On Oct. 19, Duke University administrators painted over a pro-Palestinian phrase inscribed on the East Campus bridge. This move came after many members of the Duke community expressed safety concerns about the implications of the Palestinian liberation slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
The university’s vice provost and vice president for student affairs, Mary Pat McMahon, said in a recent email sent to all undergraduate students that Duke marked out the phrase because some community members felt it advocated for the “erasure of people and antisemitism.” McMahon continued, asserting that people in and around Duke view the message as “a call for violence targeting the Jewish community.”
The slogan advocates establishing a Palestinian state spanning from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, effectively erasing the state of Israel. McMahon, being careful not to be seen as picking sides on the explosive issue, explained that “we are taking care to not alter other sentiments elsewhere on the bridge,” including “words that advocate for Palestinian rights and call for Palestinian freedom.”
This action by the administration is one small element of a much larger and more complex, campus-wide response to the Israel-Hamas War. On Oct. 9, only two days after the invasion began, over 100 students and staff gathered at the campus’ Bryan Center Plaza for a vigil honoring Israeli victims of the invasion.
During the event, as reported by the Duke Chronicle, Duke’s deep emotional connections to Israel and the Jewish community were put on heart-wrenching display through the words of campus leaders like Joyce Gordon, the university’s director for Jewish Life.
Throughout her speech, Gordon reminded students, “Some of us know them personally–some of us are one or two people removed.” The university has a sizeable and well-connected Jewish community, which made their presence known with this outpouring of support and camaraderie.
The following day, Duke University’s president, Vincent Price, issued a statement recommending the “Duke community to sustain an inclusive, understanding and supportive way forward” through the “condemning of brutality and hatred in all their forms.”
President Price’s remarks came only days after one of Duke’s peer institutions, Harvard University, faced heavy pressure to condemn a widely-circulated open letter authored by pro-Palestinian student groups. While no such letter or intrigue occurred at Duke, there is a palpable air of tension on the university’s campus, owing to the prominence of the pro-Palestine and pro-Israel student groups Students for Justice in Palestine and Students Supporting Israel.
This tense climate is also demonstrated by the fear of harassment present among Palestine supporters on campus. For example, during and shortly after a “Pause for Palestine” historical event at Duke, one student expressed how they felt “incredibly overwhelmed, anxious, and stressed” as a Palestinian supporter at a “pro-Zionist university.” This student, who requested anonymity, feels that offering any critique of the Israeli cause will result in “threats from my peers who harass anyone who utters a single criticism of Zionism.”
There is also hope for civil discourse at Duke, evidenced by a recent statement from Duke’s Student Government (DSG). In an Oct. 20 email to undergraduate students, DSG stated that it “stands unwavering in our commitment to advocate for and support the well-being of all students.”
DSG refrained from including any statements in their message that seemed to favor one side over the other. They instead focused on the universal need for support during this incredibly challenging time. Students have already lauded this statement for its impartiality and recommended it as a template for future messages if another event like the Israel-Hamas War occurs.