(Editorial) “Academic” hate-fest at UNC/Duke Gaza Conference

Graphic from the conference website

As an alumnus of the University of Virginia, throwing shade at the University of North Carolina or Duke University is something that comes naturally (*cough* March Madness), and is generally reciprocated.

Of course, it’s all in good fun. Mostly.

But this time, it is distressing.

From March 22 to 24, the two universities co-sponsored a “Conflict Over Gaza” conference at the UNC Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies.

It was evident from the outset that the presentations would all have a common theme — everything is Israel’s fault, nothing is the Palestinians’ responsibility, and nobody would be there to present anything to contradict that narrative. Local Jewish groups expressed alarm beforehand and are still bewildered that the conference went forward with the Duke and UNC imprimaturs.

While academic conferences generally present a wide range of views on a topic, the “range” of views here were that Israel is a settler-colonialist state, a genocidal foreign entity that hunts Palestinians for sport, or the second coming of the Third Reich.

There was zero mention of Hamas rockets being fired from Gaza, only complaints about an Israeli blockade that seemingly sprang up for no apparent reason.

There were posters with images of youth setting fire to kites and balloons that then were floated across the border into Israel to torch the areas where they landed — but that was depicted as understandable heroic resistance.

When a questioner asked about how Egypt also has a blockade of Gaza, the question was waved away as irrelevant to the conference.

According to reports, there were complaints that Israel supposedly refuses to allow excess vegetables grown in Gaza to be exported so Gazans can make some money, while other speakers claimed Gazans were being starved by Israel, and that Israel calculates the number of calories for a subsistence level diet for all of Gaza and allows only that amount of food into the area. There were posters of Gaza fisherman at work, along with speakers charging that Israel won’t allow Gazans to fish.

There was no mention of Hamas diverting resources away from helping Gazans so they could build rockets and terror tunnels, or Hamas trying to damage the border crossing where thousands of truckloads of goods come in weekly from Israel — another point that was ignored amidst claims that Israel is trying to ruin Gaza economically.

Certainly, there was no examination of how Hamas is now the third-wealthiest terror organization in the world, with their leaders worth billions of dollars.

Three weeks after the conference, Ami Horowitz released a video he had taken at the conference, where attendees repeated the usual stereotypes about Jews, Israel, Jewish power and control.

The video showed one of the major performances, with rapper Tamer Nafar joking about being anti-Semitic and performing a song about being in love with a Jew. At one point, he told the crowd “you look beautifully anti-Semitic” and urged them to sing along, because “I cannot be anti-Semitic alone.”

Now, it may have been shtick, but still — can you imagine a university shrugging off a performer who tells the crowd, even in jest, that they are looking beautifully racist? Beautifully homophobic?

Perhaps it was meant to amuse, or to be ironic, though Nafar said to sing not in the spirit of Rhianna, but that of Mel Gibson. And it echoes… In the early 1990s, I managed to visit the Washington office of Liberty Lobby, the outfit started by Willis Carto, who also started the Holocaust-denial thinktank, the Institute for Historical Review.

In a PBS documentary on David Duke many years ago, Liberty Lobby was described as the largest anti-Semitic organization in the U.S., and its conspiracy-theory newspaper, the Spotlight, had a six-figure circulation.

In the hallways, it wasn’t unusual for co-workers to greet each other by saying “you’re looking very anti-Semitic today.” Why, thank you.

How is this appropriate at an academic conference?

Three weeks after the conference, when Horowitz released the video, North Carolina organizers slammed him for producing a “heavily edited” piece that did not reflect the true tone of the conference. Wiser heads quickly prevailed and the UNC chancellor said he was “heartbroken and deeply offended” that the performance took place, and the Duke leadership issued a similar statement.

Of course, it took three weeks and an expose video for anyone to have said something.

In The Tower, Peter Reitzes wrote about attending the conference. During question and answer sessions, those in agreement were permitted to go on at length before asking a question; anyone with a differing view was interrupted and told to get to the point before their questions were shot down as either irrelevant or propaganda.

When an audience member referenced the 800,000 Jews who were exiled from Arab lands around 1948, some panelists said they weren’t interested in fielding that question, while one did answer by saying it was dehumanizing to Palestinians to entertain that question.

A Jewish student approached a panelist to discuss further what would happen if Israel fully opened the border. The speaker had asserted Israel doesn’t need to protect itself, that the “siege” was just to dehumanize Gazans and use Gaza as the dumping ground for Israel’s economy. The speaker refused to engage with the student, who was told that the speaker’s time at the conference had ended.

Moments later, that speaker was seen chatting with other audience members deemed more friendly, and in fact hung out for several more hours, talking and signing books.

Reitzes said this was the only time he has ever been at an academic conference where a speaker refused to speak with a participant.

When another speaker was asked about Hamas using aid money to benefit the people of Gaza instead of making war, the speaker mocked the audience member’s “concern” for Palestinians. “Until that moment, I had never seen a presenter at an academic conference make fun of an audience member,” Reitzas observed.

Remember, this was an academic conference. Sponsored by a couple dozen academic departments. At a couple of presumedly prestigious universities.

It is worth remembering that Israel’s blockade wasn’t imposed randomly — it was because the Gaza leadership’s sole emphasis is on making war and diverting needed consumer goods to military uses.

The border isn’t there because Gazans need to be protected from rampaging Israelis looking to get rid of them, it’s because Hamas pays Gazans to go there each week and act as civilian cover as they try to infiltrate Israel.

Gaza could be the Middle East’s Riviera if their leaders cared about something other than maximalist demands for the destruction of Israel and instead emphasized improving the lives of Gazans.

Instead, Hamas continues to aim for an impossible goal, cheered on by academics who are too intelligent to realize they are only exacerbating the Hamas-inflicted misery of Gazans, when all Israel wants is to live truly side by side and see Gazans prosper through peace.

But they didn’t want anyone to hear that at North Carolina.

(This piece was by Southern Jewish Life editor Larry Brook)