Duke Student Government senators held a public session with Duke Students Supporting Israel after the recent veto of the organization’s charter, with a Senate vote ultimately upholding the veto.
Before the presentation, DSG conducted a second reading of their House Rules of the Senate, led by Devan Desai, a junior and DSG's president pro tempore and first-year Zara Thalj, a senator.
A new amendment of the House Rules allowed for the results of a roll call vote to be “sealed for one month if there is a need to preserve the integrity of the vote” if requested by the DSG advisor or by a simple majority of the Senate, according to the document.
In response to a question about the reasoning for this new change in the House Rules, Desai said that DSG has “seen some rhetoric online, and a lot of senators have individually reached out to [him] to say that they would feel pressure to vote one way or another."
Duke SSI was originally recognized by DSG at their Nov. 10 meeting. However, DSG President Christina Wang, a senior, vetoed the recognition Monday after Duke SSI "singled out an individual student on their organization's social media account in a way that was unacceptable for any student group and appeared antithetical to the group's stated mission to be welcoming and inclusive to all Duke students, and educational in mission and purpose,” she wrote in a statement to senators.
Senators could have overruled Wang’s veto with a two-thirds majority Wednesday evening. Ultimately, there were three votes to override the veto, 37 votes to uphold it, 10 abstentions and 8 absent senators.
Desai said that he wanted to reiterate that "the decision was based on the action of the group and not based on any ideology for which the group stands for."
Senators invited Duke SSI co-presidents, sophomore Alanna Peykar and first-year Alexandra Ahdoot, to present a pre-written speech reflecting upon the group's actions. They stated that they recognized that their previous actions were against Student Organization Finance Committee values and promised to take accountability for their actions and learn from this experience.
“As part of our mission on campus, the definition of good behavior is not adjusted and never left up to interpretation. Thus, in our opinion, the grounds upon which the DSG view us are invalid and inconsistent. We now know that this behavior is inappropriate and that we will not perform these actions in the future,” Peykar said.
The co-presidents also emphasized their mission statement, which they said they originally believed to be consistent with their social media post that called out a student by name.
“The two of us made it clear that our mission as Students Supporting Israel is to be a clear and confident pro-Israel voice on Duke's campus, to educate students about Israel and its culture and to support students in grassroots pro-Israel advocacy. Thus, it is viewed as part of our job to condemn and combat false narratives such as the one being presented in the Twitter posts,” Ahdoot said.
Peykar and Ahdoot expressed their hopes for a second chance and promised to conduct themselves in the future under DSG guidelines.
“We plan to do so through tabling and running educational events, not simply through responding to posts on social media. In the future, we plan to conduct ourselves in a more professional manner, while staying in line with DSG's standards and our group's mission,” Ahdoot said.
Senators then opened an initial five-minute period for questioning, which was extended three times later on during the meeting for a total 20 minutes of questioning.
Senators raised concerns that Duke SSI’s apologetic sentiments were inconsistent with their most recent post after their deleted apology.
“Our initial apology on social media also did not address why we felt the need to respond to the tweet to begin with, so we still have to recognize that we can't let language like this just slide. Of course, we have to address things like this in a more professional manner going forward. However, we are learning from the experience,” Ahdoot said.
Senators then ended questioning and opened the meeting up for a public forum, during which senators and members of the Duke student community could give speeches and be questioned by other senators.
Junior Hana Hendi presented a speech pointing to two already chartered groups on campus—Duke Friends of Israel and Students for Justice in Palestine—who have already had successful talks surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict as part of Duke’s commitment to “[creating] a space to have a healthy conversation around difficult political issues,” said Hendi.
Junior Thomas Ross, co-president of the Ciceronian Society, also spoke during the public forum. Drawing from his experiences of being harassed at public events, he raised concerns about the future of free speech on Duke’s campus.
“We are potentially opening the floodgates to a lot of complaints from a bunch of different organizations, and there are also some concerns that this may be a violation of the free speech of this group on the basis of their political affinity,” Ross said.
Mikhal Ben-Joseph, a junior and a member of the Duke Israel Public Affairs Committee, presented her opinion on the matter. She asserted that while the actions taken by SSI were grounds for punishment, she wished for senators to consider if the punishment was “proportionate and appropriate.”
“Are we addressing this problem rationally and logically in proportion to the situation at hand or blowing this out of proportion because it's a politically charged talk?” Ben-Joseph concluded.
Junior Lily Levin argued against SSI's claim that the veto was anti-Semitic and defended the decision.
“Christina did what she needed to do. She didn't do it because she was anti-Israel. I think that's ridiculous. She did it because [it was] within an organizational context; you would have done it with any other organization regardless of what you want to argue,” Levin said.
The public forum closed with sophomore Elyana Riddick, whose tweet was originally screenshotted and shared by SSI. She said that the screenshot of her tweet was taken without her knowledge and described her fears for her future and for her safety in the wake of the incident. She shared that she was contacted by a reporter in an email with the co-founder of the national SSI organization copied.
Wang echoed fears for her own safety.
“I feel harassed. Definitely. And I feel that part of my future is up there to some extent. But I definitely don't want this conversation to be about me,” Wang said.
Under the new voting procedures outlined in the DSG House Rules, all members of the Duke community who were not the senators themselves, administrators, The Chronicle and the co-presidents of Duke SSI were required to exit the room.
After speeches in the affirmative and the negative about the matter between senators, they came to a vote. Of the fifty-eight Senators in DSG, three voted to override the veto, 37 voted to uphold it, 10 abstained and eight were absent.
The exact tally may change within 24 hours, Desai said Wednesday, but any additional yes votes would not be enough. With this vote, Duke SSI remains unrecognized but may still submit a new application through SOFC if it wishes.
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Nadia Bey is a Trinity senior and digital strategy director for The Chronicle’s 118th volume. She was previously managing editor for Volume 117.
Audrey Wang is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.