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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus with headshots of Associate Professor Ronit Freeman and Professor Nadia Yaqub

Ronit Freeman, upper right, associate professor and associate chair for diversity, equity and inclusion in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's applied physical sciences department, introduced a resolution called “Condemning Antisemitism on Campus.” Professor Nadia Yaqub, bottom right, opposed the resolution, saying it “contributes to a hostile campus environment for many students.”

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Eros Hoagland/Getty Images | University of North Carolina

Nearly two months after the start of the war between Hamas and Israel last fall, a speaker at an event sponsored by an academic department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill uttered these words: “Oct. 7, for many of us from the region, was a beautiful day.”

For some on the campus who learned of the comments, the speaker’s apparent celebration of the brutal attacks by Hamas on Israelis warranted condemnation. Yet last month, the Faculty Council at Chapel Hill voted 32 to 29, with six abstentions, to “indefinitely postpone” a resolution designed to “strongly condemn the antisemitic statements” at the event.

The situation at Chapel Hill reflects many of the questions that have been reverberating across higher education and American society in the months since the terrorist attack and the beginning of the subsequent Middle East war. Are anti-Israel comments also antisemitic? Does the historical context of Oct. 7 matter? What speech crosses a line? Can university bodies condemn speech without squelching it? Should university bodies take public stands at all? And are universities defending Jews less than they would other minorities?

In this case, the inciting comments, from over two months ago, included a defense of the Oct. 7 attack. In addition to the “beautiful day” comment, the speaker allegedly said she wasn’t “the least bit apologetic of the violence of the oppressed or the occupied.”

Not Mincing Words

The controversy began at a Nov. 28 event, No Peace Without Justice: A Round-Table Talk on Social Justice in Palestine, staged by UNC’s geography and environment department and the university’s Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies. A flier for the event listed some Chapel Hill faculty members among the panelists.

The controversial comments, clearly audible in an 80-minute recording of the event shared with Inside Higher Ed by a pro-Israel group called Voice4Israel of North Carolina, allegedly came from Rania Masri, a guest who has no further university connections, according to UNC. She didn’t respond to Inside Higher Ed’s requests for comment.

Masri previously taught at Lebanese universities, according to her bio on the website for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. The organization didn’t respond to Inside Higher Ed’s questions about whether she still works there.

Peter Reitzes, a Voice4Israel board member, identified Masri as the speaker who, in response to the moderator’s question about what regional conditions led to this moment, said, “I’ll just be straight with you. I’m not known for mincing my words. Oct. 7, for many of us from the region, was a beautiful day.”

She continued, “We saw our brothers, we saw our fathers, we saw men break out of a concentration camp, and so for many of us the question is, how did they learn that? How did they develop those paratroopers? Where did they get those skills? How—how, after a hundred years of having a military boot on your neck, could you still develop the technique and the resilience to literally fly? That is what Oct. 7 means to many of us, and I just want to be very frank about it and not be in the least bit apologetic of the violence of the oppressed or the occupied.”

Reitzes’s organization wrote about the comments in its newsletter the next day, Nov. 29. On Dec. 1, he published an online article on the comments and posted a roughly minute-long clip of the comments on YouTube. The same day, StopAntisemitism—which has called out multiple academics since Oct. 7 and currently has nearly 300,000 X followers—posted the clip on X, along with Masri’s name and picture.

While the speaker in the clip said she wasn’t apologetic, some at Chapel Hill were. Then chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, who has since been named president of Michigan State University, issued a statement Dec. 1 saying he was “appalled by the remarks of a visiting speaker at a recent event on our campus.”

“Our university strives for discussions made rich by expertise and a variety of perspectives,” he said. “We expect those conversations to bring learning and understanding, not applause or support for violence or prejudice. We have made our expectations clear to our campus and will continue to do so. The Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences is reviewing the practices and policies for how panels are organized, and how we support free speech, and also host events that encourage respectful debate rather than hate.”

An undated statement on the geography and environment department’s website said the “appalling remarks made by one of the speakers at the event do not represent” the department’s position. James W. C. White, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, also issued a statement, saying, “A guest speaker made remarks that I found abhorrent and antithetical to what the university represents.” The Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies hasn’t posted any statement about the incident.

On Dec. 7, David Weisberg, a North Carolina resident, filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights alleging illegal discrimination against Jewish students at UNC. The complaint mentions Masri’s alleged comments, among other incidents.

“I have no connection with UNC Chapel Hill except that I pay taxes in North Carolina and I’m also Jewish and I’m very upset” about what’s happening on campus, Weisberg told Inside Higher Ed. The investigation is ongoing; a Chapel Hill spokesperson said the university “will cooperate fully and remain committed to promoting a safe and equitable environment to all members of the Carolina community that is free from harassment and discrimination.”

