Why So Much Fuss About A Conference In North Carolina?


Op-ed by Lara Friedman, published in LobeLog on April 24, 2019.

The ongoing hullabaloo over an academic conference organized by the University of North Carolina and Duke University—involving allegations that the event featured “severe anti-Israeli bias and explicit anti-Semitism”—highlights escalating efforts to delegitimize airing of facts that are unflattering to Israel, stifle criticism of Israel, and deny Palestinians the right and ability to communicate their own experiences and perspectives.

The conference, held to discuss the “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities,” featured an array of voices and perspectives, including Yasser Abu Jamei, who runs the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. During Israel’s 2014 military action in Gaza, the IDF leveled a building in which Abu Jamei’s extended family had taken refuge, killing 26 of his relatives, among them 19 children. Abu Jamei, who is regularly featured in programs about Gaza in the United States and around the world, spoke powerfully about the effects of trauma on Palestinians in Gaza, especially children.

Other voices from Gaza included Hani Almadhoun, whose presentation, like his writings, focused on the systematic violations of the human rights of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Mohammed Eid, a Rotary Peace Fellow, recounted his Sisyphean efforts to leave Gaza to study at UNC (a video of him from another event is here). Also participating was journalist and author Laila El Haddad, perhaps best known for her appearance on “Parts Unknown” with Anthony Bourdain.

The event also included subject matter experts (many of whom are Jewish): Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Sara Roy, a senior scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies; Tania Hary, the executive director of the Israeli non-governmental organization Gisha; Ghaith al-Omari, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a right-of-center pro-Israel think tank; Nathan Stock, a fellow at the Middle East Institute and former Carter Center representative for the Gaza Strip and West Bank.; and me, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace

Were speakers critical of Israel? Certainly. Palestinians from Gaza are understandably critical of Israeli policies that treat them as a nuisance to be minimized, and, in the case of any offense, as collectively guilty and meriting devastating collective punishment. Likewise, Israel appeared in an unfavorable light when Gisha’s Tania Hary described what was previously an official Israeli policy of limiting the entry of food into Gaza to an amount calculated to meet just the minimum caloric requirements of the population to prevent actual malnutrition, or the Israeli policies that govern nearly every aspect of life in Gaza, or the high numbers of civilians killed by Israel.

Did speakers criticize only Israel? No. The man-made catastrophe in the Gaza Strip has many authors. Israel bears the lion’s share of responsibility and criticism, but there is plenty left for others. Those who want to shut down criticism of Israel would have disliked much of what was said; those who feel the same way about the criticism of Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, the Gulf states, the United States, and Europe would have been similarly unhappy.

Speakers and panels aside, the actual hook for attacks on the conference is a single incident during a musical performance that took place the evening before the substantive panels got underway. This incident prompted two Republican members of Congress from North Carolina (George Holding and Ted Budd) to send letters to the Department of Education. The media breathlessly repeated and magnified their account. One right-wing media outlet even suggested links between the conference and a terrorist organization.

Introducing his satirical song, “Mama, I fell in love with a Jew,” Tamer Nafar, a well-known rapper and actor (and a Palestinian citizen of Israel), jokingly described it as his “anti-Semitic” song. His comments indeed sounded politically tone-deaf, or even painful, to the ears of many people, including me. But to be clear: the song is not anti-Semitic and until now was not even controversial. The video gained popularity in Israel two years ago when it was released. Israelis correctly understood the song as a cheeky send-up of the thorny realities that underlie Jewish-Arab relations inside Israel.

The injustice of attacking an entire conference over this single incident speaks for itself. So, too, does the fact that there is more outrage in Congress and parts of the general public over an Israeli citizen making a bad joke about something that is not-anti-Semitic being anti-Semitic than there is over actual anti-Semitic acts taking place in this country. Budd, for instance, voted “no” on a recent House resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other hateful expressions of intolerance, arguing that since it didn’t single out a specific member of Congress by name, he could not support it.

Clearly, the outrage over the UNC-Duke event is not really about Nafar’s joke or even what panelists or attendees did or did not discuss. The outrage is over the fact that a conference that focused on the Palestinian side of the Israeli-Palestinian equation was allowed to take place at all.

Ironically, the attacks on the UNC-Duke conference, led by two conservative Republicans, are taking place against the backdrop of growing right-wing indignation over the alleged silencing of right-wing voices on campus. Just last month, President Trump signed an executive order ostensibly designed “to defend American students and American values that have been under siege.”

The attacks on the UNC-Duke conference—alongside continuing efforts to pass laws defining criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism—demonstrate that, although the president clearly has something else in mind when he talks about protecting free speech on campus, the truth is that campus free speech, when it comes to Israel, is very much under attack today—by those who want to shut down all criticism of Israel.