A few weeks ago there was a major conference, Conflict Over Gaza, sponsored by the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies and UNC Global. One of the presenters at this high-profile conference was the Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar. He told the audience that he wanted to sing them a song, but that he needed their help singing it, because "I cannot be anti-Semitic alone." Just to make sure his intentions were clear; he told the audience not to think of Rihanna. Instead, while singing, they should "think of Mel Gibson," the notoriously anti-Semitic actor who claimed that, "Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." The audience sang along and laughed.
This should have been a hard story to miss. The performance was captured on video and reported by the local ABC News affiliate. The UNC Interim Chancellor, Kevin M. Guskiewicz, issued a condemnation: "A performance during a recent conference held on our campus contained disturbing and hateful language. Like many members of our community, I am heartbroken and deeply offended that this performance happened. I stand steadfast against Anti-Semitism and hate in all its forms. The Carolina spirit is not about hateful language that divides us, but about civil discourse that advances ideas and knowledge. We must continue to aspire together to that ideal." Duke University also denounced the statement.
So, at a high-profile academic conference co-sponsored by two major universities, a speaker indulged in explicit anti-Semitism, with the audience participating, that was captured on video, leading both universities to publicly condemn the performance. Yet, this drew no mention from any of the major news outlets. The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and almost every other major media outlet simply ignored it.
Anti-Semitism is a subject that often makes the media nervous and this shows in their reluctance to report on it. As the conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro has pointed out, on the same day the that the extremely widely publicized fake attack on Jussie Smollett supposedly occurred, a real hate crime occurred. It was a horrific attack of a Hassidic man in New York. It was caught on tape in all its brutality. There was virtually no coverage of the real hate crime, despite the dramatic video footage.
Of course, it's not that the media never covers issues of anti-Semitism. The tragic mass shooting in Pittsburgh was widely covered and there have been stories about the surge in anti-Semitic attitudes both here and in Europe. As noted below, the New York Times has reported on the statistical increase in anti-Semitic attacks.
Nevertheless, the threshold for reporting on specific incidents of anti-Semitism seems to be quite high, which distorts public perceptions. As reported in the New York Times, the number of hate crimes in New York against Jews are far, far higher than the number of hate crimes against African Americans or against transgendered people: "there have been four times as many crimes motivated by bias against Jews — 142 in all — as there have against blacks. Hate crimes against Jews have outnumbered hate crimes targeted at transgender people by a factor of 20." This is despite the fact that the Jewish population of New York City is much smaller than the African American population. Based on most media coverage, very few people would guess that. Of course, New York is not the whole country, but it is the media capital of the world and one would think that this sort of modern-day pogrom would draw much more attention.
I have previously posted about the relationship between unbalanced criticism of Israel at universities and anti-Semitism. The issue is complicated. Of course, not every critic of Israel is an anti-Semite. But when the media simply ignores explicit anti-Semitism at a prestigious, high profile conference about the Gaza Strip (where there was, as one might expect, a great deal of strongly worded condemnation of Israel) it buries an ugly connection.
This lack of scrutiny leads to a lack of reflection. UNC Global's response to the fact that it provided a major forum for anti-Semitic speech was to dodge all responsibility. In response to a request for comment from the ABC News affiliate, it opined: "Conferences such as this are organized by scholars who have academic freedom to develop the programming and invite their selected speakers and performers. UNC Global supports faculty in hosting these conferences without endorsing the beliefs of speakers or performers." A few weeks later, UNC Global issued an additional statement condemning "hate in all its forms" and "standing with" the UNC Chancellor "in absolute rejection of anti-Semitism."
It is certainly true that academic freedom grants broad protection, even of hateful speech. In an earlier post, I wrote that allowing anti-Semitic speakers on college campuses at least has the benefit of calling attention to the continuing existence of anti-Semitism, which is important because universities are too often reluctant to acknowledge its presence on their campus. But the worst-case scenario is where universities use their academic freedom to give forums to anti-Semitism and the media ignores it. The answer isn't more censorship by or of universities. Universities have the right to bring anti-Semitic speakers to campus. But the media must do a better job of holding them to account when they do.
Evan Gerstmann is the author of Campus Sexual Assault: Constitutional Rights and Fundamental Fairness (Cambridge University 2019) and is a Professor of Political Science at Loyola Marymount Univ.