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Jews On James Davis: ‘He Crossed Ethnic Lines’

Jews On James Davis: ‘He Crossed Ethnic Lines’

Hours after returning from a solidarity mission to Jerusalem, James E. Davis rose in the City Council chamber last August to voice support for several pro-Israel resolutions on the day’s agenda.
"I went to Israel with an open mind, as someone who grew up reading about King David," said Davis, a minister and former cop who was then in the middle of his first year representing Brooklyn’s 35th District, which includes Prospect Heights, Fort Greene and part of Crown Heights.
Davis, as he often did, utilized the full two minutes allowed for comment, and then some, as he launched into an impassioned sermon that touched on everything from misinformation about Jewish settlements on the West Bank to Israelís pursuit of terror leaders while dismissing the criticism of a small number of colleagues who opposed the resolutions.
"It’s about the terrorists, not the [Palestinian] people," he declared. "If you commit a crime in my neighborhood … you should be locked up and held accountable. Don’t worry about how everyone else feels."
Almost a year later, Davis, 41, would be gunned down by a political rival in the same Council chamber at City Hall, as colleagues, staff members and spectators watched in horror. The shots fired by Othniel Boaz Askew on July 23 cut down a young life filled with promise.
It also brought to a premature end a warm, nascent relationship between a rising African-American political star and New York’s Jewish community.
"I remember how he was moved by his conversations with victims of terror and excited while meeting new Ethiopian Jewish immigrants," said Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, after attending Davis’ funeral Tuesday at Elim International Fellowship Church in Fort Greene.
Miller last year escorted Davis and 10 other Council members to Israel.
"His character and leadership qualities made it easy for him to cross ethnic lines. He was deeply respected by his constituents in chasidic Crown Heights, and the chasidic community in Williamsburg specifically asked to be represented by him during the redistricting process," Miller said.
Noting the strife between Jews and other groups in Williamsburg over scarce public housing, Rabbi David Niederman of the neighborhood’s United Jewish Organizations said Davis had promised "to help development for Jews and everybody alike. He really felt constituent service at his heart."
Although Davis represented a substantial Jewish population in his changing district, those who worked with him or met him even briefly noted that his passion for Israel’s cause and longing for strong ties between Jews and blacks transcended politics.
"When he did something, it didn’t smack of ‘Me too,’ or ‘I have to say this because it’s politically expedient,’" said Councilman Lewis Fidler, also of Brooklyn and, like Davis, a Democrat. "He had the same fervor in supporting something like the Brooklyn Jewish Children’s Museum as he did supporting the Brooklyn Academy of Music."
Fidler recalled that Davis served on the committee that approves resolutions for a vote before the full Council. Several colleagues were opposed to the pro-Israel measures last year.
"There was a lot of pressure on James," said Fidler. "A lot of people thought he was the swing vote. But he was not ashamed to stand up for Jewish interests."
Last year Doug Chandler, a freelance writer from Queens, struck up a conversation with Davis at a newsstand in Midtown Manhattan when he noticed the councilman buying the Jerusalem Post. He quickly got an earful about Davis’ trip to Israel.
"He said he had a very positive experience and came back with a real feel for Israel’s security," recalled Chandler.
When William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, approached Davis three weeks ago at City Hall to discuss budget matters, the two wound up having coffee.
Following a discussion about the importance of funds for the city’s Extended Services program for the elderly, Davis brought up his Israel trip and his fervent feelings about terrorism.
"He said Yasir Arafat should be put on trial for crimes against humanity," Rapfogel recalled. "He said he would never meet with him."
Davis, the founder of a nonprofit group aimed at stopping urban violence, also stressed the need to end the incitement of Palestinian children against Israelis.
"He said his sole purpose on earth was to draw attention to nonviolence," Rapfogel related.
During the federal retrial last May of Lemrick Nelson Jr. for the Crown Heights murder of Yankel Rosenbaum in 1991, Davis showed up at the courthouse during jury deliberations, handing out a statement calling for peace in the community, whatever the verdict.
"Last time, community leaders responded after the fire," read the statement. "Now we respond when we see smoke and the potential for problems."
But Davis, who made several bids for public office before his 2001 election, was no stranger to the bare-knuckle politics that often creep into New York campaigns.
While challenging Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr. of Crown Heights in 2000, Davis blamed Norman for allowing black-Jewish tensions to simmer prior to the 1991 riots.
"You cannot hold David Dinkins responsible for not putting out the fire and then let Clarence Norman Jr. off the hook," he told The Jewish Week in September 2000. "He is responsible because he didn’t start a dialogue between the communities."
The Crown Heights Jewish community’s Political Action Committee backed Norman in that race, and Avraham Wasserman in the 2001 primary for City Council won by Davis. But the group later developed close ties with the councilman and was to support him for the first time this September as he headed for an easy re-election bid.
It remains to be decided if the community will support Davis’ younger brother, Geoffrey, who is expected to succeed James on the ballot. If selected by a vacancy committee, Geoffrey could face Anthony Herbert in Septemberís Democratic primary. James Davis’ campaign had challenged Herbert’s nominating petitions.
But political considerations seemed out of place this week as Davis’ constituents mourned his loss.
Hanina Sperlin, president of the Crown Heights Jewish PAC, recalled that Davis was quick to hand out his cell phone number to anyone who asked.
"He always said to call 24/7 if you have a problem," said Sperlin.
But it was Davis who called Sperlin in the middle of the night several weeks ago when swastikas were painted on several cars in Crown Heights.
"He wanted me to go out with him on patrol," said Sperlin, who also noted that the councilman helped obtain $500,000 in city funds to build a new social service center for the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. The building is to be named in honor of Abraham Beame, the city’s first Jewish mayor.
On the second anniversary of Beameís death in February, Sperlin recalled, Davis delivered a wreath to the community council. He also annually marked the anniversary of the Crown Heights riots by laying wreaths at the sites where Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum were killed, one by a car accident and the other by an angry mob.
This week, Jewish residents of Davis’ district sadly returned the honor, laying wreaths and lighting candles at the councilman’s district office on DeKalb Avenue.
Sperlin said the new Community Council building would bear a plaque dedicated in Davis’ memory.

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