Politics & Government

DeVos opens investigation into Duke-UNC event with alleged ‘anti-Semitic rhetoric’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos AP

Updated June 18, 2019 with additional information from UNC.

The U.S. Department of Education will investigate a Middle East conference co-sponsored by Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill to see if the schools’ consortium violated the terms and conditions of its federal grant.

In April, Rep. George Holding, a Raleigh Republican, asked the department to investigate the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies’ event for its “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities” conference that was held in late March at UNC. Holding said he’d seen “reports of severe anti-Israeli bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric at the taxpayer-funded conference.”

“I am troubled by the concerns outlined in your letter,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wrote to Holding in a letter dated June 18, 2019, and provided to The News & Observer by Holding’s office. “In order for the Department to learn more about this matter, I have directed the Office of Postsecondary Education to examine the use of funds under this program.”

The consortium used $5,000 in grant money from the Department of Education for the conference, UNC said in April. It came from a four-year, $235,000-per-year grant to the consortium that is part of the agency’s international and foreign language education grants.

UNC said on June 18 that a review of the expenditures found it spent less than $200 of grant funds on the event, despite originally budgeting $5,000.

In her letter, DeVos said the funds must be used to support “activities that ‘reflect the diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions and international affairs.’”

“It is critical that recipients of grants use funds in accordance with statutory and regulatory requirements, as well as for purposes of the program for which they are funded,” DeVos wrote.

In a statement, UNC said that it would work with federal department.

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 conference featured a performance by Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar of the hip-hop group DAM. Edited clips of Nafar signing his song, “Mama, I Fell in Love with a Jew” were posted online by filmmaker and activist Ami Horowitz. The song tells the story of a Palestinian man and a female Israeli soldier who meet on an elevator. The video ends with their families fighting at a wedding.

Holding thanked DeVos for “treating this matter with the seriousness and attention it deserves.”

“I hope we can all agree that taxpayer dollars should never be used to fund overtly biased advocacy under the guise of academic discourse,” Holding said in a statement.

UNC Global issued a statement about the performance in April. “Many members of our community, including Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, are heartbroken and offended by a musical performance during the three-day “Conflict over Gaza” conference held at UNC-Chapel Hill in March and included in a recent video shared on social media,” it said.

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.