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December 27, 2021 1:46 pm
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Clear Antisemitism Exists at Duke University

avatar by Peter Reitzes

Opinion

Perkins Library at Duke University in Durham, NC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Scrolling through the Duke Student Government (DSG) 2021-22 Legislative Agenda is a startling dip into undeniable discrimination against students who support Israel.

In November, the DSG voted to recognize Students Supporting Israel (SSI). Several days later, student president Christina Wang vetoed recognition of SSI, followed by the Duke Senate voting to uphold Wang’s veto.

In the same month that DSG vetoed Students Supporting Israel, they approved a budget of $2,345 for a single Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) event, despite concerns raised about the disruptive behaviors of Duke SJP members on campus.

According to their 2021-22 Legislative Agenda, the DSG also approved the funding of $8,890 for the Muslim Students Association, $10,611 for the Hindu Students Association, and at least $5,800 for the Pakistani Students Association, while approving the charter of the Duke Arab Student Organization.

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DSG also held a meeting on Yom Kippur — the holiest day of Judaism.

The DSG Legislative Agenda provides clear evidence that Jewish and pro-Israel students are treated differently than other groups of students.

On November 24, Duke President Vincent E. Price and Provost Sally Kornbluth issued a statement announcing an investigation based on concerns “whether students have been treated in accordance with university policy that prohibits discrimination and harassment based upon national origin and religion, which includes anti-Semitism.”

The statement continued, “The university has identified options for SSI to secure financial and programmatic support.”

I spoke with sophomore Alanna Peykar and first-year Alexandra Ahdoot — co-presidents of Duke SSI.

They told me that while the Duke statement is a “step in the right direction,” more than a month has passed, and the university still has not communicated any financial options to SSI.

Peykar told me, “We don’t have the same resources as other clubs on campus. And now they are telling us [in the Duke statement], don’t worry, we will give you resources. We have no idea what those resources are. … I don’t think other clubs would have been treated like this at all … It’s scary to call it discrimination, but I think you would be a little naive not to acknowledge it.”

Ahdoot agreed. “It is discrimination” she said, based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Duke’s Office for Institutional Equity contacted SSI to schedule a meeting for January 2022, which is two months after the group was vetoed.

Peykar and Ahdoot both described their experience at DSG as a “hostile environment.” Ahdoot felt “targeted” and “harassed by student government senators,” explaining that senators “grilled us with questions” and extended the questioning period three times before voting to uphold the veto during a session lasting almost three hours.

They described this DSG meeting as functioning more as a referendum on Israel than a forum devoted to campus issues. DSG even changed its House Rules just for this issue, and instituted new voting procedures.

When SSI asked to review a video of the meeting, the DSG responded they did not record the meeting nor keep minutes.

Peykar commented, “It is amazing that [the] Duke Student Government meets every single week and there’s not one document about what is said in these meetings.”

In mid December, DSG finally published the vote to uphold the veto, showing that 37 senators voted “no” (in support of the veto) and only three senators voted “yes” (to oppose the veto). All three “yes” votes were cast by Jewish senators; 10 senators abstained.

On December 7, Wang sent a text message to Peykar suggesting that Duke Students Supporting Israel could “reapply for recognition … by January 9.”

But SSI is waiting for Duke University to complete the investigation. Peykar explained, “I told the president [Wang], I don’t want to reapply because the last thing I want to do is stand in front of that Senate again when you guys clearly don’t want us on this campus and created such a hostile environment for us.”

When asked if they believe Wang to be antisemitic, Ahdoot told me she didn’t know, but that “the consequences of this veto are a clear example of antisemitism.”

Ahdoot describes Duke University as “an incredible place with such limitless opportunities and I am so grateful to get to go there.” But she adds, this situation has been a “real wake-up call to the fact that antisemitism is real, and it is really ugly, and it exists.”

The Louis D. Brandeis Center, a civil rights organization, told Duke that it is “legally obligated to take corrective action in response to the unlawful treatment of Duke SSI by formally recognizing the student organization and ensuring it has equal access to resources.”

Adam Goldstein, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina and former Board Chair of North Carolina Hillel, told me, “It is absurd that a month after facing clear discrimination, it does not appear that student government leaders have apologized for their discriminatory actions and reversed their decision. I sincerely hope that Duke administrative leaders will now act quickly, finish their review, offer their own apology, and right this wrong before external government agencies step in to do it for them.”

Peter Reitzes writes about issues related to antisemitism and Israel.

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