Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Robert Satloff

Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Robert Satloff

Dr. Robert Satloff  (T’83) is one of America’s foremost experts on Arab and Islamic politics and U.S. Middle East policy.  Since 1993, he has served as Executive Director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a non-partisan ‘idea factory’ focused on the political, security, military, economic, social, and cultural dimensions of the Middle East. In addition to his Duke B.A., Rob has a master’s in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University and a D.Phil. in modern Middle East history from St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. 

The content of this post was originally published on April 17th, 2017.

Why did you choose to attend Duke? 
Growing up in Rhode Island, I never heard of Duke, until the Blue Devils played URI in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament in 1978 and won by just one point. I was intrigued about this excellent school in the South and the more I learned about it, the more interested I became. I was invited to visit the school as part of the competition process for an Angier B. Duke Scholarship, was blown away with the beauty of the campus and had a great time. When I was fortunate enough to receive the scholarship, the choice was clear. 

What did you study, and what organizations were you involved with on campus? 
Like most students, I bounced around from major to major until I found my special interest in defining my own major via the Comparative Area Studies program. I combined Middle Eastern and South Asian studies into what essentially was a major in Islamic history and Arabic language knowledge that I still draw on every day in my professional life, more than three decades later. 

Truth be told, I learned as much outside of class through my work with The Chronicle and its remarkable band of student-journalists as I did in class. I served as managing editor and editorial page editor but more than the positions, I still marvel at the fact that we kids published a 16-32 page newspaper every single weekday of the school year. Some of the stories were memorable, from the fight over the Nixon Presidential Library to a gang rape scandal to my own face-off with the Ku Klux Klan. But in that pre-iPad/pre-iPhone era, my fondest and most lasting memories were mocking up columns of text at the print shop at 4 a.m. a couple of nights a week with my friends. The lesson from that experience — if we didn’t do it, it didn’t get done — has been with me ever since. 

What was Jewish life on campus like in the late 70s and early 80s? 
My recollection was that, in those days, Duke had a substantial Jewish population — the number in my mind is 15 percent of undergraduates, though that may be wrong — but a very small number of active, engaged Jewish students. For a while, Hillel was based in an out-of-the-way house on East Campus and then we moved into the basement of Duke Chapel, in a sort of condominium arrangement with other religious groups, each of us having a room or two. We were led by a wonderful, caring and committed chaplain, Rabbi Frank Fischer, but he had few resources, little institutional support and was also tasked with being chaplain at UNC-Chapel Hill, which meant that he could only have a part-time presence at either school. The result was that there were very few of us at Shabbat services or Sunday bagel brunches. I recall High Holidays were split: one day in Baldwin Auditorium on East Campus, one day in an auditorium in Chapel Hill. 

But we still rose to the occasion with special events. Two of my most cherished days at Duke were days spent hosting two great Jewish writers: Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Potok. And in a different vein, the night I took Abbie Hoffman to the campus bar and listened to his stories while supplying him with beer after beer was a memorable Jewish experience, of sorts. 

You conceived and organized the very first Jewish Baccalaureate ceremony at Duke back in 1983.  Tell us how that happened. 
Flash back to spring 1983, my senior year. The previous May, I had attended the university baccalaureate service and was shocked that it included specific prayers consecrating every student’s education in the name of Jesus Christ. Like all Dukies, I knew of and respected Duke’s Methodist origins and connections, but I also knew Duke to be a place that celebrated, thrived, even boasted about its diversity. I could not fathom that it would require all students who wanted to enjoy the grandeur and fullness of their graduation weekend to pay homage to Jesus, regardless of their faith (or lack thereof). 

So, I wrote an op-ed for The Chronicle that outlined the problem and proposed two alternatives: either re-name the Chapel event as the Christian baccalaureate service or make the service more universal and ecumenical by encouraging members of all faiths to share equally in the celebration. “Graduation is an event that happens only once,” I wrote. “Why shouldn’t my family be permitted to enjoy it, too?” 

I remember the op-ed caused quite a storm, prompting numerous supportive notes from Jewish and non-Jewish classmates alike. But the University administration was not amused. Its response was a firm “no.” 

The battle was now joined. Rabbi Fischer continually reminded me of the importance of being constructive, not destructive. After all, I had no desire to tarnish Duke’s graduation festivities, just to expand them to be truly inclusive of all Duke graduates. Together, we devised a plan. 

On the day of the baccalaureate service, I joined hundreds of other graduates and our families in the wondrous surroundings of Duke Chapel. A few of us promised each other that at the moment we were asked to consecrate our education to Jesus, we would all stand and silently walk out. We also promised each other that we would have our families join in. I had images of a vast parade marching down the center aisle of the Chapel in a powerful, yet respectful statement of protest. 

In the end, we never quite achieved “vast parade” status. When the moment came, I stood up with my family as well as a couple of friends and their families, then we made our way to the aisle and marched out of the Chapel into the brilliant sunlight. The size of the procession didn’t matter. It was an exhilarating moment. 

Later that afternoon, or was it the following day, I don’t recall, in a mid-sized lecture room on East Campus, Rabbi Fischer officiated at what Allen Building termed the “Jewish graduation ceremony,” but what everyone at the lively and festive event called Duke’s first-ever Jewish Baccalaureate Service. I recall having had the privilege of telling everyone the story of how we got there. 

