Duke paints over pro-Palestine slogan on East Campus bridge after receiving concerns about antisemitism

<p>A pro-Palestinian phrase was painted over Oct. 19 after Student Affairs received multiple concerns from community members about it being construed as antisemitic.</p>

A pro-Palestinian phrase was painted over Oct. 19 after Student Affairs received multiple concerns from community members about it being construed as antisemitic.

Duke painted over a portion of the East Campus bridge after multiple community members reported that it contained an antisemitic phrase, according to a Thursday email from Student Affairs.    

In the email sent to Duke undergraduate students, Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president for student affairs, wrote that Duke had painted over the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” on the East Campus bridge, officially known as the Free Expression bridge.

Before the phrase was painted over, another person or group had painted the addendum "from Hamas" next to the phrase, making it read as "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free from Hamas." 

McMahon wrote that Student Affairs received concerns that the phrase was “associated with an erasure of people and antisemitism.”

The phrase that was painted over has been used since the 1960s in various contexts as a Palestinian freedom call. The phrase, and its alternate forms, are frequently used in demonstrations in support of a Palestinian state, advocating for varying degrees of territorial claim, depending on the context.   

Critics say that the phrase, which has been adopted by Hamas, calls for the land that comprises Israel and Palestine — from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea — to be placed entirely under Arab rule, ultimately advocating for the elimination of the State of Israel. 

“Because the phrase, ‘from the river to the sea….’ is understood by many in our community and beyond as a call for violence targeting the Jewish community, the specific phrase was painted over,” McMahon added in the email.

Student Affairs took care to “not alter other sentiments elsewhere on the bridge,” including those that advocate for Palestinian rights and “call for Palestinian freedom.” As of Thursday morning, a Palestinian flag painted with the phrase “Free Palestine” under it remained on the bridge.

Free Palestine.jpg

Duke’s policies surrounding the bridge state that “individuals and student groups may express opinions within this area that are not restricted by content, except by legal standards.” However, there are no restrictions on “painting over the sections of the tunnel that other people or student groups have painted.”

“In the face of wrenching conflict and war, a university serves a crucial role as an educational community that fosters civil discourse, critical inquiry, and openness for all viewpoints and positions,” the email read. “The recent war has already resulted in thousands of innocent lives lost. Many in our community are profoundly affected. Duke does not condone violence or threats of violence directed toward any members of our global community or within our family here on campus. ”

President Vincent Price had previously released a statement on the Israel-Hamas war urging respectful debate and discussion among Duke community members.

“As an institution of higher learning, we value wide freedom of expression for those in our campus community. With that freedom comes the responsibility to foster scholarly discourse, and not descend into polemics, personal attacks or antisemitic or anti-Muslim rhetoric,” Price wrote in the Monday statement. 

This is not the first time phrases have been removed from the bridge. In October 2021, homophobic and anti-Black graffiti was found on the bridge, which the Division of Student Affairs and Duke Facilities “immediately” worked to remove.

In February 2020, a red swastika was found painted on the bridge, but was quickly painted over. It wasn’t clear who had removed the symbol.

Another swastika was found on the bridge in November 2018. Price pledged afterwards to install a security camera at the bridge, which was used in an attempt to catch the painter of the swastika in 2020.

In November 2021, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-profit civil liberties group focused on protecting free speech rights on college campuses, sent a letter to Price arguing that “investigation into painted content and the use of surveillance cameras to monitor the bridge threaten the ability of students to exercise their right to engage in anonymous expression.”

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