The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some wanted a D.C. Council member to resign for his anti-Semitic comments. Jewish leaders invited him to Seders instead.

Then-D.C. Council candidate Trayon White Sr. in 2016. White came under fire for his recent comments about Jewish financiers, but he has also been invited by Jewish religious leaders to attend multiple Seders next week for Passover. (J. Lawler Duggan for The Washington Post)

In the week since comments surfaced from D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. suggesting that shady Jewish financiers control the weather and the federal government, White has been slammed across social media in the United States and around the world, and asked by some to resign.

He has also been invited to have a dialogue by many Jewish leaders in the city and to attend multiple Seders next week for Passover, the Jewish holiday centered on a ritual meal that reminds Jews of their biblical experience as slaves and encourages them to consider issues of oppression and freedom. White will attend a Seder next Friday, the first night of the week-long holiday. He was invited by council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who is Jewish.

While rabbis and other leaders have condemned the decades-old, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory White espoused as dangerous, overall the posture of many in Jewish officialdom toward White has been one of forgiveness and welcome.  This may seem like an unlikely reaction — even with White’s subsequent apology — but it stems from a long and emotional history of  relations between African Americans and Jews, a desire for like-minded allies in the divisive Trump era and a new generation of leaders with a different perspective on prejudice.

[I was raised an Orthodox Jew. Then someone from Reddit sent me Stephen Hawking’s book]

Interviews with Jewish spiritual and political leaders show a deep yearning and “nostalgia,” as one put it, for Jewish activism during the civil rights era for racial justice, particularly in 2018, when white supremacy is publicly on the rise and racial equity gaps remain mammoth.

But White’s comments have also opened a broader conversation about anti-Semitism in the District. Phil Mendelson (D), chairman of the D.C. Council, will convene a public breakfast meeting Tuesday with the council —  including White — and about 20 Jewish community leaders, said Rabbi Batya Glazer, government liaison for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. Glazer, who worked with Mendelson to organize the meeting, said the council members’ initial “clear lack of reaction” to White’s comments is “disturbing.” The breakfast will be held at 8:30 a.m. in the council building.

Rabbi Aaron Alexander, co-leader of Adas Israel synagogue in Northwest Washington  — who  reached out to White within hours of hearing about the council member’s comments — said at a time when hateful speech is common in the United States, there must be a distinguishing between different types of comments. He noted that a neo-Nazi who denies the Holocaust won the congressional GOP primary in Illinois this week.

“When a blatant hateful neo-Nazi gets 20,000 votes, the Jewish community is not clamoring to sit down for a conversation, which doesn’t surprise me,” Alexander said. “We make a mistake when we conflate all kinds of anti-Semitism into one bundle. And then push it away and pretend there is nothing we can do but yell and scream. This city is divided in all kinds of ways. And we have work to do; let’s just say between Ward 3 and Wards 7 and 8 in terms of reconnecting deep relationships. Relationships that account for the fact that we share similarities in historical narratives but our American journeys in the last generation have gone in different directions.

[Fired by ESPN for a racist headline, he’s finding his second chance as a Catholic priest]

“We experience discrimination in different ways. The more we understand our experiences, the more likely we are to build stronger and deeper relationships,” he said.

The phrase “different directions” is a shorthand for, in part, the gaps in education and economic security that have only grown between African Americans and Jews as a whole.

Religious, racial and ethnic politics and identity in the United States also have changed and become more complex in the decades since Jews were represented prominently in the civil rights era. Jews and African Americans remain among the country’s most left-leaning populations, but the institutions that once kept them together — churches, synagogues and groups such as the NAACP — no longer have as much influence, and alliances are fractured across a million social media universes.

A message left for White’s chief of staff and one texted to his cellphone were not answered Friday, but a couple days after his comments surfaced last week, he posted a detailed apology saying his comment stemmed from ignorance, not malice.

“I misspoke on matters that I know very little about. … I now fully comprehend the impact of my hurtful and insensitive comments. I have hurt and disappointed many, including myself, my council colleagues, constituents and countless members of the Jewish community here and abroad,” he wrote. “My comments, despite having demonstrated a lack of compassion and accuracy, were not made in a spirit of meanness. Rather they were made without understanding or appreciation of the history and suffering of many fellow Americans who are Jewish.”

The controversy exploded when White (D-Ward 8) last Friday posted on Facebook that “the Rothschilds” control the climate and a snowfall that day reflected their ability to change weather to profit on the backs of the poor. A few days later, video footage surfaced showing White contending last month during a government gathering that the Rothschilds — a European business dynasty and frequent subject of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories — control the World Bank and the federal government. Council members’ apparent lack of reaction to those comments on the video prompted the meeting this coming Tuesday, Glazer said.

[The history behind the conspiracy theory that the Rothschilds control the weather]

“There’s this whole concept with the Rothschilds — control the World Bank, as we all know — infusing dollars into major cities,” said White, according to video footage that the city routinely releases after official meetings. “They really pretty much control the federal government, and now they  have this concept called resilient cities in which they are using their money and influence into local cities.”

