D.C. Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) feels like she’s a spokesperson for the Jewish community again.
In her pre-elected days, she had worked for Hillel International and done public relations for an agency whose clients were largely Jewish organizations.When she was elected to the council in 2014, she thought she had put that behind her.
Then, on March 16, her council colleague Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) blamed a light snowfall on the Jewish banking family the Rothschilds. With that, Nadeau, 37, one of two council members who are Jewish, became one of two Jewish council members.
“I spent the past three and a half years focused in on all of the issues that my constituents asked me to and then all of a sudden had to turn back to this very public role as Jewish leader,” Nadeau said in a recent interview with WJW.
The other Jewish council member is Elissa Silverman (I-At Large). In separate interviews, they discussed the roller coaster ride that followed White’s comments, in which Nadeau found herself an unwitting Jewish spokesperson on the council and Silverman tried to spur action against anti-Semitism from her reticent colleagues.
Both say they were caught off guard by White spouting conspiracy theories without apparently realizing that some were anti-Semitic.
Nadeau said she realizes that, whatever else she accomplishes on the council, teaching others about anti-Semitism and Jewish history will always be an unwritten part of her job description.
“Even as a target of anti-Semitism, I have to take a break from my own feelings and processing and experience and really quickly pivot to [Jewish] spokesperson and leader,” she said.
“Each of them has been balancing what this means to them as individuals, what this means to them as representatives of the Jewish community and what this means to them as elected representatives of the city,” said Jacob Feinspan, executive director of Jews United for Justice Campaign Fund, a progressive organization that has worked with and endorsed Silverman, Nadeau and White. “And I think for both of them, that is a new combination of roles.”
After White’s initial comments, both Silverman and Nadeau condemned anti-Semitism and offered White an outstretched hand of understanding.
But as the incidents mounted — White’s tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that he left early, the revelation of a $500 contribution to the Nation of Islam from White’s constituent services account and a “unity rally” where a speaker called Silverman a “fake Jew” — Nadeau chose to focus on the $500 contribution spending. Her last official statement called on the council to censure White for the donation, but she has largely refrained from commenting since.
“I kind of stopped weighing in at that point because I felt like I had said what I needed to about the constituent services fund,” she said.
The political tremors of these events, especially since the rally, have forced city officials to confront not only anti-Semitism in Washington, but also the complicating factors of race and class on who benefits from a prosperous city.
Silverman, 45, said she has been frustrated by the lack of willingness by D.C. leaders — fellow council members and Mayor Muriel Bowser — to talk about difficult issues like race, income inequality and the influence of anti-Semitism.
Feinspan said Silverman’s instinct is to create personal connections in order to increase understanding between people. A prime example is when she invited White and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine to a Passover seder.
But the breaking point was the “unity rally” on April 26. Organized by Joshua Lopez, then a board member for the D.C. Housing Authority, the rally was in support of White, although he did not attend.
Abdul Khadir Muhammad, a speaker at the rally and a member of the Nation of Islam, called Silverman a “fake Jew” and Jews “termites.”
Silverman’s subsequent statement and open letter to D.C. leaders the next day were more strident than her response to any of the previous incidents. She called for Lopez’s resignation — he resigned May 1 — and chastised city officials for their silence.
In the interview, she said she was harder on Lopez because, she felt what happened at the rally was “intentional. And he has had a history of being divisive in this city. And of trying to pit groups against each other.”
In contrast, White didn’t “fully comprehend” that he was repeating hate speech “that was very much directed to incite hatred of the Jewish community.”
Nadeau and Silverman opened up about some of their feelings and experiences with anti-Semitism at a breakfast meeting in March between council members and Jewish leaders. In that meeting, Nadeau talked about the fear many Jews have about becoming targets of anti-Semites, and instances of anti-Semitism she and her family had faced.
“Sharing that with my colleagues was I think really helpful,” she said. “But it was weird to be so vulnerable in such a professional setting.”
She added, “I haven’t had such regular contact with Jewish community leaders since I was at the firm and it was my day job,” she said, referring to her previous public relations work.
For their trouble, Nadeau and Silverman say they have been attacked for their responses, including from fellow Jews. They received waves of emails and Facebook comments as they responded to each incident.
“I felt like I was also a target and a victim in this scenario,” Nadeau said, “and there were people who were essentially telling me I was a bad Jew for not reacting the way they wanted me to or with what they would have done.”
“I’ve been attacked by Jewish residents — they’ve called me a coward,” Silverman said. “I’ve been attacked by black residents who say I’m anti-black. I’ve gotten it from all sides.”
But they both think their relationships with their colleagues — especially White — can come out the other side intact.
“You know what, part of my job is to maintain working relationships even when things are complicated,” Nadeau said. “On any given day, I could be at odds with a colleague on a certain issue and then the next day we have to work together on something else.”
Silverman said she and White have probably the closest voting records on the council, but that doesn’t mean they’re ignoring everything that happened since March 16.
“I’m not going to tell you it hasn’t made it more difficult. Mostly because we’re locked in this narrative together,” she said. “Have we had a lot of difficult conversations? Yes.
“But I’m here to have the difficult conversations.”
Both Silverman and Nadeau say the council must address the lack of opportunities for Washington’s poorest, largely minority, residents.
Within economic inequality, they said, bigotry, including anti-Semitism, can flourish.
“We are a very prosperous city,” Silverman said. “But the residents that Council member White represents haven’t seen any of that prosperity.”