The Faculty Council, Chapel Hill’s main faculty governance body, did not have a regularly scheduled meeting in the last weeks of 2023. When it eventually met, on Jan. 19, the resolution was on the agenda.

Deciding Not to Decide

Ronit Freeman, an associate professor and associate chair for diversity, equity and inclusion in UNC’s applied physical sciences department, introduced the resolution.

The resolution was titled “Condemning Antisemitism on Campus.” It said the “Council resolves: 1. We strongly condemn the antisemitic statements made during a UNC Round-Table event: ‘No Peace Without Justice,’ held on November 28, 2023. 2. We stress that freedom of speech and expression are foundational principles of UNC, alongside creating a safe atmosphere free of violence, harassment, and discrimination. 3. We strongly condemn speech that incites or celebrates violence against any people based on religious beliefs, national origin, or ancestry.”

“It is alarming to listen to individuals on our campus, in a UNC-hosted event, characterize a brutal terrorist attack as beautiful and celebrate it,” Freeman, who is Israeli and Jewish, told her fellow council members.

A Jewish colleague spoke next, opposing the resolution.

“I am a Jew, so you might expect me to be very strongly in support of this resolution, but I have a number of causes for concern,” said Jessica Wolfe, the Marcel Bataillon Professor of English and Comparative Literature.

“I think it may be fairly misinterpreted as a means of shutting down free speech on this campus over an extremely volatile and debatable issue of the war in Gaza,” Wolfe said. She said the resolution “doesn’t seem to me to have a whole lot of bite and may seek to alienate or further polarize a campus that is already deeply divided on the subject of Israel.”

Right after Wolfe spoke, Jan Hannig, a professor of statistics and operations research, made the ultimately successful motion to “indefinitely postpone” the resolution.

“The events of Nov. 28 have been clearly condemned by the chancellor at that time, dean of the arts and sciences and the department that sponsored the event,” Hannig said, “so I don’t see how us passing this resolution months after the event is actually going to help.”

Hannig argued that voting to indefinitely postpone would avoid voting on the merits of the resolution. He said approving the resolution might upset some on campus, “but if we vote the resolution down, we may ourselves be accused of antisemitism.”

Only one professor other than Freeman defended the resolution during the meeting. Mark McNeilly, a professor of the practice of marketing and organizational behavior, said, “It’s a necessary, if insufficient, step. It’s important the faculty shows it stands against antisemitism. How will it look in a federal investigation if the faculty votes down or postpones a vote on something as basic as this? It will be proof that UNC has a hostile environment for Jews.”

But Douglas Lee Lauen, a public policy professor, said, “All we’re being asked to do is condemn antisemitism. There is no mention of Islamophobia here; there’s no mention here of the disproportionate use of force that Israel has been, in my opinion, exerting in Gaza right now. What Hamas did was a war crime. It was abhorrent, for sure. It wasn’t justified. But any action that we take now on this issue will be problematic.”

The resolution didn’t specifically include what it called the “antisemitic statements” made at the roundtable; it linked to the minute-long YouTube recording, not the longer one provided to Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Cheryl Jackson, a School of Medicine professor, criticized that lack of context and specificity. But she added that if the resolution were actually “condemning specific speech during a specific event … I’m not sure that’s exactly what the Faculty Council wants to do for every event where someone has inappropriate speech.”

The only non–council member granted time to speak during the time allotted for the discussion was Nadia Yaqub, a professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. She had written to Hannig opposing the resolution.

“This resolution contributes to a hostile campus environment for many students, staff and faculty who fear being branded as antisemitic if they speak up about their experiences, thoughts or opinions,” Yaqub said during the meeting. She said it “purports to support academic freedom” but actually “undermines” it for “the very group that has experienced the most significant violations of academic freedom and speech in the United States today, namely Palestinians and their supporters.”

Freeman made one final appeal before the Faculty Council voted, by a hair, to postpone indefinitely. She asked, “If this event was celebrating violence against any other demographics that are not Jews, would you still want to postpone indefinitely? Why don’t you ponder about that with your moral compasses.”

She told Inside Higher Ed after the meeting that she considered the “indefinite postponement” to be “a rejection of the resolution.”

After the meeting, Yaqub told Inside Higher Ed she didn’t see anything “objectively antisemitic” in Masri’s alleged comments. Yaqub also said of Oct. 7 that “what actually happened on that day, and who actually committed what, is still very unclear.” She mentioned, among other things, friendly fire from Israeli tanks, and said she doesn’t know whether Palestinians or Israelis killed more Israeli civilians that day.

“Many in the region did feel it was a beautiful day, and then [Masri] expressed admiration for the technological developments of the [Hamas] Qassam brigades—she hasn’t said anything against Jews, she hasn’t said anything about hating Jews,” Yaqub said of the roundtable comments. Yaqub said she doesn’t think Oct. 7 was a beautiful day, but, in Masri’s comments, “I don’t hear anything actually antisemitic.”

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