By Leena El-Sadek
A Duke Students for Justice in Palestine event recently faced backlash when some of its display was vandalized by a student.
DSJP hosted an event Thursday on the Bryan Center Plaza entitled “Tearing Down the Wall: Clearing Up Misconceptions,” in which the student group meant to raise awareness about a wall separating the West Bank region of Palestine from Israel. DSJP constructed a replica of the wall—known as the “separation fence” or “anti-terrorist fence” to most Israelis and the “racial segregation wall” to most Palestinians—and handed out flyers detailing the damaging effects.
The group planned to dismantle the wall “both symbolically and literally” at around 5 p.m. that day, said senior Sabrina Rubakovic, a member of DSJP, in a Facebook event.
But about two hours into the day-long event, senior Zach Epstein, a member of the Jewish Student Union executive board, destroyed part of the wall and flipped over a table of Palestinian food DSJP was giving out to passersby.
Epstein is also listed as a member of Duke Friends of Israel on the group’s Facebook page.
But he has not been actively involved in the organization for several years, said senior Natalie Alberman, DFI president.
“The incident was an act of intimidation meant to silence our voices in calling for the rights and dignity of the Palestinian people,” said DSJP President Ahmad Jitan, a senior and columnist for The Chronicle.
Epstein declined to comment to The Chronicle, but he issued an apology to all those involved in hosting the event via the event page on Facebook.
“I would like to apologize deeply for what occurred,” he said in his apology, which was obtained by The Chronicle. “I acted overzealously, thinking at the time that I was making a sacrifice for the Jewish and Israeli students who feel targeted and harassed, the fickle Duke students whose minds are filled with polarizing material that bears false witness to the situation at hand and the security of the Israel state whose very existence—which I pray for often and intensely—is explicitly threatened by Iranian military leaders…. Again, I apologize for the harm that was done by my overzealous actions and hope that all sides can join together in a respectful, non-polarizing discussion of how to tangibly improve the situation in Israel and Palestine.”
Immediately after the incident, DSJP and some witnesses cleaned up the vandalism, said freshman Sarey Hamarneh, a member of DSJP. Members of the student group rebuilt the part of the wall that was destroyed so they could continue the event as planned.
Hamarneh said he does not think that Epstein’s actions are representative of any organization on campus. Rather, an emotional response was triggered that caused him to react in an unjust way.
“[DSJP was] not being anti-Semitic or anti-Israel in any way,” Hamerneh said. “[Epstein] just did not like what we were doing, and his actions just got out of hand.”
Rabbi Jeremy Yoskowitz, assistant director of Jewish life at Duke, was one of the first witnesses to help clean up after the incident ensued. Yoskowitz said that he is particularly proud of the unity the Duke community strives to achieve.
“I have more than enough respect for the intelligence and intellectual curiosity of our students to believe that we are able to have conversations, even difficult ones, without resorting to either hateful rhetoric or physical violence,” Yoskowitz said. “This campus and this student body are better than that.”
Student criticism is not new to DSJP, Jitan added. He said the organization previously received criticism from The Chronicle’s independent editorial board and then-president of the Jewish Student Union, Kevin Lieberman, Pratt ’12, in response to DSJP’s hosting of “Israeli Apartheid Week,” a nationally recognized event that contends that Palestinians suffer under Israeli oppression.
Jitan said he thinks the criticism are just symptoms of a larger culture which silences and invalidates marginalized voices—not just of Palestinian solidarity activists, but women, students of color, the LGBT community, students with disabilities and others.
“It should be of concern to any student who is concerned with social justice and values a safe, healthy and productive environment on our campus,” he added.
Civil discussion among student groups is essential to ensure a safe environment for Duke students, Hamerneh said.
“Hopefully this incident will not affect our relationship with any organizations on campus negatively, but will instead provide an incentive to start some communication between DSJP and DFI,” he said.
Throughout the academic year and even since the vandalism, DSJP has been in conversation with leaders in Duke’s Jewish community, hoping to promote opportunities for respectful, honest and open conversations with students who are concerned about Israel and Palestine, regardless of their personal positions, Jitan added.
“As a sensitive issue, we understand the need to make sure that no one feels antagonized on campus all the while they are free to express their views,” Jitan said. “The events of last week, while troubling and reflective of a larger culture that silences marginalized voices, shouldn’t be taken as a sign of animosity between any groups on campus.”
Muslim Chaplain Abdullah Antepli, a columnist for The Chronicle, concluded the Thursday event by calling for immediate change from Duke students. Although Antepli was not originally scheduled to speak at the event, members of DSJP called him, requesting that he speak about the vandalism that occurred earlier in the afternoon.
“The consequences would have been drastically different if the tables were turned,” Antepli said. “This is an attack on the entire Duke community that harms our culture of respect and civility. We can move forward if we stand together as a community. We are one Duke. Together we stand through the hardship and struggle.”
This article has been updated with new information about Epstein’s membership in Duke Friends of Israel.