How not to have a dialogue

What Brown can learn from Duke's disastrous lecture series.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Controversy can be a good thing. It can force people to critically engage with their own assumptions and ideas, and perhaps to modify them in light of new evidence or arguments. But controversy can also have an opposite effect; it can polarize a debate, sending people scurrying to the most extreme arguments and counter-arguments, causing them to yell at each other instead of engaging in a productive dialogue.

Recently at Duke University, controversy overshadowed dialogue. The Brown community should take note: What happened there could happen here. And, to a certain extent, it already has.

After months of rancorous debate of its merits, the fourth Palestinian Solidarity Movement student conference finally took place on the Duke campus last weekend. Detractors had vehemently argued that the PSM refuses to condemn terrorism and therefore is not an organization fit to sponsor an event at a major university. But Duke decided to allow the conference to go forward on the grounds of free speech.

And free speech there was. “Israel is attempting to rid itself of the Palestinians as much as possible while taking as much land as they can,” Dianna Buttu, legal adviser in the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department, told conference attendees last Friday evening, according to the Jerusalem Post. (She made similar remarks about Israel’s security barrier in the West Bank at a speech at Brown last spring.) Buttu also called for divestment from Israel and, in response to the question of an audience member, declared Israel a greater human rights offender than both Sudan and China.

Similar extremist rhetoric was voiced at the conference on Saturday. Zionism was dubbed a “disease” by Yale University professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, co-founder of Al-Awda, the Palestine Right of Return Coalition. Qumsiyeh was also quoted by media sources as saying that reporters inappropriately focus on “resistance to colonization” instead of acts of “repression and ethnic cleansing” perpetrated by Israel. He additionally rejected the prospect of a two-state solution to the conflict, a point echoed by another conference speaker.

Duke’s Jewish community, outraged by the PSM’s unwillingness to criticize and condemn terrorism, organized counter-programming that included the display of an Israeli bus that was decimated by a suicide bomber; a speech by noted extremist pro-Israel advocate Daniel Pipes; another speech by former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, who offered sharp criticism of U.S.-Israeli policy; and the performance of a Concert Against Terror, headlined by the band Sister Hazel.

Duke’s Freeman Center for Jewish Life later apologized for a comment made at the concert by Brigitte Gabriel, who witnessed terrorist-type activities in Lebanon and founded the American Congress for Truth.  She angered many members of the crowd when she referred to Arabs as “barbarians.” According to media sources, the crowd was also polarized when a victim of state-supported violence in Sudan asked for help from his “Jewish brothers.”

Did last weekend’s events at Duke amount to a debate? No. Were they ever intended to? It doesn’t really matter. Instead, a lot of well-intentioned people who care passionately about a variety of issues – such as the rights of the Palestinians to live in peace and security, and the rights of Israelis to live in peace and security -came together to make a lot of noise and not much else. There was no meaningful debate between the two camps, whose separation need not be so artificial.

“We felt without a renunciation of violence, it’s hard to have a conversation,” Eric Meyers, director of Judaic studies at Duke, was quoted as saying in media sources.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, for better or worse, one of the most time-tested and student-approved sources of controversy around. Just as at Duke, it has emerged this semester at Brown, most publicly so in the form of support for and protest against Irshad Manji, a liberal lesbian Muslim feminist, and Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

The strong campus reaction to these two speakers should make us all mindful of that latent potential that was clearly within Duke and resides here too at Brown. Our campus community is easily excited and easily polarized. Since the speakers who have every right to be here by virtue of their right to free speech can contribute to this polarization, it is also important that we have a forum that can bring another side to the table. If the PSM ever wants to come to Brown, our campus community must be so duly prepared.

Julia Kay ’06 is a mathematical economics concentrator.