Some sponsors want money back after anti-Semitic remarks made at UNC conference

Wednesday, April 17, 2019
Sponsors want their money back after anti-Semitic remarks made at UNC conference
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Sponsors want their money back after anti-Semitic remarks made at UNC conference

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Some sponsors are asking for their money back and a congressman is seeking a government investigation after an anti-Semitic song was performed by a Palestinian rapper at a "Conflict over Gaza" conference at UNC-Chapel Hill last month.

In a scathing letter to leaders of the UNC Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies, which officially sponsored the event, UNC School of Law Dean Martin Brinkley said: "Due to your inclusion of conference content over which I had no knowledge or control, I have been forced to spend most of the last two days responding to outraged members of my own community who are ashamed and embarrassed to see the law school shown as a sponsor of what they consider hate speech."

"As the organizers, who I assume were present during the performance, I would have expected you to intervene and stop a performance that so obviously and painfully contravened campus norms and values, and that so undercut the cultural understanding that you claimed to promote," he wrote.

READ MORE: Full letter from the School of Law (.pdf)

UNC School of Government Dean Mike Smith sent a similar letter, saying: "It simply is wrong to defend this explicitly anti-Semitic performance under the cloak of academic freedom. It crossed a bright line and you should have the integrity to reject it and take responsibility for it."

READ MORE: Full letter from the School of Government (.pdf)

Both departments asked for a refund of the $500 they spent to sponsor the event.

UNC Global, which oversees The Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies and the event in question, sent this statement to ABC11 on Tuesday: "The center is in conversation with co-sponsors who have requested a return of their funds and the center is working directly with them."

North Carolina Congressman George Holding requested the federal government investigate the conference since it was taxpayer funded. Rep. Holding's letter to Betsy DeVos said: "It is irresponsible, immoral and unproductive for taxpayer dollars to fund overtly biased advocacy camouflaged as academic discourse." Liz Hill, press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, said: "We have received the Congressman's letter and are reviewing it."

UNC Global said the conference budget was $46,110. In addition to the grant money, funds were provided by 27 units at UNC-Chapel Hill. There were also other sponsors, including The Rotary Club of Raleigh. President Dana Johnson sent this statement to ABC11:

"The Rotary Club of Raleigh is part of a network of culturally, ethnically, and religiously diverse members who in good faith believed that this conference, sponsored by the UNC Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies and the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies, would facilitate conversations that embraced diverse perspectives on the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. We do not condone the events that took place during the conference and will never tolerate anti-Semitic language, beliefs or ideals."

Many thought the conference would provide diverse perspectives on the conflict in the Middle East.

Instead, rapper Tamer Nafar told the audience: "Let's try it together. I need your help. I cannot be anti-Semitic alone." That was before he sang a song with the lyrics: "Don't think of Rihanna when you sing this, don't think of Beyonce - 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."

Ari Gauss runs North Carolina Hillel, the center for Jewish life on campus, and said he's been hearing from concerned students, alumni and community members.

"It's ugly and I can't think of a tasteful way with which one would joke about anti-Semitism," Gauss said. "That's the defense that's been put out there. And even if you think that's OK with a wink and a nudge, I don't think it belongs on a college campus and certainly not funded with public dollars."

"My first reaction, I think, is a bit of repulsion," said Sam Zahn, who is one of an estimated 1,000 Jewish undergraduates at UNC-Chapel Hill. "It's just so openly disgusting in my mind. It's school-sponsored anti-Semitism in the fact that it received so much federal money and it received the support of so many prominent academic departments at UNC."

Gauss said they brought up concerns before the conference but were told there would be no hate speech.

"I heard all of the speakers at the Gaza Conference and was disappointed, though not surprised, at the one-sided, unbalanced presentations with anti-Israel bias," said Marcia Harris, who attended the conference, in an email. "Many letters were sent and phone calls made to UNC and Duke administrators before the conference pleading for a more balanced approach, but they were ignored. Unfortunately, much damage has been done as a result."

UNC Global said:

"In the weeks prior to the conference, the University received inquiries about the program. In response, representatives of the University met with community leaders and communicated with concerned citizens. They listened to concerns and expressed the organizers' commitment to deepening an understanding of everyday life in Gaza and to setting a tone for the gathering that would promote the open exchange of ideas about a complex topic."

After ABC11 first reported this story last week, UNC Interim Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz issued the following statement: 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.