Over time, the University realized it was wiser to embrace our “protest baccalaureate” rather than fight it. But Jewish students today shouldn’t take for granted a wonderful event in their collegiate lives for which my classmates and I had to fight. When I see that the Jewish Baccalaureate Service has gone from a being a renegade event to a celebrated moment on the university’s graduation calendar, nothing made me prouder of being Jewish at Duke than my role in making that a reality. 

You had some memorable moments as a student at Duke.  Are there one or two that stand out? 
I had a great Duke experience but two moments stand out, both of which are “Jewish moments.” 

In April 1981, my sophomore year, I went “undercover” to interview Glenn Miller, the Grand Dragon of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. I say “undercover” because the terms of the interview were “no blacks and no Jews allowed.” But I was so eager to do the interview that I got a crew-cut, put a crucifix around my neck, and made a fake press pass; I also took a wonderfully talented tall, blond, blue-eyed photographer with me (future Duke body president Shep Moyle). 

The following Saturday morning, Shep and I drove to Miller’s paramilitary training camp on his 27-acre farm.  A bunch of guys, mostly in combat gear, were milling about, many holding guns. When I met Miller, his first words were “Are you a Jew?” No, I said. He went on: “I don’t let Jews on my land, so you had better not be lying to me.” I held my ground and we started the interview. 

Suddenly, after about ten minutes, a man wearing a Nazi uniform motioned to Miller and they went off for a brief discussion in the kitchen. When Miller returned, he began to sniff. “I smell a Jew,” he said. The gig was up. 

For the next 2½ hours, I was kept under armed guard, locked in a steaming car in the blazing sun, as Shep continued the interview. Three men, sometimes four, vigilantly watched me, led by the uniformed Nazi. Every half-hour one of them would come near the car to wave a pistol at me. Eventually, Shep came out of the one-story wooden house — they had tried to recruit him into the fold — and we were told to leave. 

The stories we wrote about our experience at the KKK camp less than an hour from our ivory tower electrified the campus; years later, many of my classmates still tell me that reading about our Klan experience remains one of their most vivid memories of Duke. Bringing that sordid reality into our privileged existence was one of the most exhilarating moments of my undergraduate years. 

Sadly, the story didn’t end in rural North Carolina. That same Glenn Miller I interviewed 34 years ago was the man who brutally murdered four innocent bystanders at a Jewish community center and a Jewish retirement home near Kansas City last year. I was shocked. His hatred, especially toward Jews, had only grown with time. 

But my most cherished and lasting memory is a very different story. The time is early December 1982. Every year, my fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, held a celebrity auction to raise money for kids at Duke Hospital and then hosted a Christmas party in the children’s ward for those kids. My happy task was to be Santa Claus at the party. Rentals were for 24 hours so after the party, I had a free night to roam campus bars dressed as St. Nicholas. This is in the era when students not only could drink freely on campus but could even buy beer with dining hall “points,” so being Santa one of the final weekends before winter break was quite an attraction. 

In the Cambridge Inn that night, I met a cute, curly haired sophomore from Montreal with a killer smile named Jennie Litvack. Later that night, I phoned her in her dorm room at House A and, as I expected, she couldn’t refuse going on a date with a guy who said on the phone, “It’s Santa Claus calling.” Nine years, several continents, three universities and a few jobs later, we were married. And as we are about to celebrate our 25th anniversary, our oldest son is getting read to enter Duke’s freshman class.  Meeting the nice Jewish girl of my dreams while wearing a Santa suit is the storybook ending to my Duke experience. 

Tell us about your work today. 
I am lucky to wear three hats. First, I am the director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where — for the past 23 years, I have led a remarkable team of Middle East experts, scholars and policy practitioners at Washington’s premier think tank on Middle East issues. Our mission is to provide non-partisan analysis and ideas that improve the quality of U.S. policy in that volatile region. Regrettably, with so much chaos and uncertainty in the Middle East, it often seems like we have lifetime employment! 

Second, I am an historian, with a special focus on the experience of Arab countries and societies during the Holocaust. My last book, Among the Righteous, recounted the various roles that Arabs played during the persecution of Jews in Arab lands. This included little known stories of Arabs as perpetrators, bystanders, and most importantly — as rescuers of Jews. I was especially proud to have worked with PBS and Macneil-Lehrer Productions to produce an hour-long documentary based on the book, which aired nationally on Yom Hashoah in 2010 and in French, German and Arabic around the world. Building on new research I am undertaking on aspects of the Holocaust in Arab and Muslim societies, I serve as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s inaugural Directors Fellow. 

And third, I am a TV host. For nearly ten years, I have hosted a weekly news and public affairs talk show on al-Hurra, the U.S. government’s Arabic satellite television channel. The show is called “Dakhil Washington” (Inside Washington) and it is designed to explain to Arab viewers how Washington works — or doesn’t work, as the case may be. In that capacity, I am the only non-Arab to host a talk show on Arabic satellite TV. 

So, I have a full professional life. Add to it parenting three boys, aged 18, 15 and 7, and it’s a full, busy and rewarding life, too. 

How have your years at Duke shaped your life and career? 
It is no exaggeration to say I would not be the person I am today if I hadn’t gone to Duke. I wouldn’t have found my wife. I wouldn’t have found my vocation. And I probably wouldn’t have found the inner voice that has guided me to pose questions whose search for answers has given me so much satisfaction over the years. Getting any one of these gifts from an undergraduate education is wonderful. Getting all three is truly amazing. 


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