A teach-in and discussion designed to initiate the DukeDivest campaign sparked into a fiery debate Wednesday night at the Love Auditorium as audience members shot back and forth with panelists over the issue of Israeli divestment at Duke University.
Nine faculty members mostly from humanities departments comprised the panel, which was organized by the DukeDivest group. Members gave individual reasons -- ranging from personal experience to intrinsic, moral beliefs -- for signing a petition calling for Duke University to cut ties with companies involved in arms deals with Israel.
Several panelists made comparisons between Israel's relationship with Palestinians and the affairs of other nations. Associate Professor of Literature Grant Farred, a native of South Africa, commented on the divestment campaign in that nation, adding that in general "sanctions are often a policy of last resort."
Others built their justification out of personal experience. Mekhala Natavar, assistant professor of the practice of Asian and African languages and literature, recounted an emotional story of her father's last years in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
"I am appalled by the blatant inhumane treatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli forces," she said.
Associate Professor of English Srinivas Aravamudan emphasized the importance of a politically active stance at the University. "We're no longer in the ivory tower," he said. "We're very much in the belly of the beast. And for that reason we should make our university accountable."
After the panelists had concluded speaking, the intensity of the event rose significantly. Audience members actively engaged the panel, disregarding requests for calm by the moderators, and at points made irreverent remarks and disrupted panelists as well as each other.
A contingent of pro-Israelis in the audience were particularly vocal, booing between panelists' speeches and firing a slew of directed comments during the question-and-answer session. Most were angry at what they called the presentation of only "one of many histories and one of many views," among
"Panelists should represent a pluralistic viewpoint, especially on a campus where the goal is not to push an agenda but to expose people to many opinions," Miguel Schwartz, a graduate student in ecology, said after the meeting.
Professor of Literature Kenneth Surin countered this notion during the event. "This is partially a forum. It is also the initiation of a campaign," he said.
After the event, participants expressed mixed feelings about the forum.
"By focusing exclusively on Israel, this campaign ignores the multiple narratives and complex geopolitics of the Middle East," said Elliot Ludvig, a graduate student in psychology.
Panelists and event organizers, however, had a more hopeful outlook on the discourse. "I'm grateful that people with different views came here. ... We need to have follow-up discussions for something like this to be substantial," Professor of Religion Bruce Lawrence said.
DukeDivest is already planning for the future. "We will continue to do educational events, host forums and dialogue and circulate our petition," said junior Jessica Rutter, a forum organizer.
The panel also included Associate Professor of Literature Michael Hardt, Assistant Professor of English Ranjana Khanna, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology Diane Nelson, and Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature Jehanne Gheith. So far, more than 40 faculty have signed the DukeDivest petition at www.dukedivest.org.