The Education Department is investigating claims of anti-Semitic bias at a University of North Carolina academic conference that organizers said was focused on the conflict in the Gaza Strip.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos confirmed in a letter Monday to Rep. George Holding, North Carolina Republican, that her department’s Office of Postsecondary Education has opened an inquiry into whether the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies violated any terms of a $235,000 grant during its March conference.
The conference drew criticism for hosting alleged anti-Semitic speakers, a campus vendor selling books critical of Israel, and remarks by a Palestinian hip-hop artist that appeared to make light of claims of prejudice lobbed at the pro-Palestinian community or embrace prejudice against Jews.
“I am troubled by the concerns outlined in your letter,” Ms. DeVos said in the letter to Mr. Holding, which was shared with the press.
Mr. Holding, who represents the Raleigh area in Congress, sent a letter April 15 to Mrs. DeVos expressing concern that taxpayer dollars were used to support an event fueled by “radical, anti-Israel” bias.
He cheered the education secretary’s announcement Monday.
“I hope we can all agree that it is irresponsible and immoral for taxpayer dollars to fund overtly biased advocacy under the guise of constructive academic discourse,” Mr. Holding tweeted.
The March 22-24 conference, titled “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities,” aimed to “provide sober, scholarly perspectives on difficult issues,” according to the UNC Center for Middle East & Islamic Studies’ website.
A three-part series in the pro-Israel monthly magazine The Tower and a viral video from conservative filmmaker Ami Horowitz offered a critical perspective of the events, suggesting the speakers and literature gave only a sympathetic view to Palestinians. In his article for The Tower, Peter Reitzes bemoaned conference staff handing out T-shirts that said “Gaza.”
“I can’t imagine UNC and Duke ever handing out hundreds of free t-shirts that said ‘Israel,’” Mr. Reitzes said.
In a video edited by Mr. Horowitz, Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar, who frequently employs sarcasm, says “I cannot be anti-Semitic alone” as he leads the audience in applause at the March event.
UNC officials apologized for “inexcusable” remarks made by Mr. Nafar, a resident of Israel. In a news release, the university also criticized the video for being “highly edited.” According to the campus newspaper The Daily Tar Heel, some attendees interviewed by Mr. Horowitz claimed to have been unknowingly videotaped.
UNC also defended the right of professors to host scholarly events, even controversial ones, in a statement issued in April.
“Conferences such as this are organized by scholars who have academic freed out to develop the programming and invite their selected speakers and performers,” said a university spokesperson.
Professors at other institutions said a federal investigation of a pro-Palestine event could chill free speech on campuses.
University of Massachusetts-Amherst communications professor Sut Jhally held a May event, titled “Not Backing Down,” that featured speakers calling attention to the Israeli government’s military action against Palestinians. That event drew a lawsuit from students that asked a judge to shut down the event. A Suffolk County court denied the injunction request.
“There is a concerted effort to make sure there is no honest and widespread debate on Israel and Palestine on U.S. campuses,” Mr. Jhally said by phone. “If there is any debate, it’ll have to be one-sided.”
The Duke-UNC Consortium received a $235,000 federal foreign language grant in August. However, UNC officials clarified that while $5,000 initially was budgeted to be used in the March event, ultimately only $200 in taxpayer dollars was used to support the conference.
A university spokesperson confirmed that it “will continue to work with” the Education Department to answer questions about the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies.
In March, President Trump announced a new executive order directing agencies to clamp down on funding grants to colleges that have put “American students and American values … under siege.”