When we returned from a free catered lunch, Shai Tamari, the conference organizer, announced that audience members were no longer allowed to record the conference. A few minutes later, Tamari leaned over me to tell the person sitting next to me to stop recording – my neighbor had been taking photographs of each slide. Then, Tamari sat down in the aisle next to me and kept looking our way for about 30 minutes.
The next speakers were Mohammed Eid (a UNC Rotary Peace Fellow from Gaza studying Global Studies) and Tania Hary (an Israeli activist) on “In and Out: Gaza and Freedom of Movement.” An audience member asked Eid if he is able to lobby Hamas on issues such as human rights and corruption the same way that Hary can safely lobby the Israeli government on these issues. Eid responded, “As far as I know we don’t have that tradition.” Eid’s response may qualify him for the understatement of the year.
Eid continued his response by providing the example of a family in Gaza going to the Palestinian police station to complain and the Palestinian government then “bombed everyone” and killed them. Eid added that when Palestinians protest their government, “We get whipped on our backs for doing that, we get shot, we get killed, we get dragged down the streets.”
An audience member then asked, “Ninety-eight percent of the conversation today has been about Israel. Why is there not more pressure on Egypt to open its borders [with Gaza]?” Eid responded that it was an important question but that discussing the Palestinian-Egyptian relationship would be best for a different panel or conference. In other words, Eid was saying this is a conference for bashing Israel, not Egypt.
A Palestinian audience member, who identified as a UNC student, admiringly referred to Hamas and Hezbollah, two terrorist organizations, as the “Palestinian Avengers,” who seek “revenge” against Israel for the Palestinian people. The moderator did not cut the audience member off for his commentary as she had with pro-Israel and Jewish audience members. At UNC, it is apparently okay for a Palestinian audience member to compare Hamas to superheroes but not okay for a Jewish audience member to express empathy for all people facing challenges and tragedy.
After talking uninterruptedly about his respect for Hamas and Hezbollah, the audience member asked Eid to share his opinion on these terrorist organizations. Eid began by reminding the audience that they need to bear in mind that he would be traveling back to Gaza. In other words, he is afraid of Hamas and Hezbollah. I could only imagine the courage it took for him to say this, understanding the retribution and harm that might come to him or his family on his return.
Apparently fearful to even say these groups by name, Eid alarmingly responded, “I had different perspectives and different opinions growing up about different groups. But most recently, especially after studying here in this program, I see this from a different perspective. And I see that those groups are just political parties with political interests.”
Eid essentially told the audience that his studies at UNC taught him that these internationally recognized terrorist organizations are simply political parties with their own interests. The protestor’s sign, which read “UNC Indoctrination Education Center,” demonstrated amazing prescience for this moment.
I left before the final presentation, “Gaza and the World: Egypt, Israel, and the United States,” featuring speaker Lara Friedman. Several audience members who stayed contacted me afterward to say they were appalled that Friedman “repeatedly bashed Israel with no let-up.”
One audience member quoted Friedman as saying, “Israel has put Gaza on a diet. It calculates the bare number of calories needed for subsistence and provides food at that level.” The audience member told me, “It’s interesting that an earlier speaker talked about the surplus of vegetables in Gaza, and if Israel would only open the border, Gazans could sell them and make money.”
As the day ended, I could only wonder if the Duke and UNC senior administration understand that by hosting such a conference under the guise of academic freedom, in reality, they are helping to discriminate against Jews and Israeli academics.
A press release issued after the conference stated, “North Carolina Hillel is disappointed that the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies’ ‘Conflict Over Gaza’ conference featured speakers who demonized Israel…Conference organizers selected largely like-minded speakers, including many who were on record as favoring boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel…Substituting advocacy for academic discourse only serves to undermine academia’s highest principles.”
This conference was about Israel-bashing and was held on Shabbat, a time that excluded observant Jewish students and community members from participating. A speaker who promoted BDS against Israel at the conference refused to speak with a Jewish student from Duke. Jewish and pro-Israel audience members were told that they could ask a question only, while pro-Palestinian questioners were allowed longer periods of time to comment and set up their questions. Conference attendees were greeted with photographs glorifying terrorism against Israel and the Jewish people. Mainstream pro-Israel groups, such as the UNC and Duke Hillel student chapters, were not invited to participate.
On March 28 the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics sent out an email stating, “Swastikas were found drawn on one of our resident hall floors.” Does it surprise anyone that Swastikas would appear on a local campus following a three-day Israel-bashing conference? Teaching students and the community to demonize Israel creates a safe place for anti-Semitism to flourish.
The application for the federal grant awarded to The UNC and Duke Consortium for Middle East Studies mentions “discrimination” 38 times. For example, it says, “I certify that the applicant…Will comply with all Federal statutes relating to nondiscrimination.” UNC, Duke University, and the federal government need to take a close look at this conference and consider if the Jewish community and Israeli academics were targeted and singled out in a discriminatory manner.