RALEIGH — “This is my anti-Semitic song.” Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar said those words March 22 as he performed on a stage at UNC Chapel Hill’s Global Education Center.
“I know it sounds R&B and stuff, but don’t think of Rihanna when you sing this. Don’t think of Beyoncé. Think of Mel Gibson. Go that anti-Semitic.”
Nafar’s statements, captured on a phone camera and published by documentary filmmaker Ami Horowitz, were part of a three-day academic conference called “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities.”
Now, in a “Conflict Over Chapel Hill,” the campus is facing questions about the university’s use of taxpayer money to host the event. The incident also raises more concerns about the protection of free speech on campuses — even when that speech is offensive.
In an April 10 YouTube video about 3 ½ minutes long, Horowitz details several instances of anti-Israel rhetoric, all of which were caught on a seemingly hidden microphone. The video splices together bits and pieces of conversation and includes an edited take of Nafar’s concert.
“Let’s try it together, because I need your help. I cannot be anti-Semitic alone,” the film shows Nafar telling his audience.
“‘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.’”
“You look beautifully anti-Semitic,” he jokes as the crowd sings along.
The video ends with a shot of a security guard asking Horowitz to leave. Anti-Semitic posters, Horowitz reports in the last few seconds of the film, were found on campus days after the event.
Such posters were found in Davis Library, but there was no evidence of a link to the “Conflict Over Gaza” conference, university officials said.
Since Horowitz’s report, condemnation and calls for investigation have reached the halls of Congress and the U.S. Department of Education. The DOE provided a $235,000 grant to the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies — the organization responsible for the conference — for use in international and foreign education, Rep. George Holding, R-2nd District, wrote in an April 16 letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
“According to first-hand accounts, the conference had a radical anti-Israeli bias,” Holding wrote to DeVos. “If these reports are accurate, I have difficulty understanding why tax dollars should be spent on such an activity.”
Holding’s letter demands an investigation into UNC’s use of the money, the content of discussions at the event, and the DOE’s policies for organizational accountability, among other things.
“If the reports of extensive anti-Israeli bias are true, is that grounds to revoke the remainder of the federal grant awarded to the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies?” Holding wrote.
Carolina Journal contacted the DOE for more information about non-discrimination rules for federal grants. CJ also asked if DeVos would investigate and inquired after possible courses of action.
“We have received the congressman’s letter and are reviewing it,” DOE Press Secretary Liz Hill replied.
UNC officials reported that $5,000 of the DOE grant helped underwrite the conference. Leaders at UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University also released statements strongly renouncing anti-Semitism.
“Like many members of our community, I am heartbroken and deeply offended that this performance happened,” UNC Chapel Hill Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz wrote April 12. “I stand steadfast against anti-Semitism 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.”
“We will do everything possible to make sure that it would never happen again,” Guskiewicz told faculty members during a meeting that same day.
Holding, Guskiewicz, and others should be careful not to jump to conclusions — and should consider the constitutional rights of everyone on campus, even those who perpetuated offensive speech, said Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Though unsavory, nothing about Nafar’s performance can be considered unprotected or illegal, Shibley told CJ. It didn’t incite immediate violence or illegal actions, and therefore it legally falls under the First Amendment umbrella.
“Everybody likes to protect the speech that they might see themselves engaging in, and they’re concerned about speech that is coming from their political opponents,” Shibley said. “I think it’s just part of human nature.”
It would be wise for universities to make extra effort to seek out people on both sides of a topic — especially one as controversial as Gaza, Shibley said.
But UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University are entitled to have a conference about any topic, from any angle, he said. Universities aren’t doing themselves any favors by continually practicing political bias, but there’s nothing illegal about what happened at the Chapel Hill conference.
Additionally, no one should assume they know exactly what occurred, Shibley said, since outrage currently rides on one short video — from one source.
“I think the whole nation got a lesson about that from the students from Covington, Kentucky,” he said, pointing to the social media hailstorm of vitriol against a group of Catholic high school boys who were falsely accused of racial harassment after being misrepresented on a viral, short video.
Before politicians or university administrators get too carried away with demands for retracted funding or promises to block certain kinds of speech, they should take a step back and look at the bigger picture, Shibley said.
UNC Global, a main sponsor of the conference, initially released a statement to ABC 11, stating “This video was produced by an individual who attended the ‘Conflict over Gaza’ conference and recorded discussions with a number of attendees who were unaware he was taping their statements. The content 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.”
Horowitz reported he was barred by UNC officials from bringing his camera into the event. The filmmaker instead wore a recording device.
If UNC is going to claim the Horowitz took statements out of context, then the university must provide missing information, Shibley said.
“People who see this (video) aren’t obligated to take the word of the people who are interested in making this event less of a problem. [UNC] needs to be ready to back that up. The only way we can actually know that is to see more of what happened there and talk to folks who were there, and try to find out context. But it’s one of the reasons it’s important not to rush to judgment on these things and to wait until more information is in.”
When CJ reached out to UNC Chapel Hill and UNC Global officials for more information, the organization sent a link to a previously published statement.
“The center and sponsors supported the conference as an educational opportunity to focus on the situation in Gaza,” part of UNC Global’s statement reads. “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.”
CJ reached out again to ask if any other video of the conference was available.
“We did not record the conference or performance,” UNC Global spokeswoman Katie Bowler Young said.