Commentary Magazine


Down at Duke

 

To the Editor:

Eric Adler and Jack Langer’s “The Intifada Comes to Duke” [January] is replete with misrepresentations and errors of omission. They present a distorted picture of Duke University’s decision to allow its students to host the annual conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM) this past fall, as other leading universities—the University of California, the University of Michigan, and Ohio State University—have done in previous years. The authors consistently misrepresent the positions of Richard Brodhead, the president of Duke, as well as the conference proceedings. They virtually ignore the numerous pro-Israel programs that have occurred here and repeatedly attribute statements and positions to people who neither attended the student conference nor have anything to do with Duke.

The authors’ description of events is so narrow and misleading as to alter fundamentally the truth of what occurred at Duke, where a venue was provided for both Israelis and Palestinians to make their case about their longstanding conflict.

The article begins by citing previous views attributed by the authors to five extremist supporters of the Palestinian cause, four of whom did not attend the Duke student conference. The authors express befuddlement about why one of these extremists, Charles Carlson, did not speak at the gathering. The answer is simple. The student sponsors told me his views were so extreme and opposed to their own that they chose not to provide him with a forum. One of the other extremists cited has no relationship to Duke and is in prison, as the authors surely know.

Messrs. Adler and Langer postulate that the International Solidarity Movement (ISM)—a group with acknowledged ties to some extremist Palestinian groups—and the Palestine Solidarity Movement are one and the same. Duke was explicitly told by federal law-enforcement officials that this is not the case, and that the Palestine Solidarity Movement is a loose confederation of student groups at campuses across the country with no ties to known terrorists.

Messrs. Adler and Langer state that President Brodhead endorsed the conference. That is not true. He and other university officials repeatedly said that the university’s decision to support its students in holding a conference was based on the principle of free speech, and was not an endorsement of the views of its sponsors. President Brodhead also said repeatedly that free speech and expression are important values to support since it is through dialogue and the free exchange of ideas, rather than suppression of speech, that the campus community can be educated on controversial issues. He publicly stated that while it is a foundational principle of American life that all ideas should have an equal opportunity to be expressed, he did not see all ideas as equal, and the university is not obligated to be a venue for all expression. Each situation needs to be evaluated, as this one was.

Readers of Commentary deserve a more complete view of the events of last October and the degree to which the university, and particularly Duke students, turned what could have been merely a controversial event into an opportunity for genuine education, consistent with President Brodhead’s urging. In fact, far from the one-sided picture presented in Commentary, our students had an opportunity to hear a rich array of perspectives on the Middle East conflict. A few days before the conference, a bus exploded by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem last January, killing 11 innocent civilians, was displayed by supporters of Israel on our main quad in front of Duke Chapel. It provided a powerful reminder of the horrors of terrorism and the intifada. On the following evening, Daniel Pipes, an aggressive advocate for Israel who is familiar to readers of Commentary, spoke under the sponsorship of the Freeman Center for Jewish Life and the Duke Conservative Union. That night, in a program broadcast over the Internet across the globe, some 30 Duke student groups sponsored a rally and concert against terrorism in which President Brodhead, our local congressman, and the mayor of Durham condemned terrorism and the killing of innocent civilians.

During the weekend of the PSM conference, Duke’s Jewish students and the Freeman Center sponsored an address by Avraham Burg, the former speaker of Israel’s parliament, as well as a panel discussion reflecting a diverse range of views by representatives, including rabbis, of different Jewish traditions. Burg emphasized in his remarks that the worst thing that could happen to Israel would be to have American Jewry hold a single view of issues affecting Palestinians and Israelis. The discussions at our campus clearly reflected that diversity of opinion.

