In Wake of Pro-palestinian Meeting, Outrage over Column in Duke Paper
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In Wake of Pro-palestinian Meeting, Outrage over Column in Duke Paper

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The Fourth Annual Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement may have gone off at Duke University without a hitch last weekend — but controversy has erupted immediately after its conclusion. An inflammatory editorial in The Chronicle, Duke’s campus newspaper, has prompted an outcry by offended Jewish activists.

“Regardless of your political stance or position on the PSM conference, it is impossible to ignore the unprecedented outpouring of pro-Jewish, pro-Israeli support in defiance of free speech at Duke,” columnist Philip Kurian wrote in an Oct. 18 Op-Ed entitled “The Jews.”

“What Jewish suffering — along with exorbitant Jewish privilege in the United States — amounts to is a stilted, one-dimensional conversation where Jews feel the overwhelming sense of entitlement not to be criticized or offended,” he wrote.

“If the Duke administration had buckled under the influential weight of the Jewish establishment by not allowing the PSM conference, we would be suffering from the Orwellian notion of consciousness, where the only ideas that matter are the ones espoused by the powerful.”

Kurian also accused Jews of exploiting the “Holocaust industry” for political gain.

Already, one student has called for the resignation of The Chronicle’s editor. The Anti-Defamation League wrote a letter to the editor, defending the Jews’ right to free expression and to “fulfill themselves in society without having to endure accusations of privilege.”

Meanwhile, the local Hillel was meeting with students Tuesday night to form a response. Jonathan Gerstl, executive director of Duke’s Hillel affiliate, the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, called the article “very hurtful and ill-timed.”

For its part, The Chronicle defended its choice to run the column.

“The Chronicle has a very broad free speech policy and the opinions represented on the Op-Ed page by our columnists are exactly that. They are not the opinions of The Chronicle or The Chronicle’s editorial board,” editor Karen Hauptman told JTA. “As such, we decided that it would be inconsistent with our practices and our beliefs to not run the column.”

The paper would bar from print articles that call for violence against a group of people, she said.

“Do I believe the column was hate speech?” Hauptman said. “No, I do not.”

Hauptman, who described herself as an “actively practicing Jew” whose Judaism is distinct from her professional life, does not plan to resign.

The incident comes after heated debate at Duke over whether the university should host a conference that refuses to condemn the Palestinians’ resort to terrorism to pursue their political goals.

But last weekend’s conference proceeded without much disruption, except for two incidents later found to be bogus acts perpetrated by pro-Israel activists and under investigation by the university — a bomb threat and a mass e-mail spewing anti-Semitic remarks, designed to look as if it came from a conference organizer.

Several hundred people attended both the Palestinian conference and a host of Freeman center lectures by speakers ranging from Avraham Burg, the dovish former speaker of Israel’s Knesset, to hawkish analyst Daniel Pipes.

The piece de resistance of the pro-Israel effort was a “Concert Against Terror” preceding the Palestinian conference. The concert drew support from mainstream campus groups and featured the musical group Sister Hazel and a speech by Richard Brodhead, Duke’s president.

While many Israel backers saw their effort as a way to reclaim the campus, others say Monday’s editorial showcases the lingering effect of the Palestinian conference.

“Letters like this demonstrate that the risk of hateful speech and inflammatory speech and anti-Semitic dialogue now has a place at Duke because of President Brodhead’s decision to allow the PSM to take place at Duke,” said Steven Goodman, a Washington-based alumnus who had written letters to Jewish newspapers urging Duke not to host the conference.

The administration takes a different approach.

John Burness, Duke’s senior vice president, attended many of last weekend’s events, including the PSM conference, which he said exhibited “no hate speech.”

“I would bet at Duke University this week there was more discussion about Israel and Palestine than any other place in the United States,” he told JTA.

The “conference ended up being a catalyst for much broader discussion.” he said. “These are bright kids. They can reach their own conclusions.”

Brodhead plans to meet with Jewish students regarding Kurian’s column, Burness said, and suggested that the way to respond to the column is through letters to the editor.

It is not unusual that student columnists “get pretty outrageous at times, and part of it has to do with their youth and part of it has to do with feeling the freedom of writing that column but not necessarily feeling the responsibility that goes with it,” he said.

Meanwhile, many Jewish students and alumni are smarting from the column.

“I read that and I was just astonished that that appeared in my university’s newspaper. It strung together just about every anti-Semitic stereotype imaginable,” said Eric Fingerhut, a Duke alumnus and reporter for the Washington Jewish Week.

“As an alum, I’d hope Duke President Brodhead, who has been so concerned with protecting ‘freedom of speech’ in the context of the PSM conference, would make some sort of a statement on this — something like ‘Kurian has every right to his opinions, but so do I. And I think that column was a vile, ill-informed attack on Jews that has embarrassed the university,’ ” Fingerhut said. The Kurian article can be found online at:

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