Both claims of antisemitism and equal rights of non-Jewish Palestinian families were topics in the Duke University student newspaper, The Chronicle, late this past year. A mid-November Letter to the Editor sparked discussion of the intentions of student-led groups on campus. The letter, penned by the pro-Palestine student group Duke Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), called into question the mission of the pro-Israel campus chapter of Students Supporting Israel (SSI).
The episode on campus began in early November when a Duke student published a Tweet saying Duke supported “settler colonialism” in Israel. In response, SSI posted a since-deleted screenshot of the Duke student’s tweet to their Instagram page with a caption offering to educate the student “on what ‘settler colonialism’ actually is and why Israel does not fall under this category.”
Duke SSI Fails to Gain Recognition as a Student Group
After many negative comments in response to Duke SSI’s post, Christina Wang, Duke’s Student Government President, vetoed recognition for the Duke SSI Chapter on the grounds of harassment. The Duke student senate overwhelmingly supported the veto. According to The Fire, a publication dedicated to promoting free speech on college campuses, Wang stated that Duke SSI’s Instagram post “was unacceptable for any student group and appeared antithetical to the group’s stated mission to be welcoming and inclusive to all Duke students.”
Free Speech and the Israel-Palestinian Conflict
College campuses are known for being places of higher learning but are also notorious for being bastions of privilege where sometimes open discussion is shut down under the guise of political correctness.
- Was Duke SSI’s singling out a particular student with an opposing viewpoint harassment?
- Was the veto of the chapter’s group status an appropriate response or antisemitic?
How one answers these questions may depend on the eye of the beholder.
A Microcosm of a Greater Conflict
Lives are affected on all sides. Even thousands of miles away, people want to talk about what is going on Israel and Palestine. Today graffiti that reads “Free Gaza” can be found spray-painted on walls around university libraries.
- Is it possible that by vetoing Duke SSI’s recognition as a student group under the grounds of harassment that constructive exchange among America’s next generation of policymakers was suppressed?
- Or is enforcement of courteous discussion of issues without singling out a single student for harassment a better way to achieve constructive exchange?
- Is the tension at Duke University just another small mirror being held to the light that reflects the sadness, the sorrow of the situation in Israel and Palestine?
The Israel-Palestine conflict is a tragedy that affects everyone who seeks a “promised land.” And the ongoing fighting is also a tragedy for people everywhere who pursue peace–no matter how large or small–in their own lives.
Constructive Discussion on College Campuses
Whether other students agreed with Duke SSI’s objectives or not–to support grassroots pro-Israel advocacy–isn’t the point of university political activist groups to free up the space for discussion?
A day after the letter was published, it was followed by an opinions piece by Jewish student, Lily Levin who wrote candidly about “the narrative of antisemitism that has dominated conversations about Israel and Palestine.” To put it simply, she states claims of antisemitism sometimes subvert Israel’s accountability for its part in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and continue to cause harm to Palestinians.
Important Questions to Ask about the Israel-Palestine Conflict
The theme of Levin’s argument is that claims of antisemitism, when false, serve as a diversion for the reality of the situation in Israel and Palestine. She explores how calling something “antisemitic” when it isn’t prevents Israel and its supporters from asking important questions.
Although Levin identifies as a Jew, she identifies more with the objectives of Duke SJP than Duke SSI. Seeking peace, security, and equal treatment for everyone—Jewish and non-Jewish—in Israel/Palestine is consistent with Jewish values and is not anti-Semitic.
Driving Awareness to the Israel-Palestine Conflict
In her letter, Levin expresses the wish for a community of Jewish students on campus that support the plight of the Palestinian people and drive awareness to the Israel-Palestine conflict. She negates the idea that Jews “cannot have strength without someone else having despair.”