Amidst growing controversy, the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies has decided that it will honor requests for refunds from co-sponsors of its recent conference, Conflict over Gaza.
In an email to The Daily Tar Heel, Katie Young, director of Global Relations at UNC Global, said any refunds from the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies would be paid without reliance on the Center’s federal or state funding.
The Conflict over Gaza conference, held at the University from March 22 to 24, aimed to “shed much needed light on the current realities in the Gaza Strip,” according to its webpage. The conference drew criticism after conservative filmmaker Ami Horowitz published a video of hidden-microphone interviews with attendees and a performance by Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar. Nafar is seen in the video telling the audience that “this is my anti-Semitic song.”
UNC Global told The Daily Tar Heel that the video had been heavily edited, and was not representative of the overall spirit of the conference.
Following the release of the video, many conference co-sponsors, including the School of Law and the School of Government, requested that the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies refund them and remove them from the list of conference co-sponsors.
“I trusted your Center to ensure that the content of this conference would be appropriate and would reflect well on the University and the units whose resources you sought,” Dean of the School of Law Martin Brinkley said in a letter to the Center. “I am deeply disappointed in your breach of trust with innocent campus units who sought only to be good citizens and partners to the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies.”
Mike Smith, dean of the School of Government, also wrote his own letter to the organizers of the conference, which was obtained by ABC11.
“I do not want the School associated with the anti-Semitic performance that now has come to define your conference,” Smith wrote. “I trusted that your conference would conform to the values of the University, and instead you violated that trust by extending a platform to an anti-Semitic musician who hurt members of our community.”
Smith and Brinkley both said they would be unlikely to authorize funding for future programs.
U.S. Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.) went a step further, requesting that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos open an investigation into the allegations of anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric at the conference.
In his letter to DeVos, Holding asked whether the any of the presentations promoted the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, whether the organizers invited any pro-Israel groups or speakers, and whether the conference presented, in DeVos’ opinion, an “overtly biased characterization of the situation in the Middle East.” Holding did not explicitly include anti-Semitism in his list of questions to investigate.
Holding also asked if the verification of reports of “extensive anti-Israel bias” would establish grounds to revoke the remainder of Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies’ $235,000 grant from the Department of Education, $5,000 of which were used to finance the conference, the News & Observer reported.
The grant was awarded to the Consortium, which includes the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies, under Federal Grant Program 84.015, in order to “promote instruction in modern foreign languages and area and international studies that are critical to national needs.” The grant is set to run through August.
The Consortium covers programs of study in foreign languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, and Persian at UNC and Duke. Additionally, it offers majors concentrating on the Middle East, Arab Cultures, Jewish Studies and South Asian studies.
First-year Julia Hirschfield is a global studies major with a concentration in the Middle East and a member of Sigma Rho Lambda, UNC’s Jewish-interest sorority. Hisrchfield said that while she appreciates that Holding is alarmed by anti-Semitism, revoking funding from the Consortium on the basis of anti-Israeli sentiment raises concerns about the future of her education, as well as that of others at the University.
“Now more than ever it’s so important to learn about the Middle East, to learn about the culture, learn about the conflict, learn about the people,” Hirschfield said. “Just taking that kind of funding away from that kind of thing, I don’t think that would help anybody. That wouldn’t help education. That’s not the right move to take care of this kind of anti-Semitism. If anything, I would suggest that that funding could be used to educate about anti-Semitism in the United States, throughout the world, because the only way to fight misinformation and prejudice is education.”
Hirschfield also pointed out that perhaps the alarm over the conference, but not similar instances of discrimination toward other groups, may be indicative of biases.
“We don’t see that kind of reaction when it comes to racism or Islamophobia on our own campus, and so, I just find it very interesting that there’s that kind of knee-jerk reaction only for this,” she said.
Despite her issues with the Conflict over Gaza conference, Hirschfield said the University should continue to hold conferences like it.
“I still think that the aim of the Gaza conference and what it was trying to accomplish is something really important, and that I would love to see in the future," Hirschfield said. "I don’t think this one issue and this one mistake should be the end of it, because it’s something really important.”
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