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Bedeviled by Anti-Israel Boycotters at Duke

I recently met a couple who told me that their Jewish daughter attends Duke University, which they believe to be a great school for Jewish students. I would be pleased to share their enthusiasm. But in certain pockets of that institution, a serious, faculty-driven, anti-Israel bias exists, often expressed publicly and unreservedly.

Recently, Duke University Press (DUP) published The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability, by Jasbir Puar. Elsewhere, I have written about Paur’s modernized brand of blood libel, which often relies on the fog of absurd, self-consciously academic jargon to disseminate anti-Semitism. At least six members of Duke’s Editorial Advisory Board and a number of DUP staff members publicly support initiatives related to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. As the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) explains, “The predominant drive of the BDS campaign and its leadership is not criticism of policies, but the demonization and delegitimization of Israel.”

No less a source than the U.S. Department of State recognizes the demonization of Israel, the application of a double standard to that nation, and attempts to delegitimize it, as three distinct examples of anti-Semitism. Numerous members of the faculty and staff at Duke commonly engage in such acts. Sometimes, the validity of an entire department may be in question.

The Cultural Anthropology Department lists ten faculty members with the title of Professor. Of these, seven have supported initiatives related to the BDS movement. Anne Allison, Charles Piot and Orin Starn are signatories to DukeDivest, which calls upon Duke University to “end military ties to Israel.” Engseng Ho and J. Lorand Matory are signatories to the Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (ABIAI). Ho is also listed as a signatory on the “Call by Middle East Studies Scholars and Librarians for the Academic Boycott of Israel.” Diane M. Nelson supports both DukeDivest and the ABIAI. Irene Silverblatt is listed a signatory to the “Historians’ Letter to President Obama and Members of Congress,” which states, “We urge you to suspend US military aid to Israel.”

During an interview with me, Duke freshman Natalie Ecanow observed that such a situation “makes it really hard for me to seek out cultural anthropology classes…if they are being taught by professors who are actively supporting a movement which is an attack on who I am and the lifeblood of my people.” She added “Having Duke professors support BDS divides the campus into two camps. It fragments our communities.”

Max Cherman, Duke class of 2020, shares his sentiments: “Many academics are not aware of the intricacies and complexities of issues regarding Israel….[They] feel obligated to support the non-European, darker-skin and supposedly ‘indigenous’ people (even while Jews have lived in the Holy Land for millennia). Many academics seemingly interpret highly complex geo-political situations from a single lens: that of white oppression and colonialism,” Cherman explained.

He asked: “Why is there not an outcry for statehood for the Kurdish people, who have sacrificed their lives in the fight against ISIS and have been steadfast in their support for the [United States]?”

Space limitations allow me to point out just a few more examples of anti-Israel bias at Duke. The website of Mark Anthony Neal, Chairman of the Duke African & African American Studies Department, features an article, “We Charge Genocide: From Gaza to The Bronx,” by Lamont Lilly, that accuses Israel of “white supremacy,” “the extermination of thousands of innocent Palestinians,” and “Ethnic Cleansing.” Neal personally tweeted about Israel’s alleged “extermination of 100s [sic] of Palestinians in Gaza.” Neal further shared a petition on Twitter, which included a call to “Support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [against Israel]…and [the] U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.”

Leo Ching, who chairs the Duke Asian & Middle Eastern Studies Department, is also a signatory on DukeDivest. Meanwhile, Omid Safi, a professor and Director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center, was asked on Facebook about how he personally would solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Safi responded: “A secular democratic one-state solution.” In other words: eliminate Israel. Safi wrote that Israel “holds Gaza Palestinians in the world’s ‘largest open air’ concentration camp,” explicitly comparing Israel — and, implicitly, Jews — to the Nazis of Germany’s Third Reich.

In response to Safi’s “concentration camp” statement, Duke freshman Spencer Kaplan told me, “Raising such a false equivalency of that variety is dangerous because it tarnishes the ability to have a productive dialogue on a politicized and charged topic.”

Do not misunderstand: proportional criticism of a nation, or a political or cultural agenda, is perfectly valid. Certainly, no one would deny that Duke faculty and staff are entitled to freedom of speech. The question is how the pattern of virulently anti-Israel, anti-Zionist views demonstrated above may reflect upon the university’s standards in relation to Israel, and by extension, Jews.

Even Duke University’s Office of Research Support’s own “Anti-Boycott Regulations” state, “If you run across any language which supports the boycott of Israel, it must be reported to the U.S. government by law.” (Whether one agrees with this policy or not, it certainly suggests that, as the saying goes, the one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing.)

It is time for Dr. Vincent Price, Duke University’s new president, and his board of trustees to take a critical look at the widespread and sometimes venomous anti-Israel sentiment among its campus faculty and decide if this is an appropriate environment for an academic community.

[Photo: UNC Libraries Commons / Flickr]