Update 8:25 p.m.: U.S. Rep. George Holding (R-NC) sent a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, asking for an investigation into the Conflict over Gaza conference co-sponsored by the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies.
"Reportedly, speakers and panelists distorted facts and misrepresented the complex situation in Gaza. A video recently surfaced depicting the main musical performer, rapper Tamer Nafar, singing a brazenly anti-semitic song. Examination of the official program reveals that several of the conference’s speakers are actively involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement," the letter said.
The letter said the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies applied for and received a $235,000 grant from the Department of Education. It also said that prior to the conference, local religious and community organizations expressed concern to the universities that the conference lacked balance. Holding said it appears the concerns were ignored.
"If these reports are accurate, I have difficulty understanding why tax dollars should be spent on such an activity," the letter said.
The letter ended with eight questions Holding called for the Department to answer including if any of the presentations glorified acts of violence, if the organizers invited any mainstream pro-Israel speakers, if the department grant funded any of the events and more.
A recent viral video released on Wednesday by conservative filmmaker Ami Horowitz depicted the Conflict over Gaza conference hosted by UNC and Duke University as anti-Semitic.
Following the video’s release, UNC Global said in a statement to The Daily Tar Heel that the content of the video was heavily edited and did not represent "the spirit of scholarship at the event.” The video includes footage of a performance at the conference by Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar of DAM, who at some point did make some anti-Semitic comments.
Junior Fouad Abu-Hijleh attended the conference and said he was approached under false pretenses by Horowitz, who went by the first name “Sam” when interacting with guests at the conference. Abu-Hijleh said many students were not aware they were being recorded.
He said Nafar did make some problematic statements during his performance, but that these were taken out of context and did not reflect the nature of the conference.
“As someone who is Palestinian, on this campus and in general in America, talking about Palestinian rights is always something that people like to make controversial, and they always love making criticism of Israel out to be like it's anti-Semitism,” Abu-Hijleh said. “When he said, ‘This is my anti-Semitic song,’ I think he was alluding to that, like, if you criticize Israel, people are going to call you an anti-Semite. That’s how I perceived it as a Palestinian. Now obviously for an American audience, I don’t know if that translated well or if that carried its meaning.”
On Friday, interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz released a statement on Twitter condemning the “disturbing and hurtful language” during the performance. At an Arts Everywhere event on Friday, Guskiewicz told The Daily Tar Heel this performance does not reflect UNC’s values.
"After watching the video from the performance at the conference, I was very disturbed, disheartened by what I saw,” he said. “There's no place for that on our campus, and I'm steadfast against anti-Semitism and extremism, hate of any form.”
Junior Emily Adcock also attended the event and said Nafar spoke to students studying Arabic at UNC about his work prior to the performance. She said he shared about his backstory as a Palestinian living in Israel, and the backlash he’s received for rapping about the condition of Palestinian people in Israel as well as occupied territory.
“He made some remarks before he performed the song kind of mocking the people that have labeled him as anti-Semitic for rapping about Palestinian liberation. His satire was problematic/not in good fashion and I think rubbed a lot of Jewish students, who saw the video afterward, the wrong way (understandably so),” she said in a message to The Daily Tar Heel. “As a Jewish student I think it’s important to call that out and hold him accountable but I also think it’s important to contextualize the backlash he faces, his background, and the content of his songs. And I strongly disagree with conflating the entire conference on Gaza to a few anti-Semitic remarks from the performer.”
The release of the video follows the discovery of several anti-Semitic posters on the bookshelves and tables in Davis Library last week. Less than two weeks before these posters were found, the Unsung Founders Memorial and an art installment outside of Hanes Art Center were vandalized with “racist and other deplorable language.” Two individuals affiliated with the Heirs of the Confederacy were arrested for this vandalism on April 8.
The Daily Tar Heel also received information regarding the discovery of additional anti-Semitic posters found taped to doors and offices on the third, fourth and fifth floors of Hamilton Hall on Thursday.
Regarding the response to the performance, Abu-Hijleh said he doesn’t believe Guskiewicz is concerned with the safety of students on campus.
“There’s a speaker who comes and says a problematic line in a satirical performance, and you’re going to equate that to someone coming to campus looking to physically aggress Black students? Those are two very different things, but only one of them is getting coverage,” he said. “There’s someone who’s among us and between us putting out these blatantly hateful posters and with one intention. But when you conflate that with something that’s happening at a conference, said by a Palestinian who grew up under occupation and humiliation his entire life, those are two very different instances.”
Prior to the release of Horowitz’s video, North Carolina Hillel released a statement criticizing the conference for having biased presenters who “demonized Israel for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and included too few perspectives from scholars who could have provided balanced context and multiple viewpoints on this challenging subject.” The statement did not mention any comments or acts of anti-Semitism.
North Carolina Hillel Executive Director Ari Gauss said the mocking tone featured in the clips from the performance which appeared to belittle anti-Semitism would be deeply disturbing if they were actually made at the conference. Since he didn’t attend, Gauss said he couldn’t say definitively that those comments were made in the way they appeared.
“We certainly hope that Jewish students will continue to remain proud in their Judaism, and we hope all students will be outspoken if they know anything, or if they see anything in terms of anti-Semitic activity of any kind,” he said. “Any act of racism or bias is a deep concern to all of us — it should be a deep concern to all of us on campus when any group is singled out in such a hateful way.”
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