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December 14, 2017 10:04 am

Duke University and the Problem of Antisemitism

avatar by Peter Reitzes

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The Duke University campus. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Recently, I expressed deep concern in The Algemeiner about Duke University Press (DUP)’s publication of The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability by Jasbir Puar. As noted, the book is plagued with poor “scholarship,” and updates antisemitic blood libels by grotesquely alleging that Israelis, and by extension Jews, target Palestinian children and then profit from the intentional disabilities incurred. The book also claims that Israel profits from Palestinian “sweatshops producing zippers and buttons for Israeli fashion houses.”

I also wrote that seven out of ten full professors in the Duke University Cultural Anthropology Department had endorsed initiatives related to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

A Duke professor subsequently sent me several polite and critical emails, which I believe are important to discuss publicly.

The professor wrote: “The military occupation has certainly involved many abuse. … But it is also certainly true that Hamas is a nasty violent group, and Islamic extremism very bad news (As most Muslims would agree.) I’d be delighted to sign any petition that appeared in my inbox asking Duke to have no ties with jihadist groups.”

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To me, the casual comparison of Israel, a world leader in human rights, to Hamas, Islamic extremists and jihadists is deeply troubling. If that is a common point of view among academics that deny the presence of antisemitism among their peers, then the BDS proponents apparently have indoctrinated them very well.

Israel has repeatedly offered the Palestinians viable and dignified statehood. But the Palestinian leadership has rejected every peace and statehood offer, and has never made a single counteroffer. In the words of President Bill Clinton: “I killed myself to give the Palestinians a state,” and, “the deal was so good I couldn’t believe anyone would be foolish enough to let it go.”

Hamas is an internationally-recognized terrorist organization with the stated goal of killing all the Jews in the world. If Israel is compared to Hamas by this professor, might the next step be to compare the United States to ISIS?

There are many reasons that it is immoral to disproportionately target Israel. Alan Dershowitz, in his seminal essay “Ten Reasons Why BDS Is Immoral and Hinders Peace,” writes: “The BDS movement is highly immoral” because it “imposes the entire blame for the continuing Israeli occupation and settlement policy on the Israelis”; “it violates the core principle of human rights: namely, ‘the worst first’”; “it focuses the world’s attention away from far greater injustices, including genocide”; and “it would hurt Palestinian workers who will lose their jobs if economic sanctions are directed against firms that employ them.” Dershowitz notes that BDS “threatens the peace process and discourages the Palestinians from agreeing to any reasonable peace offer.”

Yet the Duke professor wrote to me that, “I have never, ever heard anything like antisemitism from any Duke colleague, many of whom are Jewish themselves.”

Playing the “Jewish card” does not absolve one of antisemitism. For example, in 2012 the Duke University Press published Israel/Palestine and the Queer International by Sarah Schulman, a BDS activist. Schulman has defended herself against charges of antisemitism by telling the New York Daily News: “How can I be anti-Semitic? I’m Jewish.” Yet we would be wise to judge writers, professors and others by their actions, not by their religious affiliations. After all, would we ever accept a professor saying, “How can I be racist? I’m Christian”?

Whether the Duke professor believes that he has encountered antisemitic statements or attitudes is irrelevant. The citations I provided of specific individuals’ positions and endorsements speak for themselves. To review, DUP employs a number of anti-Israel activists who publicly endorse and promote BDS. The DUP Editorial Advisory Board alone includes at least six Duke faculty members who have signed BDS related initiatives. Therefore, Israel is clearly demonized, delegitimized and held to a different standard by a large number of people working with Duke University Press.

The Duke professor writes: “As for the campus, we have a strong Jewish studies program, and the admirable Freedman center. (And, it should be said, no such parallel pro-grams for Palestinians.)”

Duke also has, for example, programs in Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies and African & African American Studies. That doesn’t mean that we should or can ignore sexism, misogyny, anti-LGBTQ bias and racism when they occur on campus.

Duke professors and staff are free to publicly promote anti-Israel and antisemitic positions. And I am free to shine a light on it when they do.

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