(June 17, 2019 / JNS) The U.S. Department of Education announced on Monday that it will investigate an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel conference in March hosted jointly by Duke University and the University of North Carolina.
This was in response to U.S. Rep. George Holding sending U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos a letter in April, calling for an investigation of an event titled "Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics and Possibilities," which reportedly used $5,000 of taxpayer funds from the Education Department.
"Institutions of higher education that receive Federal funds under Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA), are required to use those funds in accordance with the terms and conditions of the grant and the HEA, and Department regulations," said DeVos in her letter. "This includes a requirement under section 602 (e)(1) of the HEA that grantees must use funds to support activities that "reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions and international affairs."
"I am troubled by the concerns outlined in your letter. In order for the Department to learn more about this matter, I have directed the Office of Postsecondary Education to examine the use of funds under this program to determine if the Consortium violated the terms and conditions of its grant, Department regulates, or the HEA," she continued. "It is critical that recipients of grants use funds in accordance with statutory and regulatory requirements, as well as for purposes of the program for which they are funded."
"It is encouraging to the see the Department of Education hold Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill accountable for federal monies we have long seen abuse of funds particular in Middle East Studies Departments and programs which have been co-opted by Arab funds giving students and audiences and one-sided monolithic view of the region, especially the Israeli Palestinian conflict," Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, told JNS.
In his letter, Holding stated that according to firsthand accounts, "the conference had a radical anti-Israeli bias," citing accounts raised by alarmed constituents.
"Reportedly, speakers and panelists distorted facts and misrepresented the complex situation in Gaza," he wrote. "A video recently surfaced depicting the main musical performer, rapper Tamer Nafar, singing a brazenly anti-Semitic song."
A video shows the Palestinian rapper beginning his performance by telling the audience, "I cannot be anti-Semitic alone," and proceeded to sing "Don't think of Rihanna when you sing this, don't think of Beyoncé—think of Mel Gibson. I'm in love with a Jew/Oh/I fell in love with a Jew/Oh/Her skin is white and my skin is brown, she was going up up and I was going down."
The video was taken by filmmaker and activist Ami Horowitz, who also shared audio of anti-Semitic exchanges while visiting the campus. His video has since been deleted by YouTube, citing it violated the company's terms of service.
UNC told ABC11 that Horowitz's footage "was heavily edited, and the product as presented does not provide context as to the questions and the full, complete answers given. Moreover, we do not believe this video represents the spirit of scholarship at the event."
The school continued:
The conference brought together internationally recognized scholars and professionals from NGOs, think tanks, and academia to address a range of topics about Gaza from different viewpoints. The sponsors supported the event as an educational opportunity, and this video misconstrued the breadth of discourse that took place during the panels.
Our University is united by students, faculty, and staff from more than one hundred countries and represented by a diverse range of perspectives, traditions, and faiths. Diversity is an intrinsically vital part of shaping dialogue that can address complex issues, and we uphold a commitment to fostering a welcoming environment to people from all backgrounds.
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.
In response to ABC11 sending UNC the raw and edited footage, Duke University president Vincent Price and provost Sally Kornbluth said:
We want to be very clear: anti-Semitism is one of the great scourges of modern life. Its resurgence, as demonstrated by the worldwide increase in hate crimes and incidents, is deeply troubling and should be of great concern to any civil society.
Whether it occurs on our campus, in our community, through graffiti, rallies or concerts, in conference rooms or courtrooms, we must all speak out forcefully against actions and statements that target and threaten members of our Jewish community.
On our campus and beyond, the lines of politics, trust, activism and civility cannot become so blurred that we lose our commitment to mutual respect. We must guard against the danger that our passions obscure our common humanity, and we must remind ourselves that what injures any one of us injures us all.
In the letter, Holding, who serves on the Ways and Means Committee, listed eight questions for DeVos, including what policies her department has to make sure no taxpayer funds go toward anti-Israel groups and if, in her opinion, the event presented "an overtly biased characterization of the situation in the Middle East."
"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," wrote Holding. "However, it is irresponsible, immoral and unproductive for taxpayer dollars to fund overtly biased advocacy under the guise of academic discourse."