Shutting Down Pro-Israel Speech at Duke

Duke’s student government shuts down a new pro-Israel group for defending the Jewish state from lies

As if further evidence were needed for the First-Amendment hypocrisy on college campuses, the recent action by the Duke Student Government (DSG) to withhold recognition from a new pro-Israel student group seems to confirm that academic free speech is not always free depending on who is speaking. On November 9th, DSG President Christina Wang made the outrageous decision to veto the recognition of Students Supporting Israel (SSI) after the group posted a response to an anti-Israel Duke sophomore, Elyana Riddick, who captioned a now-deleted Tweet about SSI with, “My school promotes settler colonialism.”

“To Yana and others like her,” SSI posted on its Instagram account, “please allow us to educate you on what ‘settler colonialism’ actually is and why Israel does not fall under this category whatsoever. These types of narratives are what we strive to combat and condemn, which is why Duke’s chapter of Students Supporting Israel has been officially established & is here to stay.”

While it seems that denouncing Israel, as Ms. Riddick did, as a racist colonial occupier of stolen Arab land is perfectly acceptable, SSI’s response to her was apparently unacceptable, violating Riddick’s sensibilities and her right to express disdain for groups with which she disagrees.

Ms. Riddick posted on Twitter, a social media platform that is open for all to see, so she certainly could not and should not have what lawyers refer to as an “expectation of privacy.” SSI did not quote her from statements she made in a private conversation or email exchange, for instance, where she agreed to have her opinions kept confidential.

And, more to the point, her counter-factual assertion that Israel engages in “settler colonialism” is precisely the type of slander to which groups like SSI have made it their mission to respond. The campus enemies of Israel have regularly tried to suppress pro-Israel views from being debated with or even heard by those holding pro-Palestinian viewpoints. DSG’s decision to drop recognition of SSI at Duke has achieved just that, making it impossible for the group to correct falsehoods that propel the anti-Israel campaign at Duke and elsewhere.

In justifying her decision to yank recognition from SSI, DSG President Wang unconvincingly suggested that SSI’s posts directed at Riddick were “evidence that the group singled out an individual student on their organization’s social media account in a way that was unacceptable for any student group and appeared antithetical to the group’s stated mission to be welcoming and inclusive to all Duke students, and educational in mission and purpose [emphasis added].”

One group at Duke, as a matter of fact, seems to have escaped the watchful eye of the DSG censors. This is a “group exhibiting similar conduct” that has regularly displayed “potentially hostile or harmful” behavior, namely Duke’s own chapter of the virulent activist group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). SJP, which boasts over 200 chapters on American campuses, purports to seek social justice for the long-aggrieved Palestinians. But on today’s contentious campuses, to be pro-Palestinian is to be anti-Israel by definition.

SSI was established at Duke, as it has been on other campuses, to respond to this type of rhetoric hurled relentlessly toward Israel, and to counter those accusations with facts, history, context, and rigorous debate—exactly what universities (should) hope takes place within their respective communities.

If the speech and behavior of Duke’s SJP were evaluated in the same way that SSI’s single social media post was, that organization might deservedly lose its recognition, too, assuming the situation was assessed fairly.

SJP was nearly giddy when it learned that SSI had been canceled, knowing that Duke would be spared from bothersome, opposing views about Israel and the Palestinians. A lengthy, tendentious November 13th letter SJP published in Duke’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, titled “It’s okay to support Palestine,” used the announcement that SSI had been eliminated to deride the group for its clumsy social media skills and to, once again, slander the Jewish state. SJP wrote the column in a caustic tone, taunting SSI by repeating the phrase at the center of the Twitter controversy, “settler colonialism,” no less than thirteen times in the article. It also made no less than seven references to Israeli “settlers” to reinforce the accusation.

With an astounding lack of self-awareness, SJP petitioned the Duke administration to curtail the targeting of any group of students and shield them from the “violence” of speech and ideas that could “harm” them, as the poor Ms. Riddick claimed to be harmed after SSI called out her baseless critique of Israel.

“To the Duke Administration,” SJP wrote, “we call on you to speak up on behalf of the students you are obligated to create a safe environment for,” ignoring, of course, the fact that for years SJP has been singularly responsible for creating a hostile climate for Jewish students on campuses where it is active. Further, SJP claimed, “This instance of targeted harassment [toward Ms. Riddick] is not an isolated one. It is not wholly unique or novel. Rather, it is the product of Zionist organizing’s fundamental nature.” In other words, according to SJP—a group that has publicly announced that it seeks to expel Zionists from campuses and shut down pro-Israel viewpoints (and is proud of its role in doing so)—to be pro-Israel is to target others with opposing views. When SJP targets its opponents, of course, it is acceptable activism in pursuit of social justice. But when SSI does this on behalf of Israel, it is harassment and morally questionable.

The SJP letter also includes unsupportable claims that appear promiscuously in anti-Israel rhetoric, claims that are a misreading of history and the facts on the ground. For example, the letter decries “the historic and ongoing displacement of Palestinian peoples and the appropriation and occupation of Palestinian lands,” ignoring the fact that the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria (carelessly referred to as the West Bank) have never been Palestinian land, and, like Israel proper, was land that comprised the Mandate for Palestine and that committed all of those areas to a Jewish homeland.

In its statement concerning the Duke debacle, SSI National expressed its concern that the decision to shut down the Duke chapter because of a single social media post represents a threat to academic free speech and to the right of individuals on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian debate to be heard. “We would like to know if other clubs on Duke’s campus have their social media channels reviewed by the student government as well?” the organization rightly asked. “Do other clubs need to apologize for writing statements that some may disagree with?” “If not, then this is a clear singling out of the new pro-Israel club,” they concluded, “and we are concerned about whether Duke students truly have the right to free speech.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to those who wish to defend the Jewish state, the answer is no.


Image: Pexels, Public Domain

Richard L. Cravatts

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of "Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews."

2 thoughts on “Shutting Down Pro-Israel Speech at Duke

  1. The solution is to only allow student bodies to get elected if they get a critical threshold of students to vote. Often, less than 10% of the student body votes for these folks, which is why they are, or can be, populated by radicals.

  2. The problem really is the student governments and the manditory student fees that fund them.

    The solution is to make these fees optional as 90-95 percent of the students have no use for these organizations.

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