citizens should allow our elected officials to make political calculations when it comes to bigotry and hatred,” said Herzfeld, of Ohev Sholom Synagogue in Northwest Washington. “We have to just demand that there’s a forceful confrontation, and not just through anodyne comments that aren’t really cutting to the core of what was said, and who said it and how it was said.”
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.