Revisiting Duke’s student movements demanding divestment from Israel

In recent months, pro-Palestinian demonstrations on college campuses across the country have demanded universities disclose and cut off dealings tied to Israel, but institutions including Duke have not answered the call.

On May 12, Duke graduates staged a walk-out during the Class of 2024 Commencement Ceremony to call on the University to divest from its holdings in Israel. Earlier on April 26, a coalition of Duke students, faculty, staff and community members organized a pro-Palestinian rally on Abele Quad calling on the University to divest — one of the largest protests on Duke’s campus since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7.

This is not the first time Duke students have mobilized in support of divestment from Israel. Student protests for divestment on the matter can be traced back to over two decades ago with the start of the DukeDivest movement in 2003.

University administration has continued to firmly reject any form of divestment and has upheld civil dialogue and academic freedom as a more effective response than withdrawing its assets from companies tied to Israel.

In light of the recent surge in pro-Palestinian encampments and demonstrations across college campuses, The Chronicle revisited Duke’s history of campaigns for divestment from Israel and freedom of speech on campus.

2003 DukeDivest movement

Widespread engagement with the Israel divestment movement at Duke began in January 2003 when DukeDivest organized a teach-in forum, sparking debate among panelists and the audience. The campaign, led by students, faculty and staff members, demanded that the University “divest from military ties to Israel.”

The movement to divest from Israel first gained traction across college campuses in May 2002 when faculty members from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a petition urging the government to financially sanction Israel for the “IDF[’s] reoccupation of Palestinian areas” and failure to comply with United Nations Resolution 242 amidst the second intifada.

The movement quickly spread to college campuses across the country, including the University of California, Berkeley, Columbia University, the University of Michigan and Princeton University.

DukeDivest organizers pointed out that the institution holds stock in companies such as Caterpillar Inc., which has contributed to the state’s violation of human rights in the Gaza Strip.

“No Duke money should subsidize the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands. No Duke money should help fund the death, destruction and suffering of stateless people,” wrote Yousuf al-Bulushi, Trinity ‘04, in a January 2003 guest column to The Chronicle.

The movement also raised concerns about the University’s lack of transparency regarding its investment records. As a private institution, Duke is not obliged by law to disclose its investment portfolio and ties with corporations. Many public universities have also kept their investments private.

Students in favor of divestment from Israel sought to replicate the success of the South Africa divestment campaign in 1986. In the aftermath of a series of protests in the 1980s featuring anti-apartheid shanties and resulting in student arrests, the Board of Trustees eventually announced that it would sell its holdings in companies tied to South Africa.

But the Israel divestment campaign did not receive the same response from the University.

Former President Nannerl Keohane identified the conflict as a “complex issue” that is “too multi-faceted” and the tactic of divestment as “too blunt an instrument.” She distinguished the case of Israel from South Africa by noting that the University’s decision to divest in the latter was warranted by “an extraordinary level of moral clarity about questions of responsibility,” which she felt was absent in discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In a February 2003 meeting between DukeDivest and Keohane, students presented arguments for divestment from Israel alongside a petition with over 165 signatures supporting the cause. Although Keohane maintained a firm stance that divestment was not the right response, she agreed to provide a draft of DukeDivest’s demands to the Board of Trustees Executive Committee.

2004 Palestine Solidarity Movement conference

Nationwide calls for divestment coincided with the rise of the “Palestine Solidarity Movement,” a national student organization that advocated for divestment as a nonviolent tactic to pressure Israel towards a just resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Controversy ensued both on campus and beyond when Duke agreed to allow PSM to host its fourth annual national conference at the University in October 2004, despite widespread criticism over the group’s alleged refusal to denounce any terrorist acts by Palestinians.

The three-day gathering, which attracted several hundred people, proceeded relatively peacefully with a series of panels and workshops informing conferees about topics such as the historical development of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need to respect each other’s history.

On the last day of the conference, attendees silently marched through the main quad carrying photos of Palestinians and chanted, “Divest from apartheid Israel.”

