What I Learned at Duke University's 'Gaza Teach-In'

I attended a "teach-in" about Israeli-Palestinian relations at Duke University the other night. Part of my job is to attend college lectures and report on them, in order to provide the public with some idea of who is being invited on to the American campus and what ideas they present. As I entered the lecture hall, I saw a stack of blank Amnesty International petitions, asking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to support a U.N. investigation into the commission of war crimes by the Israel during the recent Gaza conflict.

The lecture was attended by perhaps 50 people, mostly young, and mostly of Middle Eastern descent (head scarves outnumbered yarmulkes by about six-to-one). There was also a smattering of American students.

Before the event, I was curious whether any of the four "teachers" would give a balanced presentation, or whether the affair would be totally one-sided. The two main speakers were young pro-Palestinian activists: Laila El-Haddad, a former Al-Jazeera journalist, and Duke graduate student Rann Bar-On.  There was little reason to expect much ideological balance from them, given descriptions of their activities on the Web. I particularly expected Bar-On, who has been active in such organizations as the International Solidarity Movement, which used foreign college students to disrupt anti-terror activities in Israel, to make a few inflammatory statements.

Bar-On did not disappoint: as if on cue he proclaimed that Zionism is inherently racist. He also said that acts of violence are the only way Palestinians can get attention in the Western media: "Without the actions of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and others in the sixties, the hijackings of airplanes...Palestine would not be in the world's awareness today."

"I am not advocating violence," he continued, "but what I am saying is that it is both a legal and occasionally necessary tool in the long-term struggle for the end of oppression." 

El-Haddad offered perhaps the most profound insight into the conflict's causes. While Israel insists that the Palestinians recognize its right to exist before negotiations, she said that, "The Palestinian response is, what borders do we recognize, and why do you not recognize the Palestinian state?" Such intransigence toward the existence of Israel makes any mutually acceptable peace agreement unlikely.

She also taught the following:

  • "Israel was actually the one that broke the cease fire," she stated, suggesting that Gazans therefore had to resume firing rockets across the border. "In summer, there were almost no Palestinian rockets. The moment that Israel assassinated six Palestinians and killed a farmer, there was a new volley of rockets."
  • Firing rockets into Israeli towns is not the real cause for Israel's recent military action ("they're just an excuse they're using"). She said the objection of the Israelis that the "rockets don't discriminate" between civilians and soldiers is justified by the Palestinians because "neither does the Israeli occupation discriminate, neither does the Israeli military might discriminate." She defends such actions by the Palestinians because, "They are a stateless people and international law gives them the right or obligation to resist with whatever means possible."
  • The Palestinian use of "human shields" (armed combatants hiding behind civilians, particularly women and children) is unavoidable "given Gaza's crowded nature," while the Israeli army intentionally "used Palestinian women and children as shields by asking them to search homes and by using the homes as sniper positions."
  • This is merely a local conflict, and the Palestinians are not connected to other Islamic extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda.

All this teaching by Bar-On and El-Haddad left me rather confused, for I have seen videos (here and here) on the Web of Hamas leaders proudly proclaiming their use of women and children as human shields. I have seen footage of armed Palestinian combatants grabbing small children and forcing them to act as shields while firing guns and rockets behind them (here and here). This didn't look very unavoidable to me.

I have also seen Palestinian babies dressed up as suicide bombers, and schoolchildren dressed in camouflage and holding guns, performing military exercises at school. And I have seen a Mickey Mouse-like character on Al-Aqsa, the Hamas-run television station, sing songs about AK-47s and exhort children to devote their lives to holy war. I have heard children profess their desire to kill all the Jews, and to call the Jews "animals."

But none of this was taught at the teach-in.

I have read about the ties between the Hamas and Al Qaeda-both of them offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood. And while the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah has different origins, it often shares training, funding and tactics with Hamas in their mutual struggle against Israel.

Yet the participants at the teach-in denied these links. And, because so many things countered what I had seen with my own eyes, or had read in credible news sources, I didn't trust anything that was said.

Another speaker, Miriam Cooke, (or miriam cooke, as she prefers), a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Duke, was more restrained and kept her comments brief. A scholar of Islam, she had previously claimed that the brutal treatment of women in the Middle East is the result of European imperialism, and that Islam's one-sided polygamy laws are liberating for women. But she said nothing of the sort at the teach-in, and I was pleasantly surprised when she concluded her brief remarks with an off-hand suggestion that there was "plenty of blame on both sides."

I'd placed my greatest hope for hearing a balanced presentation on Abdullah Antepli. Surely, I thought, Duke would not hire as its first Islamic chaplain a man who would support apologists for Hamas's culture of death. (Not that anybody at the teach-in specifically defended children dressed as suicide bombers, of course; such unpleasant details were simply ignored.) Moreover, Antepli portrays himself as somebody "in the Muslim community who [has] been trying to build bridges between Jews and Muslims."

Alas, I was wrong. Behind the charm and ecumenical collegiality, Antepli appeared fully complicit with the views of Bar-On and El-Haddad. He did little to disguise his animosity toward the state of Israel, which, he said, "has been very destructive in many, many aspects...from its very beginning."

He employed Jewish teachings to attempt a critique of Israel: "Gaza," he said, "is another very fine example of Israel...failing miserably to project Jewish compassion" and "failing miserably to uphold Jewish ethical law standards." He continued, "As a state, Israel is shooting herself in the foot and pumping into the hearts and minds of millions of people anti-Semitism."

Antepli added that Israel's policies of "destruction" have caused the Muslim world to view the Palestinian situation as "hopeless," and that such hopelessness is why "throughout history, people shed blood."

When such a man provides legitimacy to the obfuscation and truth-twisting of El-Haddad and Bar-On, puts all of the blame for the breach between the Jews and Muslims on the state of Israel, and does not denounce, at the very least, the more depraved activities of Hamas, then one wonders whether he accepts other aspects of the world-wide Islamic Jihad.

So what I really learned at the teach-in is that universities like Duke are creating potential incubators of jihad on American soil while posturing as open-minded and morally superior centers of disinterested learning.

Jay Schalin is Senior Writer at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. He wrote this for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.
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