Holding Duke accountable: A call for divestment from Israeli apartheid 76 years into the ongoing Nakba

guest column

May 15, 2024, marked the 76th anniversary of the 1948 Nakba and the Palestinian people's ongoing catastrophe amid occupation, apartheid and genocide. Between 1947 and 1949, 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes and lands in a displacement known as the Nakba, or "catastrophe" in Arabic. Every year on May 15, Palestinians commemorate Nakba Day around the world in remembrance of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the near-total destruction of Palestinian society.

Many Palestinians are likening Israel's current siege on Gaza to a "second Nakba," drawing from their collective memory of historical displacement and the destruction of their homes, land and cultural heritage. This comparison is rooted in both the immediate suffering endured by Palestinians in Gaza and the transgenerational trauma stemming from the 1948 Nakba and the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine. 

Over the past seven months, the world has witnessed Israel and the United States unleash unimaginable destruction on Palestine. Since the Hamas-led attack in Israel, which resulted in the deaths of roughly 1,200 people and the taking of 250 hostages, Israel has killed approximately 35,000 Palestinians, including nearly 7,800 identified children and thousands more unidentified and missing under the rubble. 1.1 million people, more than half of Gaza's population, are experiencing catastrophic food insecurity, and 32 people, including 28 children, have died of starvation. Israel launched a full-scale military invasion on May 7, 2024, after corralling 1.4 million people into a 25-square-mile “safe zone” in Rafah. On Sunday, May 26, Israeli airstrikes targeted a “safe zone” in Rafah filled with more than 85% of the Gazan population, killing 45 people, dismembering children and setting fire to the tents and makeshift shelters. Israel’s latest attack has exacerbated the already dire situation at local hospitals, which are unable to adequately treat Palestinian civilians’ traumatic injuries and burns. 

The destruction of Palestinian homes, land and heritage is not restricted to Gaza. There has been a thoroughly documented and substantial spike in state-backed Israeli settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in recent years, building on over 50 years of unrestricted settler violence. Israeli settlers — individuals who reside on Palestinian land illegally — physically attack Palestinians and destroy or severely damage Palestinian property daily. Armed settlers, alongside Israeli military units, have raided Palestinian communities, assaulted and forcibly displaced residents. Recent settler attacks have entirely uprooted at least seven Palestinian communities and displaced residents from 20 other Palestinian communities. Israeli settlers have also attacked, looted and destroyed aid trucks bound for Gaza. 800 Israeli settler-led attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank have been documented since October 7, 2023. Israeli forces have also killed at least 500 Palestinians in the West Bank during this period. 

Since 2021, Israeli settler attacks have become increasingly coordinated, with larger groups of settlers carrying out attacks that strategically target Palestinians and their livelihoods, including cutting down trees, razing farmlands and intentionally burning cars and homes. The Israeli military frequently protects these settlers and even provides them with weapons

The recent increase in Israeli settler attacks and Israeli military violence in the West Bank is not a response to October 7. Rather, it builds on a well-documented rise in state-backed Israeli settler violence against Palestinian civilians for years. 

According to a recent article in The Chronicle, DUMAC, Inc., the company that manages Duke’s investment and endowment has disclosed investments with and holdings in companies operating in Israel or linked to Israeli activities. The report shows that Duke maintains significant partnerships and receives substantial funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, some of which involve collaborations with private military contractors that supply military aid to Israel, primarily for research and development purposes. 

Duke University is financially and institutionally complicit in Israel's ongoing genocide, apartheid and occupation of Palestine. Since October, Duke has failed to condemn or speak on the horrifying violence Israel is committing and which we are all witnessing. Despite calls from Duke community members to disclose and divest from companies profiting from Israel's violence in Palestine, the Duke administration has not indicated that it plans to assess university investments and has not issued any statements calling for an immediate, permanent ceasefire in Gaza or denouncing Israel's ongoing genocidal campaign against the Palestinian people. 

President Vincent Price has released only two statements regarding these events. The first statement, released on October 10, 2023, failed to mention Gaza, Palestine and Palestinians at all, despite nearly 1,000 deaths and 5,000 injuries documented in Gaza by the time of the statement’s release. His second statement, released on October 16, 2023, added a brief reference to all Palestinian and Israeli lives lost. 

While Price and the Duke administration claim political neutrality, they have made strong statements of condemnation in the past, including against Russia's invasion of Ukraine and firmly stated support for the Ukrainian people. It seems that Israel's killing of more than 35,000 and wounding of 79,200 Palestinians is not enough to evoke "sadness" and "outrage" from Price, given that he has chosen to remain silent since those two initial statements. Instead, administrators have censured students and faculty under the guise of institutional neutrality for the entirety of this past academic year. 

