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In Wake of Sarsour Speech, UNC to Co-Host Anti-Israel Conference with Duke

In February, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) hosted anti-Israel activist Linda Sarsour, who gave the keynote address at its Minority Health Conference. Sarsour used this prestigious UNC platform to promote Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against only one country on the planet – Israel.

In a move that many community members fear could be much worse, UNC and Duke are now preparing to jointly host a conference that will be used by some to demonize and delegitimize Israel. Titled “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities” and scheduled for March 22-24, the conference is sponsored by UNC’s Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies and the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies. Co-sponsors include many departments and organizations, including the Gillings School of Global Public Health, which hosted Sarsour.

To ensure the integrity of the institutions sponsoring the event, a non-biased academic conference on Gaza would invite non-biased individuals to present. However, a look at some participants of this large conference on Gaza raises multiple concerns of severe anti-Israel bias even before the conference starts.

For instance, providing welcoming remarks is speaker Laila El-Haddad, who has tweeted “Israel is a terrorist state” and is an outspoken supporter of the BDS movement. El-Haddad has made dozens of pro-BDS tweets and even encouraged a boycott of Sabra hummus.

El-Haddad has charged Israel with “equating [Palestinian] children with human cannon fodder” and with seeking the “extermination” of Palestinians. Beginning this three-day conference by featuring a speaker who regularly demonizes Israel sets a tone where students and other attendees can expect little complexity and no nuance.

El-Haddad has publicly supported terror tunnels burrowed from Gaza into Israel. The purpose of these tunnels is to kill and kidnap Israelis. El-Haddad tweeted, “#ResistanceTunnels have existed in #Gaza since ancient times: they stifled Alexander the Greats attempts to conquer the city. #justsaying.”

Comparing Gaza to the Holocaust, El-Haddad wrote, “The real genocide in Gaza cannot or will not be assessed through sheer numbers. It is not a massacre of gas chambers. No. It is a slow and calculated genocide – a Genocide through more calibrated, long-term means.”

El-Haddad also tweeted “MOO-COW-ama…Arabic speakers will get it: say it out loud.  (muqawama is Resistance in Arabic).” The Washington Institute warned, “The literal translation of the Arabic word muqawama is ‘resistance,’ but that does not reflect the full meaning of the term. A more correct translation would be ‘the doctrine of constant combat,’ or ‘persistent warfare,’ which is how Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas’s Khaled Mashal define it.”

The plight of the citizens of Gaza inspires legitimate empathy. Yet Hamas – the democratically elected ruling party of Gaza – is a terrorist organization intent on firing rockets, mortars, and incendiary devices at Israel and digging terror tunnels into Israel with the purpose of indiscriminately killing civilians, including children. No one would object to a conference on Gaza featuring political and cultural topics and possible solutions. It is the biased demonization and delegitimization of Israel to which we object.

One of the conference moderators is Rebecca Stein, an anti-Israel activist from Duke’s Department of Cultural Anthropology. In an article titled “Ivory Tower Bigots,” Tablet Magazine harshly criticized Stein’s 2015 book on Gaza for being an “Orwellian,” one-sided attack on Israel.

Stein is a signatory to the Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (ABIAI), which calls to “boycott Israeli academic institutions.” The ABIAI offers Stein as a suggested speaker to run a “boycott teach-in,” explaining that Stein “can speak about…the cultural terms of Israeli colonialism.”

She’s joined by Sara Shields from UNC-CH’s Department of History. Shields signed the “Historians’ Letter to President Obama and Members of Congress,” which calls on the US government to “suspend US military aid to Israel.” Shields has promoted BDS petitions on social media.

Meanwhile, conference speaker Sara Roy has been criticized for “draw[ing] parallels between the behavior of Israeli soldiers and Nazis during the Third Reich.” In an article in the Journal of Palestine Studies, Roy discussed the treatment of a Palestinian man by Israeli soldiers, writing, “In this instance, there was no difference between the German soldier and the Israeli one.”

Roy’s bias and knowledge of the conflict have both been questioned. For example, in 2017, Roy wrote, “One well-placed person claimed that ‘50 to 60 per cent of Hamas’ would give up any claim to Jerusalem in return for the Rafah border crossing being opened up again.” Roy presented this “outlandish” anonymous view without challenge.

