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How Jewish leaders tried — and failed — to keep a Farrakhan follower off a Florida city council



(JTA) – When Brother John Muhammad emerged this fall as the leading candidate for a vacant city council seat in St. Petersburg, Florida, local Jews were distressed.

Muhammad is well known in the city as the president of a local neighborhood association and as a frequent advocate for minority groups. But Jewish leaders learned that he was also a follower of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who has a long history of antisemitism, and that he had made comments dismissing concerns about Farrakhan’s record.

Jewish leaders tried to stave off Muhammad’s appointment, pushing for more extensive vetting of the seven candidates and, in the case of the local Holocaust museum, actively lobbying against him. But the council confirmed him in a 4-3 vote, leaving local Jews frustrated — before they considered ways to make the situation a learning experience for their city.

“When I see a situation like this, it screams ‘opportunity’ to me,” Michael Igel, chair of the Florida Holocaust Museum, located in St. Petersburg, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The saga playing out in St. Petersburg, Florida’s fifth-largest city, unfolded during the same period that a handful of Black celebrities, including Kanye West and Kyrie Irving, first became enmeshed in controversy over their own antisemitic comments and social media posts. The coincidence meant a dicey environment for broaching a conversation about the antisemitism of the Nation of Islam, whose rhetoric disparaging Jews overlaps with that of Hebrew Israelites, the ideology that Irving promoted by sharing a link to an antisemitic film.

It also turned St. Petersburg into a window for understanding how ties forged between Jewish groups and others can be tested. 

Local Jewish leaders initially sought to stop Muhammad from gaining the city council seat, which was vacated after its previous holder resigned following redistricting and accusations she no longer lived in her district. They learned about Muhammad’s city council application only a week before the council’s vote, leaving them with little time to mobilize. The information came from a political rival of Muhammad, former mayoral candidate Vince Nowicki, who shared information about Muhammad’s Nation of Islam affiliation with local Jewish groups.

Nowicki also shared a comment Muhammad had made about Jews in a 2016 video in which Muhammad interviewed local Black LGBTQ activists. In the video titled “A Conversation About Growing Up Black And LGBT,” which JTA viewed, Muhammad said, “Minister Farrakhan got accused of being antisemitic for a long time because he pointed out and made some corrections about the activity of Jews. And anybody who says anything critical of the Jewish community is labeled as being antisemitic. Good, bad, right or wrong, it doesn’t matter what you say. If you criticize them that’s what you are.”

He continued, saying, “And I’m finding that it happens when you are critical of the gay community, when you say anything critical or anything that doesn’t align with that ideology, now all of a sudden you’re homophobic.” Muhammad’s comments about gay people received some light but friendly pushback from his interview guests.

Muhammad did not reply to multiple requests for comment by JTA, including to questions emailed to him at his request. He said during a public meeting ahead of the council vote that he thought scrutiny of him by Jewish groups had been unfair.

To Jewish leaders, the comments in the video coupled with Muhammad’s Nation of Islam affiliation were clear signs that he should not be appointed to the city council.

“I would sure hope that being antisemitic would be a red line, that you could not be a candidate,” said Rabbi Philip Weintraub of Congregation B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue in the city.

Jewish leaders began to take action, issuing statements and launching a letter-writing campaign to the council. They felt so much urgency that some even conducted business on Simchat Torah, a Jewish holiday when Jewish organizations typically pause their activities in accordance with Jewish law.

As a nonprofit, the local federation was constrained in how it could weigh in. Since it could not endorse or oppose specific candidates, it instead pushed for every candidate to be “properly vetted” and informed council members about Muhammad’s affiliations and past comments, according to Maxine Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Florida’s Gulf Coast. She said the efforts did not have their intended effect.

“I don’t think anybody said, ‘Well, who is this Farrakhan, what does he stand for?’” Kaufman said. “I don’t think enough was done, personally.”

The entrance to the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, Nov. 27, 2016. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Florida Holocaust Museum took another approach, circulating information about Muhammad to the wider community, along with a statement opposing the candidacy of anyone who would support Farrakhan’s antisemitism. Their goal, Igel said, was to educate the community about the severity of these views.

“There’s nothing else to talk about when somebody is supporting Louis Farrakhan,” Igel told JTA. “Particularly when you are seeking a position representative of a city, particularly one like St. Petersburg that is so known for its inclusivity and its openness.”

Igel praised some members of the city council who asked Muhammad pointed questions about his views at the vote, giving him the opportunity to refute Farrakhan’s comments about Jews. One council member who voted against Muhammad, Lisset Hanewicz, said her stepfather is Jewish and read Farrakhan’s past antisemitic statements into the record, saying, “I think people need to understand why a certain part of this community is upset.”

Igel acknowledged that getting involved in a city council appointment was an unusual move for a Holocaust museum. He said museum leaders had held a meeting beforehand to determine how to proceed but made a decision fairly quickly to weigh in.

“In this case, we don’t consider this to be a matter of politics,” Igel said. “This is a matter of morality. And this is what we teach.” If the candidate had been a white supremacist, Igel said, “that person would have been disqualified out of the gate.”

The Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center, two hate watchdogs, define the Nation of Islam as a group that propagates antisemitism and other forms of bigotry, not a religion. Founded in 1930 by Wallace Fard Muhammad, the Black nationalist group is not the same as traditional Islam and is rejected by most Muslim clerics; it entered mainstream prominence in the 1960s after civil rights leader Malcolm X and boxer Muhammad Ali publicly joined the movement. (Both later left the group, with Malcolm X publicly denouncing its leadership; he was assassinated shortly after, and two Nation of Islam members who were wrongfully convicted of his murder recently received a large settlement from New York City.)

The Nation of Islam entered its current era after Farrakhan took over the group in 1977. Now 89, he has used his platform to issue a steady stream of antisemitism, including calling Jews “wicked” and the “synagogue of Satan,” saying they have “wrapped your tentacles around the U.S. government,” and calling Hitler “a very great man.” Only a few years ago, the Women’s March progressive activist collective was nearly derailed over some of its founders’ associations with Farrakhan.

It is rare, but not unheard of, for public officials to have current or former associations with the Nation of Islam. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a practicing Muslim, was dogged by accusations that he had formerly been a member of the group when he first ran for Congress in 2006; he apologized for his past associations with the group. Trayon White, a Washington, D.C. council member and onetime mayoral candidate who has spread antisemitic conspiracy theories, has donated to the group in the past. Former President George W. Bush once praised the group, and a photograph showing Barack Obama in the same room as Farrakhan was fodder for Obama’s critics during his presidential run.

Muhammad, who is referred to on the city council website as John Muhammad and whose legal name is John C. Malone, declined to condemn Farrakhan at the city council meeting.

“I am not willing to denounce the leader of my faith no more than a Catholic would be willing to denounce their pope,” he said.

Muhammad’s reaction to questions about Farrakhan particularly concerned the federation and other local Jewish groups. Kaufman told JTA she didn’t know whether Muhammad himself is antisemitic, but she said his refusal to disavow Farrakhan was alarming.

“I do have issue with his reverence of someone who is blatantly antisemitic, and he won’t disavow him, he won’t reject him,” she said, echoing the the federation’s official statement on the vote.

At the meeting, Muhammad did say that he had reached out to the Florida Holocaust Museum but had not heard back — and that he thought the museum’s criticism of him was unfair. 

“What I found when we reached out to have dialogue with the Holocaust Museum director, they did not want to talk to me,” he said. “They wanted to evaluate and disqualify me based on the association that I have as an individual. I don’t think that that’s just.”

Muhammad also defended his record with Jews by claiming that they were among the “diversity of those who support me.” He added, “And if you look at those who oppose me, they’re coming from one particular group.”

Since the vote, a local Black newspaper condemned the scrutiny on Muhammad, calling it a “perusal into his faith practice.”

Igel said the museum had no record that Muhammad had reached out but encouraged him to come and learn more about the Holocaust and the nature of antisemitism. Stuart Berger, head of the local Jewish Community Relations Council, acknowledged at the city council meeting that Muhammad “has made himself available to us” at the federation, but that none of the federation staff “had been in direct contact with him.”

The federation’s involvement in Muhammad’s case became its own issue at the council vote, when the candidate referenced an email Berger had written to the county commissioner. In the email, Berger wrote that Muhammad’s vetting process had been “good enough for me!”

While Muhammad took the email as proof that the federation believed him to be fit for office, Berger and Kaufman maintain that it meant nothing of the sort. Berger had not been speaking on behalf of the federation, they say, and had not intended for his email to be shared publicly.

Now that Muhammad is on the council, attention has turned to building relationships with him. Kaufman has been meeting with individual city council members, and hopes to eventually meet with Muhammad himself. She also aims to have the federation make a presentation to the council about the dangers of antisemitism and push them to make a statement about it.

She doesn’t think it’s complicated. “I think hate’s hate,” she said. “Many different colors.”

Weintraub’s congregation is celebrating its 100th anniversary in March, and one of its congregants, Eric Lynn, is also involved in politics: he was the Democratic nominee for Florida’s 13th Congressional district in the midterms but lost his race to Republican Anna Paulina Luna, who said she was raised as a Messianic Jew and campaigned with far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Weintraub himself is a member of an interfaith ministerial dialogue group with Black churches and says he’s “a professional optimist” when it comes to managing conflict between different communities. He sent JTA an episode of the public radio podcast “Hidden Brain” about how to keep conflict from spiraling, saying it “describes what I’ve tried to do.”

Since Muhammad was appointed, Weintraub has met with him; the pair had what Weintraub described as “a pleasant conversation.” The two talked about parenting and “shared traumas,” he said. They did not discuss Muhammad’s comments supporting Farrakhan, but the rabbi couldn’t help but think about him.

“I thought I was a termite, according to Farrakhan,” Weintraub said. In contrast, Muhammad “said I was a person, so that was nice.”

The post How Jewish leaders tried — and failed — to keep a Farrakhan follower off a Florida city council appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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