Politics & Policy

Duke’s New Director of Islamic Studies Compares Israeli Crimes to the Holocaust

Omid Safi uses holocaust pictures and Martin Luther King Jr. to condemn the Jewish State.

Duke University has hired an academic with a track record of making outrageous and misleading claims about Israel to head up an Islamic-studies center for which the North Carolina college received a $3 million dollar endowment.

Duke Today reported last week that Omid Safi will head the Duke Islamic Studies Center (DISC), described as “the university’s hub of teaching, learning and research about Islam and Muslim communities.” Safi has a considerable media presence. He writes a column at Huffington Post entitled “What Would Muhammad Do?” and has contributed to the New York Times, CNN, NPR, and other major media outlets.

Safi, a Duke alumnus, claims to defend an anodyne version of Islam and to eschew extremism. However, there is nothing moderate about the moral equivalencies he invokes to criticize Israel. Take, for example, his “Zionist Atrocities at the Village of Deir Yassin . . . 65 Years ago and Today.” The article was published in Religion News Service (RNS) on April 9, 2013, and retracted shortly thereafter.

Safi asserts that the massacre of the Arab village during the midst of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence continues to exemplify Israel’s modus operandi. The article featured a black-and-white photograph of a prison yard littered with hundreds of human corpses. The people in that photograph are not Arab victims of Deir Yassin but Jewish victims of the Holocaust. A Jewishpress.com article noted: “It’s clear that the photo is there to magnify the impact of [Safi’s] words, and to serve as a historical record of what he describes.”

In other words, he intended to deceive.

As of April 19, 2013, Safi’s article is no longer available on the RNS website. An editor’s note informs readers: “This post has been disabled after a review for failing to meet the editorial standards of Religion News Service.” No elaboration is provided. The comments to the now-retracted article are still available. In one comment, Safi says, “A response to massacre and genocide that refused to take it seriously is moral cowardice.”

The context does not make clear whether Safi intends to define the Deir Yassin massacre alone or rather the more general Palestinian displacement as “genocide.” The word is misplaced in either case. Even if Israel is responsible for pushing Palestinians from their homes in order to seize their land, as the Arabs allege, this would make them guilty of ethnic cleansing, but not genocide. As for Deir Yassin, it was a wartime atrocity — which was acknowledged by the Israelis and condemned immediately — and no part of a systemic attempt to eliminate an entire race of people. Nor has there been any such effort since on the part of Israel.

Elsewhere, Safi is more subtle in his criticism of Israel, but no less misleading. In his “A Muslim Spiritual Progressive Perspective on Palestine/Israel (with a Dash of Obama),” Safi argues that Jews and Muslims would be able to coexist if only both sides of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict chose to end the cycle of violence and embraced their shared heritage. He writes, “We have lived together in the past, and can live together again.” The article ends on what appears to be an edifying note: “May the path to Truth and Reconciliation begin with each of us, today.”


One does not have to look far beneath the palliative words to spot trouble. When Safi notes that Muslims and Jews have lived together, he has in mind the era of the Ottoman Empire. Under this regime, the groups did live together, but not as equals. Jews and Christians were both considered second-class “dhimmis.” Yes, the Jews fled to parts of the Ottoman Empire to escape the Spanish Inquisition (they also fled elsewhere). No, this does not mean the Ottoman Empire’s reign was a golden era for pluralism and tolerance to which we should seek to return.

The words “truth and reconciliation” in in the final sentence and elsewhere in the article are a reference to the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa. Hence, Safi invokes the equivalency between Israel and the racist apartheid regime of South Africa that is oft-repeated by the most vitriolic critics of the Jewish state.

What is it we are supposed to get truth and reconciliation about? Apparently, the founding of Israel. Safi writes that “The establishment of Israel in 1948 involved the forceful and violent ethnic cleansing of some 750,000 Palestinians from their ancestral homelands.” Not only does Safi present the contested Arab narrative as if it were uncontested fact; he omits to mention that Israel was under attack from five neighboring Arab countries, whose publicly stated goal was to destroy Israel.

Finally, Safi misrepresents the views of Martin Luther King Jr., saying that he “taught us that we have a choice: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.” Well, not exactly. Speaking to the 68th annual Rabbinical Assembly on March 25, 1968, just days before his assassination, King had this to say about Israel:

Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all of our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel, and I never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can almost be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and security must be a reality.

Almost certainly, if King were alive today he would be critical of some of Israel’s policies. Even so, King did not endorse the simplistic dichotomy that Safi puts in his mouth.

Decide for yourself whether this is the kind of scholar who should be directing the Islamic studies program at a major university, or whether Duke’s $3 million endowment is being well spent. 

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado and a National Review intern. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.

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