Despite some of the claims made about prior conferences at other campuses, the PSM conference at Duke was peaceful and was not characterized by hate speech, nor was an endorsement of a one-state solution required as a condition of attendance. The only condition imposed by Duke students was a code of civility and mutual respect. All conference events were open to the first 500 registrants, including many supporters of Israel and large numbers of individuals who identified themselves as Jewish. Indeed, Eric Adler was among the first names on the list, and he and others had unfettered access to the proceedings. The vast majority of these were open to the media—including the session he and Mr. Langer inaccurately report was snuck onto the agenda at the last minute. As President Brodhead has publicly stated, the PSM has appropriately been criticized for advocating nonviolence while also saying it should not tell Palestinians what tactics to use, including violence.

Messrs. Adler and Langer refer to two of the 33 workshops/symposia where more radical views were expressed. They neglect to mention another symposium, led by an officer of Amnesty International who castigated the PSM for refusing to denounce violence against civilians as a violation of international law. Duke students led the effort to get the PSM conferees to support this position, which failed by only a few votes.

Similarly, Messrs. Adler and Langer assert that an opinion article written by a Duke student for the campus student newspaper after the conference led to an “intense anti-Semitic outpouring” on the paper’s on-line discussion boards. They give excerpts from four disgusting messages there as representative samples; none of them was written by anyone at Duke. If one actually reads the discussion boards, one finds a discussion overwhelmingly critical of the student article, which President Brodhead denounced as displaying “a form of stereotypic thinking deplorable under any circumstances, and completely inappropriate to this community”—a statement Messrs. Adler and Langer conveniently managed to overlook.

The assertions by Messrs. Adler and Langer notwithstanding, President Brodhead has repeatedly condemned terrorism and violence as the antithesis of reason. He has declared his abhorrence of prejudice and the disindividuating, dehumanizing logic by which it works. He has emphasized that anti-Semitism has no place at Duke and will not be tolerated, and that the university’s allowing a group of its students to sponsor an event does not imply institutional endorsement of their views. President Brodhead has also rejected unequivocally any calls for Duke to divest itself of investment holdings in Israel.

Messrs. Adler and Langer attack President Brodhead for what they allege is a shift in the basis of his support of the students in holding the conference (from the principle of free speech to education through dialogue); this is simply not the case. As he said in his recent welcoming address to freshmen:

 

We have to hope that the world of equal rights and mutual respect will not be a world of self-neutralized convictions and watered-down consensus. Imperfect though it may still be, the new world the civil-rights movement created would not have come into existence without hot convictions and sharp elbows. But it requires work to get this balance right. Something I would love to see Duke pioneer—and for this to happen it will have to be our common creation—is a culture of positive intellectual difference or what the poet Blake called mental strife. American universities have taken far more trouble to host athletic contests than most sorts of intellectual contention. But since powerful differences shape the force-field of our lives, the sides had better learn something about each other and, dare one hope it, learn something from each other.

That is what free speech and dialogue and education are about, and that is what happened at Duke.

John F. Burness

Senior Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations

Duke University

Durham, North Carolina

 

To the Editor:

Though pretending to be a report on the conference held at Duke this past October (at which I was a speaker), Eric Adler and Jack Langer’s article is an opinion essay containing the maximum amount of false rhetoric that can be compressed into 2,000 words. I will address only some of its distortions.

Messrs. Adler and Langer dismiss the notion that Israel is a human-rights abuser. But every human-rights organization that has looked into the actions of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the Palestinian territories has concluded that it targets civilians. Even the Israeli group B’Tselem stated that

 

since the beginning of the intifada, IDF soldiers have killed at least 1,656 Palestinians who took no part in the fighting. Of those, 529 were children. Many of these deaths result from changes in the rules of engagement, which now allow soldiers to open fire on Palestinians in a variety of non-combat situations, even when the soldiers are not in danger.

