DURHAM -- On the eve of a controversial pro-Palestinian conference, between 100 and 200 people heard speeches and music at a rally against terrorism on the Duke campus Thursday night.
Today, nearly 500 are expected to attend the start of the fourth annual Palestine Solidarity Movement conference, an event that has drawn national criticism and led administrators to gird for protests. Thursday night's "Students Against Terror Concert and Rally," arranged chiefly by Duke's largest Jewish organization, was billed as an event to build awareness of terrorism.
In a news conference Thursday afternoon at the Freeman Center, rally organizers took pains to separate the event from the PSM conference. While the center has organized a series of lectures and seminars to provide the pro-Israel perspective this weekend, the concert itself was designed as a broader stand against terrorism worldwide, organizers said.
Still, the timing was unmistakable. The concert and rally took place just 24 hours before the conference's start. Jonathan Gerstl, Duke's executive director of Jewish life, said planning for the rally began Aug. 8, two days after the university announced it would allow the PSM conference on campus.
While the Freeman Center has supported President Richard Brodhead's decision to allow the conference as a way to preserve academic freedom, Jewish student leaders have accused PSM of tacitly supporting terrorism.
"This is a concert against terrorism, and the PSM does not condemn terrorism. That is the only connection," said Rachael Solomon, who leads the Freeman Center's student board.
In the weeks leading up to the conference, Jewish groups on campus asked representatives from Hiwar -- the Duke student group bringing the PSM conference to campus -- to sign a declaration condemning terrorism. Hiwar leaders declined, saying that PSM's policies forbid dictating methods of resistance to the Palestinians.
"We reached out to as many groups as we could think of and gave them an opportunity to be a part of this," said Ari Dubin, director of the Freeman Center.
But Dubin said planners did not invite Hiwar. To specifically ask them to sign on could have been perceived as an attempt to put its members on the spot, he said.
"By even talking about this, we're politicizing something that we're trying really hard not to politicize," he said.
Despite that, some of the speeches veered sharply into the political.
Among the speakers was Brigitte Gabriel, a Christian who fled Lebanon for Israel during the Lebanese civil war and now runs a Virginia-based organization aimed at exposing the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. She finished her speech by describing what she sees as the difference between Israel and "the Arab world."
"It's barbarism versus civilization," she said. "It's civilization versus dictatorship. It's good versus evil."
Mo Sarhan, a junior whose parents fled from the West Bank to Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War, watched, bemused. His student group, the Arab Students Organization, endorsed the rally to show that many Arabs oppose terrorism, he said.
"Violence on either side [of the conflict] should not be accepted by anyone," he said.
But, as Sarhan listened, he said he was disappointed.
"I can't believe we endorsed this," he said, between puffs on a cigarette.
Other speakers included an Ohio student whose father was killed in the 9/11 attacks, a survivor of a suicide bombing in Israel and the founder of a Sudanese exile group. U.S. Rep. David Price, D-4th District, and Durham Mayor Bill Bell also spoke, the latter proclaiming the day "Students Against Terror Day" in Durham.
Following the speeches, the band Sister Hazel was scheduled to play a free concert.
Gerstl said it cost about $80,000 to stage the rally, most of which was raised from Duke students' parents and alumni.
Also on Thursday, Duke played host to a speech by Daniel Pipes, a pro-Israel activist and founder of the Web site Campus Watch, which monitors what the group considers anti-Israel teaching on college campuses.
In a speech sponsored by the Duke Conservative Union and attended by about 160 people, Pipes sharply criticized Duke for allowing the Palestinian Solidarity Movement to meet on campus.
"This is not a group that should have a platform at a university," he said.