"We've had a peaceful conclusion to a lively weekend," Brodhead said in an October 2004 Duke Today article. "From the very beginning of this controversy, Duke made clear it was not in favor of one side or the other. Rather, it embraced its role as a university in providing a setting where people can voice their opinions freely.”

Though the conference proceeded largely without issue, Duke’s decision months prior to host it on campus came under fire when more than 90,000 people signed an online petition urging Brodhead to not allow the group on campus. Pro-Israel groups and student organizations also called on the University to ban the event because PSM leaders were unwilling to sign a statement that would “condemn the murder of innocent civilians,” denounce terrorism and endorse a two-state solution.

When questioned about the conference during visits to both the Freeman Center for Jewish Life and the Judea Reform Congregation in Durham one month before the event, Brodhead defended the University’s decision. He emphasized the University’s historic commitment to free speech and noted that student organizers of the conference had followed official procedures in registering student events.

"You should not think the truth is so weak that it needs the power of suppression," he said of the University’s commitment to free speech.

In the same statement, Brodhead ruled out the possibility of divestment. He reaffirmed Keohane’s stance that divestment from Israel was not the right response in a situation that is not clear-cut, adding that it “would be used only as a last resort.”

In the nearly two decades since Brodhead’s statement, there has been no official change in the University’s stance on divestment from Israel.

President Vincent Price released a statement Oct. 10 condemning the Oct. 7 attack on Israeli territories by militant group Hamas and denouncing the “rise in antisemitism in recent years.” After releasing a second statement Oct. 16 urging respectful debate and discussion, he has since refrained from commenting on the intensifying conflict and has yet to address student calls to divest from Israel.

Free speech and The Chronicle

The spirit of reconciliation and dialogue did not continue after the conference, as tension between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian sentiments erupted into a national scandal involving The Chronicle.

The student-run newspaper faced immediate backlash when it published an opinion piece by Philip Kurian, Trinity ‘05, the day after the conference concluded.

Kurian’s column, “The Jews,” targeted the Jewish population as “the most privileged ‘minority’ group in this country” with “shocking overrepresentation” in the nation’s top ten universities. He also referred to the “influential weight” of the “well-funded and well-organized [Jewish] establishment” at Duke.

The column was criticized for using antisemitic rhetoric and provoked outcry from students, administrators and Jewish organizations. Calls for the reexamination of The Chronicle’s leadership were accompanied by criticism for the paper’s decision to not publish a letter submitted by the Anti-Defamation League, which defended Jews’ rights to free speech “without having to endure accusations of privilege.”

Karen Hauptman, Trinity ‘05 and former editor-in-chief of The Chronicle, defended her decision to run the piece but conceded that she should have made editorial changes to the language and headline.

Hauptman, who is Jewish herself, cited the newspaper’s broad free speech policy and distinguished the views expressed by opinion columnists from the opinions of the Editorial Board and the newspaper in general.

In a letter sent to the editors of The Chronicle, Brodhead denounced the “disindividuating, dehumanizing logic of prejudice” that he found in Kurian’s article. Recognizing that prejudice had no place at an institution like Duke, Brodhead reaffirmed the importance of free expression.


In the years following the conference, the University expanded student access to on-campus resources, events and forums that foster dialogue about conflict in the Middle East.

The University also took action to support both Jewish and Muslim ethnic and religious communities. In March 2005, The Freeman Center for Jewish Life appointed its first rabbi since 2002 and reintroduced kosher dining. Then in June 2008, Abdullah Antepli, associate professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy, joined the University as its first full-time Muslim chaplain.

In response to renewed violence in the Middle East with the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, the University recently updated its Community Standard and Policy on Prohibited Discrimination, Harassment and Misconduct to promote respectful campus discourse.

Working in tandem with the Center for Muslim Life and Jewish Life at Duke, the University also established the year-long Provost’s Initiative on the Middle East in February to host events and forums where students exchange diverse perspectives on controversial topics.

Lucas Lin | University News Editor

Lucas Lin is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


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