In defense of neutral space

guest column

On December 5, I had the honor of convening “A Talking Circle on the War in Israel and Gaza: Sharing Our Pain” alongside Professors Abdullah Antepli and Peter Casarella. This event was sponsored by The Duke University Chapel, Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation, Fons Vitae and Student Affairs. Over 40 people — undergraduates, graduate and professional school students, staff and faculty — attended this two-hour event, where we were able to share the pain that we are feeling following the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 and its continuing aftermath. At five tables, we introduced ourselves, our reasons for attending and our connection to the current crisis. In the second round, we talked about our personal pain about the Oct. 7 attack and the war in Gaza. Finally, in the third round, we reflected on our experience participating in this event and what other events we would like to see moving forward.

Based on a model from my former institution, Brandeis University, I convened this event amidst the increasingly deafening silence of our Duke community to engage in civil, respectful and honest discourse. For two hours, we listened to each other attentively and respectfully. Participants in the event — spanning a broad swath of political, religious, socio-economic and ethnic divides — called for more spaces at Duke in which to engage in civil discourse with people other people with differing viewpoints. While this event was only a small step towards fuller dialogue, it nevertheless was a step — one that hasn’t been taken by many — to accommodate more than just one viewpoint.

Participants expressed their appreciation for the chance to engage in a space where we may not agree on a resolution of the current crisis, but where we all agree about our anguish at the tragic loss of human life, while still being able to stand within our own sense of justice. After two months of feeling unable to engage anywhere safe, it was constructive to hear from someone coming to this crisis from a completely different viewpoint who, by virtue of actually taking part in this event, could be trusted and clearly wanted more than to shout obscenities or express platitudes or slogans.

I very much hope that other units of Duke University, and Duke’s administration, will early next semester follow up this discussion with a broader set of events, from a variety of perspectives, to better edify the Duke community. Talks, panels, seminars and discussion groups may focus on issues such as genocide, describing colonialism and its effects, national security, just wars, antisemitism, Islamophobia, nationalism and tribalism, the history of the Middle East, the limits of free speech at the University, the fate of displaced people and the impact of war on the environment. It is clear from the event last week that spaces to discuss such issues are sorely missed — and much-needed — on our campus.

Marc Brettler is the Bernice and Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies in Trinity College’s Department of Religious Studies.


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