Joshua Lopez
Joshua Lopez Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The man who held a megaphone for a representative of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan while he assailed a Jewish D.C. lawmaker during a “unity rally” last year is scheduled to be the keynote speaker for the University of the District of Columbia’s Founders’ Day celebration.

The event will be one of the first, if not the first, major public appearance for Joshua Lopez, a disgraced appointee of Mayor Muriel Bowser, since he drew the ire of multiple councilmembers and several Jewish community leaders during the 2018 election.

Although Lopez seems to have made amends with at least one Jewish leader, some councilmembers are wondering why and how Lopez was tapped for such a prominent public distinction given his controversial past.

“It’s a huge mistake,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. “He has associated himself with anti-Jewish groups and has been quite a disruptive force in the District. So why they would choose him when there are, I would imagine, so many better qualified people, is beyond me.”

Cheh describes Lopez’s role in Bowser’s and former Mayor Adrian Fenty‘s campaigns as a political “hatchet man.”

“They go out there and support their person, but do so in the most negative way against opponents,” she says.

At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who was the target of the Farrakhan disciple’s vitriol during Lopez’s unity rally, agrees that Lopez is a poor choice for keynote speaker.

“I think time and again we’ve seen Josh using language that’s divisive, that divides, that pits one group against another,” Silverman says. “And I think that is a very destructive form of politics. When we give somebody like that a platform, we’re saying the politics of divisiveness and destruction are OK.”

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says simply: “I don’t like it. I’ll just leave it at that.”

UDC’s Founder’s Day celebration will take place this Thursday. The event’s description online offers no details of what Lopez plans to talk about, though it does mention that he is a UDC alumnus. Neither UDC nor Lopez responded to phone calls and emails seeking comment.

Instead, Lopez had a friend urge LL to call Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Shalom — The National Synagogue, who was a vocal critic of Lopez following his rally. Since then, Herzfeld says, Lopez has made efforts to build relationships with Jewish people. He accompanied the rabbi on a trip to Pittsburgh after 11 people were killed in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue.

“He came down with me on that bus to attend the funeral,” says Herzfeld who now counts Lopez as a close friend. “He came to my son’s bar mitzvah, and came to our services on several occasions and has gone out of his way to learn more about the Jewish people and bring communities together.”

Herzfeld says that he and Lopez met with UDC’s president about creating more opportunities for education about Jewish people and culture at the school, and the president seemed “open to it.” 

As a first step, Herzfeld says, he will give a blessing at the Founder’s Day celebration where Lopez will speak.

Asked if he knows what Lopez plans to speak about, Herzfeld says “I have no idea! I’m just a rabbi! But I can guarantee you he will not say a bad word about Judaism or Jews or Israel.”

Silverman says despite Lopez’s efforts to mend relationships, he has not apologized to her for organizing a rally that she believes was designed to pit councilmembers against each other.

Lopez organized the rally after Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White received criticism for repeating an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that the Rothschild family controls the weather.

Silverman points to a politically charged Facebook post written by Lopez ahead of the rally that she says mischaracterizes her relationship with White. In the post, Lopez claimed she, Cheh and Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau “unfairly attacked” White for his comments. “Shame on [them],” Lopez wrote. “We must reject their below the belt tactics and vote them out!”

Silverman and Nadeau, who are both Jewish, met and spoke with White following his comments and believe his apology to be genuine, City Paper has reported.

“I feel like Josh created an event to say ‘We don’t like Councilmembers Silverman, Nadeau and Cheh, and we want to support Councilmember White against these others,” Silverman says. “That was deliberate. He wanted that, and enabled hateful things to be said.”

During the rally, Abdul Khadir Muhammad, the Farrakhan representative, called Silverman a “fake Jew” while Lopez held the megaphone, and later referred to Jews as “termites.” Lopez subsequently called Muhammad’s comments “despicable.”

Bower twice tried to appoint Lopez to the D.C. Water and Sewer Board of Directors, but Cheh, who has jurisdiction over those appointments, wasn’t having it. Bowser nominated him again to the D.C. Housing Authority board, and he was confirmed under Councilmember Anita Bonds‘ watch.

Bowser resisted calls from councilmembers to remove Lopez from the Housing Authority board following the rally. He ended up resigning from the board after serving for fewer than three months.

He’s also known for calling White a “bitch” in a text message during the run up last year’s election.

Cheh was not previously aware of Lopez and Herzfeld’s newfound relationship, but like Silverman, she’s not swayed.

“I’m happy he’s made amends, and he wants to move on, and that’s great, but that doesn’t mean you’re awarded with being the speaker at UDC,” she says. “I’m quite sure there will be blowback because of this. He adds no value and he’ll take away supporters.”