Messrs. Adler and Langer also dismiss the comparison between Israel and South Africa under apartheid, but Israel’s laws—it has no constitution or bill of rights—show the similarity. All Jews are considered nationals of Israel and can automatically become citizens and get government support, including housing on land confiscated from Palestinians. By contrast, native Palestinian Christians and Muslims, simply because they are not Jewish, may not return to their homes in Israel. A recently enacted law denies residency rights to Palestinians who marry Israelis. Three-hundred-thousand of the 1.2 million Palestinians with nominal Israeli citizenship are considered by law as “present-absentees,” and their land has been taken. Over 530 Palestinian villages and towns have thus been ethnically cleansed and wiped off the face of the earth. Nearly 100 villages are “unrecognized” and are slated for removal.

Amnesty International and other human-rights groups regularly issue statements about the racism inherent in Israel’s laws. All of this, as I said in my talk at the Duke conference, reflects a “diseased” ideology of ethnocentric nationalism and racism that we are familiar with from South African apartheid and European fascism.

Most egregious is Messrs. Adler and Langer’s defamation of an American hero in writing that “activist Rachel Corrie . . . was accidentally killed in 2003 while attempting to block Israeli bulldozers from uncovering terrorist smuggling tunnels in Gaza.” But eyewitnesses reported that the driver of the armored bulldozer intentionally ran over Corrie, who was wearing an orange vest and gesturing visibly. The house she was trying to defend by such nonviolent means belonged to a pharmacist who, to this day, has not been accused of anything. His house, under which there are no tunnels, is still standing.

Using blatant lies to blame the victim is a common tactic of those who oppress and destroy. Shame. Since the U.S. government gives billions of our tax dollars to fund this charade, the least we can do is urge divestment from Israel and boycotts.

Mazin Qumsiyeh

Yale University

New Haven, Connecticut

 

To the Editor:

Eric Adler and Jack Langer are troubled that a recent conference of the Palestinian Solidarity Movement (PSM) was held at Duke. But the reason the PSM holds conferences on college campuses is plain: the Palestinian people are victims of a historic tragedy propagated by Israel and made possible by the vast, uncritical support Israel gets from the United States.A0The nature of the tragedy, its causes and history, are rarely discussed fully or truthfully in the American media. Where better to host a conference on the subject than the college campus, where free thought is promoted?

On campuses where PSM conferences are held, local Jewish organizations try to drown out the events with false charges of anti-Semitism and (of course) “terrorism.” They are willing to sacrifice freedom of speech and the integrity of the universities to ensure that the Palestinian position remains unheard.

The mainstream Jewish community, with its large network of Hillels, is well represented on American campuses. And relative to their numbers in the population, Jews are overrepresented in university faculties, student bodies, and alumni contributions. Their greater power and their vigorous attacks on the Palestinian side replicate the situation in Israel/Palestine. The conferences are necessary and important, and should be welcomed on every campus.

Miriam M. Reik

New York City

 

To the Editor:

As a 1969 graduate of Duke University, I thank you for Eric Adler and Jack Langer’s article.

In the fall of 2004, Duke’s president Richard Brodhead sent a four-page letter to alumni, half of which he devoted to explaining why he was allowing the Palestinian Solidarity Movement conference to be held on campus. Dated September 28, the letter was clearly an attempt at damage control after the public outcry against Duke’s hosting this disgusting group.

Brodhead’s letter contains a discourse on “free speech” sandwiched between a chatty report on the record high applicant pool, the departure of members of the “Duke team,” the generosity of the alumni, and the fortunes of the men’s soccer, women’s field hockey, women’s volleyball, and women’s cross-country teams. The transition from the trivial to the serious demonstrates Brodhead’s effort to minimize the hateful, blatantly anti-Semitic display that was coming to Duke:

 

My new presidency has faced a number of early challenges, from the Los Angeles Lakers’ efforts to seduce Coach K to the university’s decision to permit a Duke student group, Hiwar, to host the Fourth National Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement on campus on October 15-17.

After the conference I called Brodhead’s office to ask what he planned to do now that he had allowed the monster of anti-Semitism to rear its head on the campus of Duke University. My call was not returned, nor was my letter to the Board of Trustees. I am ashamed of the spinelessness of Duke’s leadership.

