by Lara Friedman
The ongoing Hullabaloo, through an academic conference organized by the University of North Carolina and Duke University, claimed that the event involved "severe anti-Israeli bias and explicit anti-Semitism" stifling criticism of Israel and denying Palestinians the right and the ability to convey their own experiences and perspectives.
The conference, which discussed the "conflict over Gaza: people, politics and opportunities", presented a range of voices and perspectives, including Yasser Abu Jamei, who runs the mental health program in Gaza. During the Israeli military action in Gaza in 2014, the IDF built a building where Abu Jamei's extended family took refuge and killed 26 of his relatives, including 19 children. Abu Jamei, who is shown regularly in Gaza programs in the United States and around the world, spoke forcefully about the effects of trauma on Palestinians in Gaza, especially on children.
Other voices in the Gaza Strip were Hani Almadhoun, whose account, like his writings, focused on systematic violations of the Palestinians' human rights in the Gaza Strip. Muhammad Eid, a Rotary Peace Fellow, recounted his Sisyphus efforts to leave Gaza to study at the UNC (a video from him from another event is here). Also on board was journalist and author Laila El Haddad, perhaps best known for her appearance on "Parts Unknown" starring Anthony Bourdain.
Experts (including many Jews) also participated in the event: Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University and a senior fellow on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Sara Roy, senior scientist at Harvard University's Center for Middle East Studies; Tania Hary, executive director of the Israeli non-governmental organization Gisha; Ghaith al-Omari from the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, a pro-Israeli think tank of the center; Nathan Stock, a fellow at the Middle East Institute and former Carter Center representative for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; and I, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace
Were the speakers of Israel critical? Certainly. Palestinians from the Gaza Strip are understandably critical of Israeli politics. They treat them as a nuisance to be minimized and, in the event of an offense, as collectively guilty and devastatingly devastating collective punishments. Similarly, Israel appeared in an unfavorable light when Gishas Tania Hary described what was previously an official Israeli policy of limiting the entry of food into the Gaza Strip to an amount that only minimizes the population's need for heat, actual malnutrition, or the Israeli population Politics that governs almost every aspect of life in Gaza, or the high number of civilians killed by Israel.
Did the speakers only criticize 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 still much left. Those who want to suppress criticism of Israel would not have liked much of what was said; Those who feel the criticism of Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, the Gulf States, the United States and Europe alike would have been equally unhappy.
Speakers and panels aside: the real catch for attacks on the conference is a single incident during a musical performance that took place in the evening before the actual panels. The incident prompted two North Carolina Republican members of Congress (George Holding and Ted Budd) to send letters to the Ministry of Education. Breathless, the media repeated and multiplied their report. A right-wing media company even suggested links between the conference and a terrorist organization.
His satirical song "Mom, I fell in love with a Jew," jokingly introduced Tamer Nafar, a well-known rapper and actor (and a Palestinian citizen of Israel), as an "anti-Semitic" song. His statements indeed sounded to many people, including me, politically deaf or even painful. But to put it bluntly: The song is not anti-Semitic and has not even been controversial so far. The video became popular in Israel two years ago when it was released. The Israelis correctly understood the song as a cheeky broadcast of the thorny realities underlying Jewish-Arab relations within Israel.
The injustice of attacking an entire conference on this particular incident speaks for itself. And also the fact that there is more indignation in Congress and in parts of the public about an Israeli citizen making a bad joke about something non-anti-Semitic that is anti-Semitic than about actual anti-Semitic acts taking place in that country. Budd, for example, voted no in a recent House resolution and condemned anti-Semitism and other hateful expressions of intolerance. He argued that since he did not name a specific member of the congress by name, he could not support it.
Of course, indignation over the UNC Duke event is not really about Nafar's joke or even what panelists or attendees have discussed or not. The indignation is about the fact that a conference focusing on the Palestinian side of the Israeli-Palestinian equation could even take place.
Ironically, the attacks on the UNC Duke conference, led by two conservative Republicans, are taking place in the context of growing right-wing outrage over the supposed silence of right-wing voices on campus. Just last month, President Trump signed an executive decree purporting to "defend American students and besieged American values."
The attacks on the UNC Duke conference – in addition to continued efforts to pass laws that define criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism – show that although the president clearly has something else in mind when he talks about protecting freedom of expression Speaking on Campus, Truth Is the Truth The campus's freedom of expression when it comes to Israel is under attack today – by those who want to suppress any criticism of Israel.