They’re trying to mend fences at Duke University.
Ten days after the student-run daily newspaper there published a column contending that Jews use the Holocaust to counter criticism, the school’s Center for Race Relations held the first in a series of dialogues aimed at uniting a campus roiled and polarized by the Oct. 18 op-ed.
And in his first column since the controversy erupted, Philip Kurian issued an apology. In “Suffering an Education,” the Duke senior wrote: “Intentions cannot always be discerned through the mask of language. I wanted to start a dialogue about human suffering, but instead I ripped open old wounds to fuel the very anti-Semitism that caused them. For this I am deeply sorry.”
More than 500 responses to the original column — the overwhelming majority of them negative — were posted on The Duke Chronicle’s Web site. And the newspaper printed a slew of letters and editorials, some accusing Kurian of being bigoted and anti-Semitic, and others calling the backlash against Kurian shameful.
“Everyone had emotions about the article, but they didn’t feel safe to discuss them,” said Kimberly Noel, an executive board member of Center for Race Relations, an organization Kurian co-founded. “People felt their voices were silenced for fear of being called anti-Semitic.”
Noel said tensions in recent weeks have mounted between the Jewish and African-American communities at Duke, a prestigious school in Durham, N.C.
“I’ve seen a breakup of the community along those lines,” she said.
In light of growing hostilities, Noel said the Oct. 28 dialogue was “exactly what the campus needed.”
At the two-hour session, which attracted about 80 students — including about a dozen Jewish campus leaders — facilitators read excerpts from Kurian’s column and asked students to weigh in on whether they agreed or disagreed. Smaller breakout sessions followed in which groups of 10 students discussed the piece by Kurian. Additional dialogues are scheduled in the coming weeks.
Kurian was present at the meeting but did not address the crowd, Noel said.
In a column titled “The Jews,” Kurian had called Jews “the most privileged ‘minority’ group in the country.”
“In short, Jews can renounce their difference by taking off the yarmulke. Clearly this is not a luxury afforded by all minority groups,” he wrote.
Kurian, who is black, also pointed to Jews “shocking overrepresentation” at top universities and called Jewish suffering “a stilted one-dimensional conversation where Jews feel the overwhelming sense of entitlement not to be criticized or offended.”
Adam Yoffe, 21, president of Duke Friends of Israel, said that many students at the dialogue “agreed with some of the messages in Phil’s article. They agreed that Jews are a privileged minority that needs to do more for other minorities on campus. But the vast majority of people there criticized the column’s hateful language.”
Yoffe, who is Jewish, said he supported the Center for Race Relations’ decision to hold the dialogue, “but the center did not do a lot of initial outreach to the Jewish community” after the article was published.