Despite being an expert on public opinion, social influence and political communication, Price has shown a striking lack of responsiveness to recent anti-Arab sentiment, Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination on campus. His background and acclaimed research supposedly position him well to consider and incorporate feedback from the Duke community. Yet, Price's silence on the urgent calls for Duke to divest from companies complicit in Israel's violence against Palestinians stands in stark contrast to his professional expertise. His failure to issue a robust statement or take decisive action undermines his so-called strategic vision of "empowering people" and "building community." Price’s reluctance to address the moral and ethical concerns of students, faculty and alumni reflects a troubling inconsistency that calls into question the university's commitment to its stated values of racial justice and global engagement. 

Duke's Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) and Student Affairs administrators have, on multiple occasions, failed to adequately investigate or speak on incidents of anti-Palestinian racism and national origin-based discrimination on our campus, including the repeated defacement of Muslim and Palestine-related murals on the Free Expression Bridge. It made no efforts to acknowledge or investigate until students initiated a collective reporting campaign, which was posted to social media on April 27, 2024. The OIE emailed all Duke graduate, professional and undergraduate students about the defacement the following day. The defacements included altering a Quranic verse on the mural, “Our Lord, indeed You are Kind and Merciful,” being edited to include the word “not” before “Merciful,” and placing posters of red cows over the flags of several Muslim-majority nations — images that are a reference to calls to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Muslim holy site in Jerusalem. 

The OIE’s negligence has led the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, to call on state and federal law enforcement authorities to investigate the repeated defacement of the mural as a possible hate crime

Duke itself is a product of land theft and erasure. It contributes to the gentrification of Durham and the displacement of many Black and Brown residents who reside predominantly in lower-income areas, starting with opportunistic land grabs in the 1960s and 70s. 

In 1977, the Duke administration participated in the demolition of Crest Street by advocating for the extension of the Durham Freeway, which fractured a predominantly Black and low-income community near campus with ties to Duke's labor force. In 1988, a Duke-owned property was rezoned from residential to office use, displacing 42 families. In the last decade, Duke has repeatedly undermined public transit projects, cutting funding for the Bull City Connector in 2017 and almost single-handedly killing the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project that would connect Durham and Orange counties while ignoring calls from low-income Black and Brown communities to invest in the existing bus transit system. 

Duke's use of land grabs, gentrification and forced displacement to expand its operations and wealth are the same tactics used by the Israeli government against Palestinians in occupied Palestine.  

Tactics of state-sanctioned violence against and surveillance of minoritized communities in the United States are inextricably tied to Israel's apartheid against Palestinians. Public surveillance and law enforcement militarization in the U.S. are enabled by the same technologies and public-private partnerships that facilitate the Israeli occupation. American technology companies like Google and Amazon — driven by profit over people — have contracts with the Israeli government and military; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; U.S. Customs and Border Protection; and the U.S. military to provide computing infrastructure, artificial intelligence and other technology services. Exchange programs between the U.S. and Israel bring together law enforcement and military personnel to share tactics for violence and control. 

In 2018, a coalition of Black, Palestinian and Jewish organizations in Durham led a campaign that made this city the first in the U.S. to pass a resolution prohibiting police exchanges with Israel. We are informed by and build upon the work of those who came before us and those who work alongside us. 

Since the beginning of Israel's violent onslaught, Duke students, alumni, faculty and staff have worked together and used our collective power to organize many actions: walkouts, die-ins, vigils, rallies, teach-ins, film screenings, marches and fundraisers with the explicit call to end the ongoing genocide in Gaza and fight for Palestinian liberation. 

We acknowledge the profound urgency of the moment, and we are deeply committed to holding Duke accountable for its financial and institutional complicity in Israel's ongoing genocide, apartheid and occupation of Palestine. A group of graduate and undergraduate students have worked with alumni to formally outline a student-led coalition's demands, values and mission. 

The Duke Divest Coalition (DDC) is a student-led coalition of undergraduate, graduate, staff, faculty and alumni groups. Our coalition draws inspiration from a rich legacy of student and worker organizing, echoing the voices of those who protested U.S. imperialism in Vietnam and Iraq, fought for Black liberation by occupying the Allen Building in 1969, rallied against Duke's investments in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, advocated for campus workers' rights through the occupation of the Allen Building in 2016 and worked for transformative institutional change by disrupting President Price's Alumni Address and establishing the People's State of the University in 2018. We recognize that the Palestinian liberation movement is intimately connected to a network of liberation movements worldwide. 

The Duke Divest Coalition (DDC) is committed to supporting Palestinian rights and advocating for Duke's divestment from Israeli occupation, apartheid and genocide. Our complete statement and demands are on our website


Share and discuss “Holding Duke accountable: A call for divestment from Israeli apartheid 76 years into the ongoing Nakba” on social media.