The campus was a flurry of ink and protest Wednesday as the Joint Israel Initiative and President Richard Brodhead released statements regarding the Palestine Solidarity Movement conference, scheduled for Oct. 15 to 17 at Duke.
The conference, hosted by pro-Palestinian student group Hiwar, has sparked controversy on campus due to PSM’s alleged ties to militant groups. The University said it investigated potential connections before accepting the conference, and despite the protest surrounding the group’s message, Duke maintains its commitment to academic freedom mandates allowing the conference.
One of PSM’s primary aims is to encourage universities to extricate themselves from investments in companies with any involvement in the Israeli military.
Rann Bar-on, local spokesperson for PSM and a graduate student in mathematics, said PSM would not apply direct pressure on Duke to divest. He added that the group views divestment, or the selling off of stocks, as a powerful nonviolent strategy to end the violence between Israeli and Palestinian people.
In a letter posted on Duke’s official website, Brodhead reaffirmed the University position set by former President Nan Keohane last year. He reserved divestiture as a “last resort to be used only when a substantial community consensus existed.” In the letter, which was initially penned to a faculty member and was subsequently publicized, Brodhead noted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is too complex for such clear-cut measures.
A coalition of several Jewish student groups issued an open letter to the organizers of PSM and to Hiwar. The letter challenged the groups and individual members to endorse a three-pronged statement that organizers called the “necessary foundation of any meaningful dialogue.”
In order for pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students to debate civilly, the Jewish leaders said they must “condemn the murder of innocent civilians,” “support a two-state solution” and “recognize the difference between disagreement and hate speech, and call on all campus groups... to join us in upholding this standard.” (For full text of the letter, see the group’s advertisement on page 18.)
Bar-on said Wednesday night that PSM would not sign the statement because it violates the philosophy of the organization, which will not condemn any Palestinian action. However, PSM only supports non-violent action, he said.
PSM believes “the Jewish people have the right to exist in some state,” but the organization would not dictate the border of the state or how to create it, Bar-on added.
PSM does discourage hate speech, Bar-on said, and noted that any attendee who disrupts the conference in any way—“verbal, physical or otherwise”—will be asked to leave.
Junior Emily Antoon, president of Hiwar, said the student organization did not have an official response but it would discuss the statement in the near future. Agreeing to the statement would not contradict any guiding principles of Hiwar, she said.
At a public meeting between Brodhead and the Duke Jewish community Wednesday night, the president also declined to sign the statement. The proclamations of university presidents often carry particular weight, he said, and he did not want his personal opinions to be confused with Duke’s official position.
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When students pushed him to state his own thoughts he offered tentative support for one of the tenets.
“I do believe that any reasonable solution involves both sides coming together,” Brodhead said. “[But I] also want to protect space in which someone could disagree with that.”
Another student at the meeting voiced concerns about potential anti-Semitic comments that could occur during the PSM conference. Brodhead reiterated his commitment to open expression. “To protect free speech is to protect the riskiness with which humans venture and say things,” he said.
Students who grilled Brodhead during the town meeting said they were, on the whole, satisfied with the chance to express their perspective.
“It was a difficult issue to discuss,” said sophomore Ilana Jacobs, who organized the meeting. “Even though some of us may feel that the answers were somewhat incomplete, we all feel that we have come away with some sort of interaction.”