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December 16, 2021 1:28 pm

Legal Advocacy Group Urges Duke University to Recognize Pro-Israel Students or Risk Legal Consequences

avatar by Dion J. Pierre

Duke University. Photo: Ilyse Whitney / CC BY 2.0.

A legal advocacy organization on Tuesday urged Duke University to grant full recognition to a pro-Israel campus group that was denied that status by the student government last month.

Recognition of Duke Students Supporting Israel was vetoed in November by the Duke Student Government Senate over complaints that its social media posts had “singled out” a student who had criticized their pro-Israel stance. Days later, that veto was upheld by a wide margin in a Senate session — a rare decision that Students Supporting Israel national said was based on a “a standard that wasn’t applied to any student club at the university…ever.”

Responding to an outcry over the decision, Duke University President Vincent E. Price later announced that the university “identified options for SSI to secure financial and programmatic support” in lieu of formal recognition by the senate and is investigating whether the move was motivated by antisemitism.

But on Tuesday, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a Washington, D.C.-based pro-Israel advocacy group, said Price’s remedy is not enough to comply with federal law.

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“From the moment of its inception, Duke SSI was treated differently than other student organizations by the Duke Student Government,” the group wrote in a letter to President Price. “When Duke SSI applied for recognition, it was subjected to special scrutiny that other groups did not have to endure. Student representatives from Duke SSI were subjected to extensive questioning before the DSG senate votes on whether to approve the chapter’s application for formal recognition.”

The Brandeis Center cited a 2019 episode in which a pro-Israel student organization at Williams College was denied recognition, arguing that a similar response by the administration in that case had also fallen short — leading to an agreement that resolved a civil rights complaint.

It also noted that Students for Duke Students for Justice in Palestine was not sanctioned by DSG when, in 2019, one of its members retweeted a photo of a pro-Israel group, and said, “Because y’all are a bunch of racist clowns…So, I’m going to repeat myself again, f**k DIPAC and every Zionist on campus.”

“A university violates Title VI [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] when its student government rejects a Jewish student organization’s request for recognition based on standards that are not applied to non-Jewish groups,” the Center said. “Duke must cure this violation by providing Duke SSI with formal recognition and guaranteeing that it has access to the same resources and services that other student groups have.”

Speaking to The Algemeiner on Wednesday, Brandeis Center President Alyza Lewin argued that the university should act as the “adult in the room and correct a situation when they see that it is going awry.”

“Grant them the same access,” Lewin said. “Treat them no differently than any other student recognized organization. If the university chooses not to intervene and does not make sure that SSI gets equal access and it is understood to be no different than any other organization, there could be potential legal liability for the university.”

Such liability could fall under Title IV, if Duke SSI faced a higher standard of scrutiny based on national or ethnic origin. Or, Lewin argued, a US Department of Education rule on Religious Liberty and Free Inquiry could apply — the product of a 2020 executive order seeking to protect free expression among students at private universities.

“If there are things being done by the student government that are unlawful or violated the university’s legal obligations, it has an absolute responsibility to address that. It cannot ignore that,” Lewin said. “To do so would be at their own peril. They have to step in; they have to make it right.”

Duke SSI President Alanna Peykar told The Algemeiner on Thursday that the chapter was “thankful” for the legal group’s effort.

“Considering this statement from the Brandeis Center and Duke’s ongoing investigation, I am very hopeful for the future of SSI at Duke,” Peykar said.

Duke University President Price did not respond to an Algemeiner request for comment.

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