As I recently reported in the Tower, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) is hosting their Minority Health Conference on February 22, featuring keynote speaker Linda Sarsour. The American-Palestinian activist is known for her hostility towards Israel, having said “nothing is creepier than Zionism” and advising Muslims not to “humanize” Israelis.
Community members are now concerned that the UNC-CH Minority Health Conference may have exploited the Holocaust by using what appears to be a picture of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial to promote the conference on social media. A number of Jewish community members confidently informed me that the image in question, posted to Facebook by the Minority Health Conference on February 19, is of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial.
Michael Abramson, Chairman of the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust, a state agency organized under the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said, “The Holocaust or any Holocaust Memorial commemorating the Holocaust, should not be used as an advertising tool to promote a political event. When an organization invites Linda Sarsour to speak, the organization is opening itself to politicizing its conference.”
A UNC-CH graduate student remarked, “The conference organizers seem to have a definite fixation on Jews and the topic of Israel. One would expect an academic conference on public health to focus on public health.”
I contacted conference organizers and UNC officials to verify the source of the picture and to ask why the picture was being used to promote the Minority Health Conference. Within 90 minutes of my inquiry, the post was deleted. A UNC spokesperson later responded, “That was an unfortunate and regrettable mistake made by a student conference volunteer. The image has since been removed and replaced.”
“It is an obscenity to associate Linda Sarsour’s bigotry with the lives of millions of innocent people who were murdered during the Holocaust because of their race, religion, or sexual orientation,” said Marcia Harris, a former UNC administrator with over 30 years of experience on campus.
Harris is concerned that Sarsour uses various platforms to promote boycotting Israel and that Sarsour “is on record as…closely associating with known anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan. She [Sarsour] has made statements belittling women who are standing up against feminine genital mutilation.” Harris and others are planning a peaceful protest during Sarsour’s keynote address on Friday.
Continuing Education Units (CEUs) are being offered at the Minority Health Conference. I repeatedly contacted conference organizers and UNC officials asking if Linda Sarsour was required or asked to complete a conflict of interest disclosure form for her keynote address. An official speaking on behalf of the university responded, “University policy does not require the submission of a conflict of interest form for speakers unaffiliated with the university for participation in the Minority Health Conference. The conference organizers did not require any of the speakers at this year’s conference, or in years past, to provide that information.”
A local researcher expressed concern to me about UNC’s response and wondered if “this could well place the University at some jeopardy.” He explained, “Accrediting organizations [typically] require signed conflict of interest statements by the speaker to give CEUs.”
Sarsour’s keynote is co-sponsored by both the UNC Gillings School of Public Health and the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies. As reported, three members of the conference planning committee, including a conference co-chair, recently signed an anti-Israel petition that was prepared for and given to the Durham City Council.
Sarsour is being paid $2,500 and reimbursed travel and expenses for her keynote address. The university informed me, “The budget for the Minority Health Conference is comprised of conference registration fees, exhibitor registration fees, partner conference fees, sponsorship by UNC-Chapel Hill schools, departments, institutes, centers and student groups, as well as private contributions.” In other words, UNC is paying Sarsour to speak.
Financial sponsors include the UNC Gillings School of Global Pubic Health, the UNC School of Dentistry, UNC Healthcare, the UNC College of Arts & Sciences, the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, the UNC School of Education, the UNC School of Medicine, the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, and UNC Athletics.
Nathan Godin, a UNC-CH junior, said, “The Minority Health Conference’s evocation of the Holocaust is at best inappropriate and at worst — given the MHC’s choice of Linda Sarsour as keynote speaker — insulting.” Godin observed that, “It is also insulting in light of Ms. Sarsour’s numerous anti-Semitic and virulently anti-Israel comments, where she has expressed her strong desire to see Israel — a nation that was founded by and for Jews fleeing the Holocaust— completely destroyed.”
A UNC faculty member added: “This is not a Jewish or a non-Jewish issue – rather, this is a universal one. Somehow, this great conference appears to many this year as being used by a small group to support political purposes that selectively target one group of people.”
Sarsour is a leading figure in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which many view as anti-Semitic since it singles out Israel. Sarsour uses her position as a public speaker and Women’s March organizer to promote boycotting Israel. Some community members have wondered if UNC may find itself potentially in violation of House Bill 161, an anti-BDS law, if the university pays Sarsour as planned.
UNC’s Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies became a co-sponsor of Sarsour’s speech only about a week ago, well after the UNC Hillel Chapter, local residents, and UNC alumni expressed strong concerns to the university. Instead of speaking out against Sarsour, the university endorsed her with prestigious department co-sponsorships.
It is time for university officials to publicly speak up against Linda Sarsour’s hateful statements and positions. UNC-CH needs to take a stand against bigotry and anti-Semitism.
[Photo: Festival of Faiths from Louisville, United States / WikiCommons ]