As if that weren’t enough, the “academic” portion of this conference, the opening reception, and the opening remarks are all on Shabbat, thus preventing observant members of the Jewish community from attending. Excluding them from a topic of huge interest to the Jewish community is ethically corrupt and suggests that UNC and Duke may be attempting to stifle criticism and pushback. Would UNC and Duke ever schedule a conference titled “Conflict Over Israel” on Eid al-Fitr, thus ensuring that observant Muslims could not attend? Of course not.

The conference lacks even a single presentation, film, or work of art concerned with the tens of thousands of Israelis who suffer from endless Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks launched from Gaza into Israel. How can the conference talk about conflict in Gaza and not simultaneously talk about Israel’s security?

Within the past 12 months, Palestinian terrorists have fired more than 1300 rockets at Israel. The Jerusalem Post reported further, “Gazans have also launched thousands of aerial incendiary devices into southern Israel, leading to 2,000 separate fires resulting in over 35,000 dunams (approximately 8,500 acres) of land being burnt.”

Regardless of the complexities of reality, Shuja’iyah: Land of the Brave, a five minute short film that is to be featured at the conference, is a one-sided demonization of Israel that the conference website says “represents one filmmaker’s personal reflection on the meaning of ‘crimes against humanity’ in the context of Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ waged in the Gaza Strip in 2014.”

The narrator repeats himself frequently in this short film, saying, for example, “People are dying! People are dying in the streets! Blood is like water in the streets!…People are dying and the Red Cross hangs up on you…There are missile strikes now…The Israelis targeted the ambulance carrying the injured. They hit the ambulance directly. There are martyrs in the street.”

At no point during the film did the narrator explain that Israel had acted in self-defense to the 250 rockets that Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations fired at Israeli civilian populations, thus provoking the war. In 2015, the High Level Military Group, which includes NATO military leaders, concluded in an in-depth report:

“The responsibility for the outbreak of the 2014 Gaza Conflict lies with Hamas, which sought violent confrontation in an effort to seek to improve its strategic situation. Israel did not want this conflict and sought actively to avoid it, pursuing avenues of de-escalation in every phase of the conflict. Ultimately, Israel had no choice but to defend its citizens from the rocket assault launched by Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups and the threat posed by the cross-border assault tunnels.”

The moderator for the question and answer period of this film is Nadia Yaqub of UNC’s Department of Asian Studies, who has signed the “Campaign to Boycott the Oral History Conference at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.”

In a single conference presentation, titled “The (De) Development of Gaza: Economy, Women, and Youth,” both speakers, Sara Roy and Laila El-Haddad, and the moderator, Rebecca Stein, all support various boycotts of Israel. Is this what passes for balance and unbiased discourse at UNC and Duke?

There’s more. Abdeslam Maghraoui, Sarah Shields, Nadia Yaqub, and Sara Roy (all participants listed on the conference program) have all signed a “letter calling on scholars and librarians within Middle East studies to boycott Israeli academic institutions.” In the letter, they “pledge not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions.”

Many will wonder if by including these anti-Israel “scholars” in the conference, UNC and Duke essentially agreed or assumed they would need to exclude Israeli academics. Academics living in Israel are noticeably absent from the list of conference presenters.

A serious question that remains is how exactly UNC and Duke will present an unbiased look at the “Conflict Over Gaza” when so many conference presenters openly participate in BDS. With so many UNC and Duke faculty members and presenters promoting academic boycotts of Israel, it begs the question – is one purpose of this joint UNC/Duke conference to advocate boycotting academics who live in Israel?

All four artists being featured at the conference have had short videos published within the past three weeks. The videos feature the artists discussing the hardships of living in Gaza and blaming Israel for the hardships. None mention Gazan rockets, mortars, tunnels, and incendiary devices intended to kill, terrorize, burn, and kidnap Israelis. In one of the videos, artist Maysa Yousef shared, “I have done a ‘Martyr’ painting, which received strong admiration on social media websites.”

Did it occur to UNC or Duke to feature a few Israeli artists who live under the unrelenting pounding of Gazan rockets and mortars? For example, one Israeli artist turns rockets fired from Gaza into menorahs, which he describes as therapeutic. The Times of Israel has written about an art organization that distributes art therapy kits to families to use with Israeli children to help calm and soothe them during rocket attacks from Gaza. Why exclude Israeli voices speaking about traumas inflicted by Gaza onto Israel?

[Photo: Boston Public Library / WikiCommons ]