Edythe Goldstein Victor

Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania

 

To the Editor:

Eric Adler and Jack Langer are owed a huge debt of gratitude for unmasking the pseudo-academic pretenses offered by Duke administrators for allowing the Palestine Solidarity Movement’s (PSM) terror conference to be held on their campus.

The notion that Duke was trying toA0uphold the “importance of the principle of free expression” and foster “education through dialogue” is Orwellian. As Messrs. Adler and Langer point out, the conference’s organizers prohibited the presence of reporters and recording devices at their sessions. And an attempt by Jewish groups on campus to initiate a dialogue was rejected out of hand.

President Richard Brodhead and the university’s vice president for public affairs, John Burness, were undoubtedly aware of the lineup of terror apologists heading the “workshops” at the PSM conference. By allowing the conference to take place under the well-worn guise of freedom of expression, they effectively sanctioned the vilification of Jews. People of conscience should salute Messrs. Adler and Langer’s courage in exposing this sham.

Adina Kutnicki

Ridgewood, New Jersey

 

Eric Adler and Jack Langer write:

The typical course of a scandal is for a blunder to be followed by a cover-up. As the letter from John F. Burness attests, this certainly seems to be the case at Duke. Having provoked a hailstorm of criticism for inviting anti-Semites and advocates of terrorism to its campus, the university administration is now seeking shelter in evasions, prevarications, and worse.

Let us examine Mr. Burness’s claims. He asserts, first, that of the “five extremist supporters of the Palestinian cause” we linked to the Duke conference, four did not attend. If he had troubled to consult the PSM’s published agenda of the conference, he would have found that two of the five figures we named, Abe Greenhouse and Fadi Kiblawi, did in fact participate. That the other three did not is in any case irrelevant. Our explicitly stated point in naming them was simply to demonstrate the PSM’s well-documented history of extremism and anti-Semitism. That history is a subject that Mr. Burness, significantly, chooses not to discuss.

According to Mr. Burness, we were wrong to express “befuddlement” over the cancellation of a conference workshop by Charles Carlson. After all, he explains, the PSM disavows extremists like Carlson, and the student sponsors allegedly rejected him for that reason. If we were not befuddled before, we certainly are now. If Charles Carlson was too extreme for the conference, what does that say about participants like Kiblawi (who has expressed his desire to be a suicide bomber), or Mazin Qumsiyeh (who refers to Zionism as a “disease”), or Bob Brown (who calls the Six-Day war the “Jew war of ’67”)? Are these three, who did speak at the conference, not “too extreme”? Mr. Burness declines to say.

Did we “postulate,” as Mr. Burness charges, “that the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) . . . and the Palestine Solidarity Movement are one and the same”? We never postulated anything of the kind. What we did demonstrate—not postulate—is that the ISM, according to the words of one of its founders, openly cooperates with terrorist organizations, including Hamas. We also demonstrated that two panels at the Duke conference were led by ISM militants. One of these panels was a recruitment session aimed at inducing attendees to travel to Israel, there to court harm or even death, with attendant propaganda benefits in the service of the anti-Israel cause. The entirety of Mr. Burness’s reply to this is to deny that the panel was scheduled at the last minute. Refuting things we never said, Mr. Burness chooses to ignore the truly outrageous facts we presented. A pattern is becoming evident here.

Mr. Burness also maintains that, contrary to what we wrote, President Richard Brodhead never endorsed the PSM conference. Yet Brodhead said that the conference would bring “education through dialogue” to Duke. He also spoke and still speaks of the gathering as a “constructive” event. Mr. Burness, for his part, goes so far as to say that the PSM gathering was an “opportunity for genuine education.” In previous pronouncements he said of the conference that “it’s a good thing we did here,” and that the “overall tone of the weekend was one of discussion and learning.” Such laudatory characterizations are, in fact, endorsements, serving to drape a mantle of academic respectability over an organization riddled with anti-Semites and proponents of violence.