White’s comments have triggered intense debate in his ward. A rally to support him had been planned at Union Temple Baptist Church, a Southeast church that last year hosted black nationalist and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who made news last month with a hate speech about “powerful Jews.” White had the rally canceled. On a Facebook page devoted to his ward, some said he had humiliated residents. Others said his anti-Semitic comments were simply reflecting how people feel behind closed doors.

“Why can’t we question the people whom own a majority of our banks? Black people we talk about this in private all the time, but we crazy when we speak out loud. … To some it may be dumb, but don’t act like we don’t talk about things like this,” one commenter wrote on the Great Ward 8 page.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, leader of the modern Orthodox synagogue Ohev Sholom on 16th Street NW, was among those who invited the 33-year-old council member to a Seder, a meal that usually takes place in homes or community centers during which the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt is retold. Modern Jews often pray, study and learn about other contemporary bondages, from human trafficking and white supremacy to technology addiction.

“We will pray for freedom to come to all peoples, and we will pray for redemption and for a world where there is no more slavery and no more affliction,” Herzfeld wrote. “Hopefully through education you will be more sensitive to our community in the future. Blessings.”

White thanked Herzfeld and said he was already attending another Seder, the rabbi said.

Separate from the specifics of White, Jewish leaders said more important is to understand the world of misinformation that led to his comment.

“He’s a young man. I want to tell him he has a whole life in front of him, he can learn. But where did he get these ideas? Did he pick it up at school? The neighborhood center?” asked Herzfeld, who also cited the GOP nominee from Illinois. “It’s important to know where an ambitious, dynamic young man came to get these ideas which are so filled with hatred. That’s the real damage to our world. When I was growing up these things were so fringe. But now it’s moving from the fringe to elected officials.”

[Anti-Semitic incidents soared in 2017, marking nation’s biggest single-year increase]

Others seeking to engage with White sought to link the misinformation White passed on with that spread about other groups of people, including African Americans.

“We believe that we can best address anti-Semitism and misinformation in this moment by engaging and educating rather than denouncing. And we believe that this young Black leader, who works hard for his community and for our whole city, is someone who deserves the chance to learn from his missteps,” Jacob Feinspan, executive director of Jews United for Justice, wrote on the group’s Facebook page. He encouraged people to read more about “the toxic intertwining of racism and anti-Semitism, and about our shared struggles for a just District of Columbia.”

Feinspan’s group endorsed White when he ran for office and works with him on issues including affordable housing and paid family leave.

Feinspan said the rush to attempt dialogue with White is because “black people in the public eye are attacked more vehemently than others when they say things that are troubling. I can’t repeat the things that have been said about [White] because they are so awful. The number of people calling for his resignation as the only possible solution without the idea there is any learning and growth and change possible, is sickening.”

Silverman, who is Jewish, issued a statement describing her colleague’s Rothschild comments as “hateful and dangerous.” But she said in an interview that the ignorance shown about Judaism and anti-Semitism is a call more than anything for engagement.

“I want to be very clear that anti-Semitism has no place in civic discussion, but this has shown that there is a lack of exposure to Judaism and anti-Semitism … there are strains of this, especially in Trayon’s community,” she said. “The way to combat intolerance is to engage.”

In a statement shortly after the White controversy began, Silverman said African Americans and Jews “have a great history of fighting racism and bigotry together.”

Yolanda Savage-Narva, executive director of a 24-year-old program that brings together black and Jewish high-schoolers for a year-long program, said younger people may have different perspectives and priorities. For example, she said none of the students with whom she works reached out to her about the White controversy. That could be, she said, because they are focused on the gun-protest march planned for Saturday. She also noted that the percentage of Jews who are of color is rising (a recent study indicated that 7 percent of Washington-area Jews are nonwhite) and they see identity issues differently.

Savage-Narva is an African American Jew.

“I think this is really complex. In a period when more people are coming forward who feel free to be as anti-Semitic and racist as they can,” she said, “… I think the reaction [of Jewish groups] is an attempt to make sure there is an opportunity for education around things that people may not understand.”

The black and Jewish co-leaders of the Fair Budget Coalition, a Washington-area group, released a statement about White, calling for more across-the-board condemnation of prejudice. One, Stephanie Sneed, who is African American, suggested that White could be susceptible to believing false conspiracy theories because of real incidents, such as the Tuskegee, Ala., experiments, from 1932 to 1972, when the U.S. government secretly left syphilis untreated in African Americans so it could be studied.

“While I have come to understand that my Jewish friends and colleagues immediately saw [council member] White’s statement as a familiar dog whistle, I also understand they come from the experience that many Black Americans have, where we know that we have been plotted against,” she wrote in the dual post. She wondered in the post whether White would have made national news if he had espoused anti-black statements that come from public officials “on a regular basis.”

Feinspan said the Jewish reaction was tied deeply to Passover, which begins at sundown next Friday.

“One reason there is such a yearning in the Jewish community is related to the holiday coming up, the single-most celebrated Jewish holiday ritual, when we tell the story of our liberation from slavery and oppression,” he said. “So for most Jews, that belief, that is part of who we are as a people that has been oppressed and enslaved — our calling is to free the oppressed as we were ourselves were freed.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the last name of the D.C. Council chair and misidentified Elissa Silverman’s political affiliation.