On Sept. 28, Duke scholar and author Phyllis Chesler, a frequent op-ed contributor to The Jewish Press, wrote an open letter to Duke President Richard Brodhead challenging his decision to allow the Palestinian Solidarity Movement to hold its annual conference there later this month.

Dr. Chesler’s letter appeared as an op-ed in last week’s issue of The Jewish Press. Duke Senior Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations John F. Burness has responded. His letter, as well as Dr. Chesler’s rejoinder, have been edited for space. 

(Dr. Chesler is the author of twelve books including her latest, ‘The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must do About It’, and is working on a new book about the importance of independent thinking for Palgrave-Macmillan (St. Martin’s). She may be reached through her website www.Phyllis-Chesler.com

Dear Dr. Chesler:

I appreciated the opportunity to talk with you the other day and your gracious invitation “to correct any inaccurate information” in your recent article.

First, my response to what you defined as the most important points:

[1] You wrote that the conference will take place “behind closed doors with no press allowed,” and that “this is what the Palestine Solidarity Movement conference planners have demanded.”

The university is treating the PSM conference as it does all student conferences. Duke doesn’t dictate to its students the content or structure of their events, or the speakers they must select. The student organizers have determined that the conference is open to anyone who wishes to register, up to a space limit of 500 people. They have also determined that members of the news media may register to attend, within that 500-person limit. In addition, the conference organizers are planning a press conference.

[2] Your related assertion, that Duke is prohibiting cameras and/or sound recorders, is also not accurate. Duke does not dictate whether cameras or recording equipment will be allowed at the conference. That is properly a decision for the student sponsors, consistent with Duke’s policies that permit such restrictions. Such prohibitions are not uncommon. 

Let me turn now to a number of other inaccurate or misleading statements in your article:

You wrote, “Duke will be supporting a group (which is also known as the International Solidarity Movement).” Duke’s understanding from multiple sources is that the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM), while related to the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), is a separate organization. The PSM is, in effect, a loose confederation of student groups at campuses around the country.

It is indisputable that ISM members have participated in previous PSM conferences, but federal police authorities have confirmed for us that the organizations are separate and distinct and, equally important, that the PSM has no ties to known terrorists. It also may be true that ISM activists may be involved in PSM activities. But just as I would assume there might be individuals active in both the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the American Jewish Committee, that does not make them one and the same any more than the ISM and PSM would be one and the same.

You wrote that you are “even more distressed by Duke’s failure, so far, to fund and host very different kinds of programs in this area.” In fact, we are.

The Freeman Center for Jewish Life’s “Joint Israel Initiative,” in the words of its student organizers, “… supports the ongoing efforts towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and [those who] yearn for peace throughout the region… To accomplish this, the Israel Initiative is sponsoring a range of program and events in the coming year. We are working closely with Duke officials, local Jewish community leaders, and national organizations to create a wide range of activities that provide an unbiased perspective on the diversity of opinion within and outside the Jewish community. We are proud to announce that this year we will be bringing to campus Alan Dershowitz, Yossi Beilin, Gary Bauer, and Avram Burg.”

You should know that the night before the conference, a Concert Against Terrorism has been organized by a number of student groups. And several nationally and internationally prominent speakers with expertise on terrorism, the Middle East, and the Israel-Palestine conflict – including former U.S. Ambassador and Special Envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross and Jamie Gorelick of the 9-11 Commission – have or will be speaking on campus as part of a year-long set of activities focused on these issues.

The balance of your letter, as well as most of our discussion, shows that we disagree on the university’s role, as well as what may have happened at previous PSM conferences and what may be happen at this one. Fair enough.

I do not dispute your words, ” ‘Free’ speech is not always ‘true’ speech. Universities have an obligation to teach the truth as much as they may also wish to model tolerance for all speech, including that which bears no relationship to the truth.”

In turn, I hope you will carefully consider President Brodhead’s words:

“All ideas are not equal, but it is a foundational principle of American life that all ideas should have an equal opportunity to be expressed. Universities, in particular, must give wide latitude to free speech and free debate because the pursuit of truth through the encounter of divergent points of view is the very stuff of education. When universities get in the business of suppressing speech, however vile, it lends credence to the notion that it is a legitimate function of the university to suppress speech. A notion is thereby validated that then can be activated on another occasion ? perhaps to suppress our own dissent or unpopular expression. The day we start making it easy to shut down others’ opinions is the day we license a curtailment of freedom from which we could each suffer in our turn.”

I acknowledge that the discussions at the student PSM conference inevitably will be heavily focused on issues from the Palestinian perspective. Similarly, I expect the activities sponsored by the Freeman Center will be focused on issues from the Israeli perspective. Our students and others will have an opportunity to learn from each of these programs, as well as the myriad of speeches and panel discussions by our faculty and outside experts. As a result, we hope they and other members of our campus community will be better educated and able to make up their own minds about these issues.

Again, Dr. Chesler, I greatly appreciate the opportunity you have given me to correct the inaccurate portions of your article .