It is noteworthy, on this point, that the PSM does not present itself as an organization dedicated to fostering education and “dialogue.” Rather, as its own website makes plain, its primary mission is the elaboration of tactics and strategies to delegitimize the state of Israel. Bob Brown, in his presentation at the conference, sneered at the very notion of dialogue: “I wasn’t invited here to take part in a dialogue. I was invited here to help start a nationwide divestment movement, and anything else would be a waste of time.” If the PSM’s purpose is “dialogue,” some of its own members have yet to be informed.

Still another claim by Mr. Burness is that our article was “one-sided” because it failed to discuss the pro-Israel events that occurred on campus during the PSM conference; he cites the presence of Avraham Burg and Daniel Pipes and the display of a bombed-out bus. But a speech by Burg or Pipes, or a display of terrorist handiwork, in no way diminishes the magnitude of the bigotry exhibited by the PSM. Nor does it contribute to what Mr. Burness preposterously calls a “rich array of perspectives on the Middle East conflict,” as if terrorism and anti-Semitism were just “perspectives” like any others.

But this gets to the heart of the matter: what actually was said, and advocated, at the PSM conference. Ignoring the many examples of bigotry and incitement documented in our article, Mr. Burness instead points to a single workshop in which extremism and anti-Semitism were not evident. The argument that the PSM conference was constructive because one of its workshops was not anti-Semitic is so weak as to refute itself.

At one juncture, Mr. Burness reminds us that President Brodhead, an advocate of free speech, nevertheless does “not see all ideas as equal,” and believes that “the university is not obligated to be a venue for all expression.” This is a sentiment with which we certainly agree. But the statement leaves us wondering; if an organization with a documented history of anti-Semitism and incitement to violence can be granted a venue at Duke, what kinds of “expression” would be denied? Silence once again, alas.

Concluding his letter, Mr. Burness cites President Brodhead’s remarks that anti-Semitism will not be tolerated at Duke. Unfortunately, tolerating anti-Semitism is exactly what the Duke administration has already done. As we noted in our article, the real issue in this controversy is the refusal of the Duke administration to call anti-Semitism and incitement to the murder of innocents by their proper names, even when staring them in the face. That refusal continues. To the “cowardice and complicity” with which we charged the administration in our article, we can now add the charge of engaging in a cover-up, and a clumsy cover-up at that.

Declining to address any aspect of our account of the PSM conference, Mazin Qumsiyeh simply rehashes a litany of pro-Palestinian talking points. In the course of doing so, he asserts that we “dismiss” comparisons of Israel with South Africa under apartheid, as well as the notion that Israel is a “human-rights abuser.” We never dismissed either of these claims; we did not assess them at all. Such false and vicious comparisons have been effectively put to rest in numerous articles in Commentary and elsewhere.

What we did note was that at the PSM conference where Mr. Qumsiyeh was a keynote speaker, Israel was characterized, absurdly and poisonously, as the “greatest abuser of human rights” in the world. Mr. Qumsiyeh’s letter provides yet more evidence, if more were needed, that the PSM is more interested in disseminating propaganda than it is in engaging in genuine discussion.

Similarly, Miriam M. Reik takes us to task for allegedly suggesting that pro-Palestinian conferences should not be held at universities. Again, we made no such argument. What we did was to criticize Duke for hosting one particular conference—that of the Palestine Solidarity Movement—and we presented reasons why it deserves to be criticized. We would welcome any conference devoted to the Palestinian issue that did not exhibit the kind of extremism and anti-Semitism that marred the PSM gathering at Duke. As for Miriam M. Reik’s assertion that Jews are “overrepresented” in American universities, it does not leave us with much confidence in her ability to identify the kind of bigotry that we oppose.

Finally, we thank Adina Kutnicki and Edythe Goldstein Victor for their generous comments.

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