The Israeli-Palestinian issue is intensifying the fall-semester buzz at Duke University this year.
In advance of the fourth annual Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement, chatter on the limits of free speech and the contours of the Israel-Palestinian conflict have filled the pages of the campus newspaper.
Divisions over the Oct. 15-17 conference represent the latest battle between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian campus activists to take place during the four years of the Palestinian intifada.
The conference, sponsored by the local pro-Palestinian group at the North Carolina-based university, also has some Jewish students and alumni wondering if Duke will lose the momentum it has gained in recent years as a hospitable place for Jewish students.
Conference organizers are calling on universities to drop their investments in Israeli companies, work to “end the Israeli occupation” and accelerate the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.
As it has in previous years, the conference has prompted outrage — an online petition asking Duke’s president to ban the event has garnered more than 66,000 signatures — and less-confrontational responses from mainstream Jewish groups.
Like other universities that have hosted the conference, which in the past has drawn some 150 activists across North America, Duke is permitting the event on the grounds of free speech, but reiterating its policy against divesting from Israel.
“We believe the best antidote to speech that others find disagreeable is more speech, not less,” stated Duke’s senior vice president, John Burness. “We are encouraged, therefore, that the Freeman Center for Jewish Life at Duke is proposing to provide opportunities for others to express differing viewpoints on the Israeli-Palestinian question.”
Indeed, Duke’s Hillel affiliate, the Freeman Center, hasn’t tried to prevent the conference; instead, Jewish students have crafted a response centered on what they believe is a broad-based consensus: condemning terrorism.
From Shabbat teach-ins and lectures to a major rally/rock concert benefiting terror victims, the effort to counter the conference marks a jumping-off point for increased dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is anchored in opposing terrorism.
“We may not know all the issues, and we may have complex political ideas or not, but we understand terrorism is not good,” said Jonathan Gerstl, executive director of the Freeman Center. “I think we’re really looking at this as a uniting” campaign for the campus.
Indeed, in an open letter published in the campus newspaper last month, the Joint Israel Initiative, a coalition of student groups formed to combat the conference, asked the conference organizers to condemn the murder of innocent civilians, support a two-state solution and engage in respectful dialogue.
But the Palestine Solidarity Movement and Hiwar, the campus pro-Palestinian group hosting the conference, refused to do so.
Rann Bar-on, a local spokesman for the solidarity movement and a Duke graduate student, said the group only supports non-violent action, but “would not sign the statement because it violates the philosophy of the organization, which will not condemn any Palestinian action,” Duke’s campus newspaper, The Chronicle, reported.
“The Jewish people have the right to exist in some state,” but the movement cannot dictate its borders or creation, Bar-on told the Duke newspaper.
Bar-on did not reply to an e-mail seeking comment about the group’s agenda.
The group’s Web site, however, indicates there will be workshops on building a Palestinian presence on campus, promoting divestment and discussing the “anatomy of the organized Zionist community in the United States.”
Meanwhile, the anti-terrorism card pushed by pro-Israel students has won the support of key groups on campus.
Duke’s council of residential halls, the student government and the student union have agreed to sponsor the Oct. 14 “Students Against Terror” concert, featuring the band Sister Hazel, with donations aiding terror victims in the United States, Israel, Sudan and Russia, said Mollie Lurey, who heads the Joint Israel Initiative.
On behalf of one of its prominent shareholders, Mitchell Rubenstein, Hollywood.com will co-sponsor a telecast of the concert on its Web site and on the Hillel Web site, Gerstl said.
Rubenstein is the chairman of the Freeman Center’s advisory board.
The anti-conference effort, which includes the weekend teach-in, featuring former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, along with yearlong educational programming, will cost up to $125,000, he said.
Funding has come from Duke alumni and student groups along with local federations and foundations. To date, Hillel has raised $65,000 for the program, with the biggest donation — a $10,000 check — coming from Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
According to Lurey, of the Joint Israel Initiative, previously unaffiliated Jews have now become involved in supporting Israel.
Still, she says Jewish students are feeling anxious about potential rhetoric at the upcoming conference.
Meanwhile, some worry whether Duke’s hosting of the pro-Palestinian conference will tarnish the university’s reputation in Jewish eyes.
Already, an Atlanta Jewish day school cut ties with Duke’s program for middle school students in response to the conference, North Carolina’s News-Observer reported.
“Jewish Duke alumni are very, very, very concerned that all the advances that have been made at Duke in the past couple of decades will end up being for naught,” said Duke alumnus Steven Goodman, a Washington-based educational consultant for prospective college students.
In recent years, Duke has stepped up efforts to recruit Jewish students, who make up anywhere between 15 percent and 25 percent of the student body, Goodman said. But the school’s relationship with the Jewish community is “much more precarious” than schools like Tufts or the University of Pennsylvania, whose deep, generational ties to the Jewish community could withstand a blip on their record.
Duke could be perceived as “indifferent or hostile to the Jewish community,” which could drive away prospective Jewish students, said Goodman, who penned editorials in Jewish newspapers urging Duke not to host the conference.
Gerstl disagrees: “I think the university has worked very well with the Jewish students [by meeting with students and local Jewish federation leaders].”
“The university knows it makes decisions that aren’t always popular,” he said.