John F. Burness
Senior Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations
Duke University

Dear Mr. Burness:


I am gratified that you “do not dispute [my] words, ‘Free’ speech is not always ‘true’ speech. Universities have an obligation to teach the truth as much as they may also wish to model tolerance for all speech, including that which bears no relationship to the truth.?”

President Brodhead’s view is this: “All ideas are not equal, but it is a foundational principle of American life that all ideas should have an equal opportunity to be expressed … when universities get into the business of suppressing speech, however vile, it lends credence to the notion that it is a legitimate function of the university to suppress speech.”

I am not asking President Brodhead to suppress anyone’s speech. Indeed, for that reason I wanted to be certain that the media will be allowed in (which your letter assures me they will, but, at student request, without cameras or tape recorders). On the phone, but not in your letter, you also assured me that Duke is making provisions for safety and security in the event protestors turn up who want to exercise even more of our much valued free speech.

But let me ask you: Do you consider the Palestine Solidarity Movement’s hate speech against Jews and the Jewish state, and in favor of suicide terrorism, “vile” speech or not? I am no longer discussing the university’s right to allow “unequal,” “divergent,” “unpopular” or “dissent(ing)” speech free and full expression on campus. I am talking about whether the Duke administration and faculty do or do not have an obligation to inform students as to whether what they’ve just heard in a Duke classroom or auditorium also happens to be “vile” and hateful speech, utterly lacking in objectivity, accuracy, or scholarship?

Allowing academics to counter hate speech with a more expert version of the same hate speech is not enough. Thus, if Duke held a Holocaust Denial conference in which the speakers were to say that Hitler did not murder European Jews or that only very few Jews were murdered, you would no doubt be able to find academics who shared such false and dangerous views in very expert voices. 

When you say that the Hillel-affiliated Freeman Center of Jewish Life at Duke will be providing counter programming so that a balanced program is at hand, I suggest that this is not the case. 

First, let me note that you do not mention the upcoming lecture of Daniel Pipes who was invited months ago by the Duke Conservative Student Union as their way of protesting the Palestine Solidarity Movement’s on-campus conference. I understand that the Freeman Center has recently agreed to co-sponsor Professor Pipes’s speech.

Second, I have been told (and you must correct me if I am wrong), that the Freeman Center will not be allowing any Israeli Jewish victims of terrorist violence to speak out and that the other such victims are not being allowed to target their attackers as Muslims or Arabs ? even if that’s exactly who they are.

Thus, I have been told that telling the truth is not “politically correct” at Duke. I hope that my information is wrong. I hope that the Freeman Center will have Israeli Jewish speakers as well as other speakers and that their ability to discuss who launched a terrorist attack against them is also accurate.

Third, the Freeman Center’s invitation to Yossi Beilin (whom I gather is not coming), and Avram Burg, (whom I gather is coming), does not reflect a commitment to provide balanced and diverse pro-Israel programming. Both esteemed gentlemen represent only the far left Israeli point of view. They also represent the views of those who tried and failed to achieve peace with the Palestinians through the Oslo Accords – and whose every earnest effort was utterly rejected by Arafat, who chose instead to launch a very bloody Intifada which has lasted for four years. 

I have also been told by Rachel Fish of The David Project (which has had experience in just such on campus conferences) that she had to yell and scream to be allowed to make a Freeman Center-sponsored presentation on October 16 and then only if she could fund herself.

I am glad to hear that Dennis Ross will be speaking sometime during the school year. His most recent book certainly confirms that Arafat unilaterally rejected a serious peace proposal at both Camp David and at Taba. I am also glad that Alan Dershowitz will appear sometime during the school year as well. His book The Case for Israel is both passionate and accurate. 

I gather that the local Jewish federations do not want the Jews to “make waves.” I gather that the Freeman Center does not want to depart from the “politically correct” party line either. Thus, telling me that Jews share the Duke administration view is not persuasive. African-Americans can always be found who will say that they have never been discriminated against; one can find women who will say the same thing. This does not mean it is true. 

In fact, the Palestine Solidarity Movement will be having a number of Jewish speakers. The Duke student who invited the PSM on campus I am told is a Jewish Israeli. Please confirm. The role of Jews on the humanitarian left and their motives to be the first to condemn the Jewish state should probably be the subject of a conference all its own. Let me again note that neither Duke nor the Freeman Center has invited any pro-Israeli and pro-democracy Palestinians or Arabs, either Christian or Muslim.

Vice President Burness: Please, I beg you to consider hosting one of the three conferences I proposed to you in my first letter. I would help you with this. It would be the very highest road Duke could choose to take out of this ugly morass.

All best,



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Dr. Phyllis Chesler is a professor emerita of psychology, a Middle East Forum fellow, and the author of sixteen books including “The New Anti-Semitism” (2003, 2014), “Living History: On the Front Lines for Israel and the Jews, 2003-2015 (2015), and “An American Bride in Kabul” (2013), for which she won the National Jewish Book Award in the category of memoirs. Her articles are archived at www.phyllis-chesler.com. A version of this piece appeared on IsraelNationalNews.com.