PSM Brings Passionate, Peaceful Protests

January 31, 2005
 
Signs of the time: demonstrators from both sides
Signs of the time: demonstrators from both sides

Signs of the time: demonstrators from both sides; PLO's legal adviser Dianna Buttu spoke at panel session. Photos: Chris Hildreth

Signs of the time: demonstrators from both sides

The National Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement ended peacefully October 17 with approximately fifty participants marching through West Campus, chanting slogans, and dancing in a large circle.

The march began outside the intramural (IM) building, with some of the participants holding photographs with images meant to be representative of Palestinian suffering. The marchers walked in silence, joined by a group of Hasidic Jews who oppose a Jewish state. Once the marchers reached the quad, they formed a line and stood silently for a few moments while protesters lined up along a barricade behind them. The PSM conferees and supporters then began chanting "Divest from apartheid Israel" and started a folk dance around the quad.

Duke administrators, who were out in force throughout the weekend, said the conference and related events planned by other student groups had gone smoothly. The anticipated large-scale protests never materialized, and administrators and faculty members said that panel discussions and impromptu exchanges outside the conference venues were both passionate and respectful. "There was dialogue at an incredibly high level," said Rann Bar-On, a Duke graduate student and a conference organizer. Organizers said more than 500 people attended the conference, and Duke officials estimated that some two dozen demonstrators showed up to protest.

During the weekend, Duke's Freeman Center held it own activities, including talks by former Israeli Knesset speaker Avraham Burg and pro-Israel activist Daniel Pipes. Chabad, a Jewish campus organization, arranged for an exhibit of Bus 19, an Israeli bus that was the target of a suicide bomber. A number of groups co-sponsored a "Students Against Terror Concert" on Keohane Quad.

For several months, Duke has been the subject of praise and criticism for agreeing to host the conference. In letters, speeches, and interviews, President Richard H. Brodhead was repeatedly questioned--at times, assailed--by groups calling on him to cancel the conference; he steadfastly affirmed Duke's commitment to free speech and academic freedom.

To one concerned parent, he wrote, "I deplore the violence in the Middle East and the historic inability of the Israelis and the Palestinians to find a workable solution to their longstanding and awful conflict. But I truly believe that the long-term solution to these issues will come more from open and honest discussion and the education it produces than from squelching discussion." Brodhead held firm to those views when presented with a petition circulated by the Boston Israel Action Committee urging Duke to cancel the conference and signed by more than 94,000 people. Duke also received more than 1,000 letters and e-mail messages, many of them critical of the university's position.

Speaking on the last day of the conference, Brodhead hailed what he characterized as "a peaceful conclusion to a lively weekend." "I'm especially proud of our students who, even though they have different political views, all showed great leadership in pulling off successful events and considerable challenges." He said that he hoped the conference would inspire broad-based discussions throughout the year.

However, speaking on a faculty panel at semester's end, Sidra Ezrahi, visiting professor of Judaic studies, observed, as did others, that the discussions carried on over the weekend of the conference tended to be compartmentalized. "What happened at PSM and Freeman was in fact a kind of microcosm of what's happened on the ground in the Middle East in the last fifteen years," she said. "There's a kind of hermetic turning inwards in both communities."

One source of controversy in the run-up to the conference involved the PSM organizers' refusal to sign a statement denouncing terrorism. On Saturday evening, PSM delegates twice voted to not change the language of Guiding Principle 5, which says, in part, "As a solidarity movement, it is not our place to dictate strategies or tactics adopted by the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom." Pro-Israel backers say the statement is tantamount to an endorsement of terrorism.

On Sunday morning, Duke police received a telephone call from someone claiming to be "one of the people from Israel here at this conference." The caller said three bombs had been placed in "Bryan Hall," leading officials to evacuate the similarly named Bryan Center, where some of the conference proceedings originally had been scheduled. The county bomb squad searched the building and declared it safe for reentry. (Before the conference began, university officials had denounced as "a deliberate act of disinformation and provocation" a bogus e-mail message. Falsely attributed to two student organizers, the message had tied the conference to support for terrorism.)

Most of the day's events were closed to the media, and so reporters and administrators spent much of the day stationed outside the IM building listening to about twenty protesters gathered nearby, who carried signs with messages such as "Stop Support of Terror" and "Suicide Bombing is a Crime Against Humanity," and chanted slogans.

"We're disappointed in Duke," said Rabbi Ari Weiss, the founder of Amcha, a Jewish organization in New York, which sent a group of protesters. Describing the PSM as "people who support terror," he said, "I don't think Duke would allow the KKK to meet, but this group [the PSM] refused to vote down terror. It's shameful. If you're unprepared to vote it down, you become an accomplice."

Weiss said he believes that "the death of an innocent Palestinian is no less than the death of an innocent Jew." He argued, however, that Palestinian deaths are related to legitimate acts of self-defense by Israeli forces rather to deliberate terrorism. "You have to look at intentions," he said. "There's nothing that justifies murder."

Another protester said he found Amcha "too confrontational," while a third voiced disappointment that more Duke students had not come to learn from the variety of viewpoints being exchanged.

Miriam Cooke, a Duke professor of Arabic literature and culture who participated in the conference, said there was none of the extreme rhetoric some had predicted. But she expressed disappointment that more people with opposing views did not attend. "It was a place where dialogue would have been possible if it hadn't been over-hyped," she said.

Jonathan Gerstl, executive director of the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, echoed other administrators in expressing hope that discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue on campus. For such discussion to be productive, he added, all sides had to condemn terrorism. "Without condemning terror, you can't begin to build empathy," he said. "Without empathy, you can't begin to have a dialogue. My hope is that Duke students will have had something sparked by the conference."

In the wake of the conference, on Monday, The Chronicle published a column by senior Philip Kurian titled "THE JEWS," and controversy re-erupted. In response, President Brodhead wrote a letter to the editors in which he said that he was "deeply troubled" by the column. "The column was headed 'THE JEWS' as if Jews were susceptible to group definition, and though its author probably did not mean to, it revived stereotypical images that have played a long-running role in the history of anti-Semitism."

"At this season, it's important to remember that all prejudice is one and must be resisted as one," Brodhead continued. "The habits of mind that allow people to stereotype Jews are the same ones that allow them to denigrate blacks, gays, and other objects of prejudice. These have no place at a great university. Part of the education Duke affords should be an education in the danger of prejudice and in the full humanity of others. We all need this education, and we are all capable of learning.

"In my address to this year's freshmen I said: 'Wherever you come from and whatever you believe, this is your place. You are all equally welcome to Duke and equally entitled to its benefits.' Let's reaffirm that message now--through our words and through our daily dealings with one another."

Chronicle editor Karen Hauptman, a junior, responded on October 21 in her own column, "Building on Dissent": "As many of our readers have pointed out, there is a difference between having the right to print something and being right in printing something. I believe we were right in printing the column." She added, "The value in printing it was not the assertion of First Amendment rights; it was our decision to present on our pages a more difficult discussion that resulted from the PSM conference and that is currently happening on our campus. To not print the column because the opinion presented is offensive would be to ignore a debate that is present around us. To print the column was to allow all sides to respond in a truly open forum."

Responding to the contentiousness on campus, student leaders, in late October, issued an open letter to the Duke community. They wrote, "It is time to engage in vigorous, respectful discussion about racial, cultural, and religious identities without employing stereotypes and unfounded generalizations. Dialogue and education should occur about the many issues the events of the past two weeks have raised while maintaining civility, open minds, and an awareness of the historical context of the arguments used."