A controversial conference on Gaza held by the Duke-University of North Carolina Consortium for Middle East Studies drew backlash earlier this year, with some calling aspects of it anti-Semitic.

Now the federal Department of Education is investigating. 

After Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.) sent a letter to the department asking it to examine the use of taxpayer funds for the conference, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos responded with a letter dated June 18, 2019 saying that she asked the Office of Postsecondary Education to look into the consortium’s use of funding and see if it had broken rules related to the grant.

“I am troubled by the concerns outlined in your letter,” DeVos wrote in her response to Holding, as reported by the Durham Herald-Sun.

The conference “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities” was held March 22 to 24 at UNC. According to the Durham Herald-Sun, the conference used funding from a $235,000-per-year grant from the Department of Education

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote in an email that UNC “administers the federal grant for the consortium that is the subject of the inquiry.” He added that Duke “will assist them with information as appropriate for their response.”

“Duke faculty are involved with the consortium and, as with other academic collaborations and programs on campus, have the freedom to host events and invite speakers,” Schoenfeld wrote.

Erdag Göknar, the Duke campus director for the consortium and associate professor in the department of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, deferred to UNC for comment about the conference and investigation.

“[Duke University Middle East Studies Center] was not involved in the planning or funding of the Gaza conference, which was a UNC conference,” Göknar wrote in an email. 

The Herald-Sun reported that UNC said it spent less than $200 of grant funding for the event, despite originally budgeting $5,000 from the grant for the conference. 

“UNC-Chapel Hill will continue to work with the U.S. Department of Education to directly answer any questions about the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies,” the university’s statement about the investigation wrote, according to the Herald-Sun.

The conference drew a firestorm of controversy after a video was posted online, showing rapper Tamer Nafar of the music group DAM, a guest performer at this year’s conference, talking about singing his “anti-Semitic” song, as he called it. The song that he was performing is “Mama, I’m in Love with a Jew.” An attempt to get a comment from Nafar through the band’s Facebook page was unsuccessful. 

“Regardless of the performer’s intentions, the conference organizers believe that his comments were inappropriate and hurtful and not representative of the purpose of the conference,” stated the conference report, published May 13 on the website of UNC’s Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies. “The Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies rejects anti-Semitism and all forms of racism and bias and apologizes for the hurt these remarks have caused, especially in the context of recent anti-Semitic incidents in the United States.”

The conference report included a quote from Nafar to the outlet Ynet, translated in the report from Hebrew, discussing his performance at the conference.

“All my life I fight against all types of racism, including anti-Semitism of course,” Nafar is quoted as saying in the conference report. “The cynical use of the term anti-Semitism against human rights activists hurts the struggle against true anti-Semitism. This is an ironic song that was created by a mixed [Arab/Jewish] team and is played in mixed weddings and the Israeli radio. Before the song, I laugh at the cynical use of the term anti-Semitism by racists to silence human rights activists like Angela Davis and myself.”

According to the report, the consortium has held an annual conference each year for the past eight years on contemporary Middle Eastern topics. The objective of each conference is to bring together “sober, scholarly perspectives on difficult issues,” though such topics “can be controversial” due to conditions in the region, the report said.

“The goal of this year’s conference was to bring together experts on human realities in Gaza, giving participants a deeper understanding of the context of these realities and exploring opportunities to improve the lives of Gazans,” the report stated. “The conference also highlighted Gazan culture—music, films, food, and art—to emphasize the daily experience of the two million people who live in the Gaza Strip.”

In the letter to the Department of Education, Holding cited reports of "severe anti-Israeli bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric" at the conference as a provocation for the Department to investigate and provide answers to a series of questions he listed. 

“Honest academic debate featuring diverse perspectives and a wide-range of views is critical in a democratic society and a central tenet of America’s educational system,” Holding wrote, according to the Herald-Sun. “However, it is irresponsible, immoral and unproductive for taxpayer dollars to fund overtly biased advocacy under the guise of academic discourse.”

In its report on the conference, the UNC center outlines the conference’s organizations and qualifications of speakers. 

Junior Andrew Carlins attended one session of the conference with a friend, and did not attend Nafar’s performance. Carlins said that he went out of curiosity for what would be said at the conference.

“[A conference on Gaza] should not inherently be anti-Semitic,” Carlins said. “From what I saw at my one session at that conference, there is no doubt in my mind that that wasn’t anti-Semitic, from what was said. I don’t know the history of the speaker. From what was said at the conference, which was my only experience, they did a very good job of making sure that what was said was critical of the realities there, but far from anti-Semitic.”

But, Carlins said, the online video of Nafar’s performance was different. There’s “no question that is anti-Semitic,” he said. 

“But I believe deep in my heart that wasn’t the intent, and had they known that this singer would come and say what he said that they probably wouldn’t have invited the person in the first place,” Carlins said. “I’m not upset at Duke, any part of Duke or any professor at Duke.”