Politics & Government

Congressman wants investigation of alleged ‘anti-Semitic rhetoric’ at Duke-UNC conference

In a May 19, 2016, file photo, Rep. George Holding speaks during a 2nd Congressional District Republican primary debate in Raleigh.
In a May 19, 2016, file photo, Rep. George Holding speaks during a 2nd Congressional District Republican primary debate in Raleigh. The News & Observer

A North Carolina congressman called Monday for a federal investigation into a Middle East conference co-sponsored by Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill and suggested federal grant money could be pulled from the two universities’ Consortium for Middle East Studies.

Rep. George Holding, a Raleigh Republican, wrote a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking her department to investigate the “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities” conference held March 22-24 at UNC, claiming that he has seen “reports of severe anti-Israeli bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric at a taxpayer-funded conference.”

The conference used $5,000 in grant money from the Department of Education for the conference, according to UNC. It came from a four-year, $235,000-per-year grant to the consortium that is part of the agency’s international and foreign language education grants. Holding wants to know if the department sees grounds to “revoke the remainder of the federal grant.”

“Honest academic debate featuring diverse perspectives and a wide-range of views is critical in a democratic society and a central tenet of American’s educational system,” Holding writes in the letter. “However, it is irresponsible, immoral and unproductive for taxpayer dollars to fund overtly biased advocacy under the guise of academic discourse.”

Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar of hip-hop group DAM performed on the first night of the conference. A video of part of his performance was shared by filmmaker Ami Horowitz, who describes himself on Twitter as a filmmaker and political satirist. ABC11 first reported about the video.

In edited clips from his performance, posted online by Horowitz, Nafar says on stage: “This is my anti-Semitic song. ... I know it sounds R&B stuff, but don’t think of Rihanna when you sing it. Think of, don’t think of Beyoncé, think of Mel Gibson. Go that anti-Semitic. ... Let’s try it together. I need your help. I can’t be anti-Semitic alone. ... Oh, I’m in love with a Jew. ... You look beautifully anti-Semitic.”

Horowitz also conducted hidden-microphone interviews with attendees, which he included in his video. A student who attended the event told The Daily Tar Heel that Horowitz approached him under false pretenses, using the name “Sam.”

“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,” UNC junior Fouad Abu-Hijleh told The Daily Tar Heel. “Now obviously for an American audience, I don’t know if that translated well or if that carried its meaning.”

The full song “Mama, I Fell in Love with a Jew” and music video tell a story about a Palestinian man and a female Israeli soldier who meet on an elevator. The video ends with their families fighting at a wedding and is embedded with references to how Palestinians, from the singer’s point of view, are treated poorly or get less in the Middle East.

In an interview with Haaretz, Nafar said the song is “just making fun of people who say, ‘come on, can’t you just be together and just solve the problems?’ We refuse to talk about co-existence when we don’t exist.”

Attempts to reach Horowitz and Nafar through their Twitter accounts were unsuccessful.

UNC Global, which is responsible for implementing a “global dimension” throughout the university, issued a statement about the performance Friday: “Many members of our community, including Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, are heartbroken and offended by a musical performance during the three-day “Conflict over Gaza” conference held at UNC-Chapel Hill in March and included in a recent video shared on social media.”

Guskiewicz also issued a statement on Twitter. “A performance during a recent conference held on our campus contained some disturbing and hurtful language. I stand steadfast against anti-Semitism and hate in all its forms,” he wrote.

The three-day event also included a full day of panel discussions and a day of films, according to an agenda posted online. The conference’s full list of co-sponsors has been disabled.

The conference’s website said the event “will shed much needed light on the current realities in the Gaza Strip, giving participants a deeper understanding of the context of these realities and offering concrete options that can better the lives of Gazans. The conference also highlights Gazan culture – music, films, food, and art – to showcase the beauty that goes along with the challenges of life in the Gaza Strip.”

“The center and sponsors supported the conference as an educational opportunity to focus on the situation in Gaza. While the video misconstrues the breadth of discourse that took place during the panels, UNC Global regrets any offense that the video and performance have had for members of the Jewish community,” UNC Global said in its statement.

Another student attendee, in a letter to the DTH, criticized the “one-sided bent” of the presenters.

In his letter, Holding says, that local religious and community organizations, academics and citizens complained that the “conference lacked balance and appeared to promote a radical agenda.” Beth El Synagogue in Durham wrote a letter to leaders at both universities on March 20, expressing concern about the event.

“Based upon the current composition of invited speakers, the conference program fails to meet Duke and UNC’s high academic standards because it lacks both presenters to articulate a mainstream Israeli perspective and anyone who can suggest actions that might improve relations between the two from an Israeli perspective,” Beth El Rabbi Daniel Greyber and President Debbie Goldstein wrote.

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