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Two people hold a placard with photos of people killed during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

Two people hold a placard with photos of people killed during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack at a memorial ceremony in Jerusalem Wednesday.

Amir Levy/Getty Images

It’s been a challenging time for Jewish students and faculty across our nation. Antisemitic incidents on campuses have increased; protesters we encounter on our paths to class chant hateful words or tear down notices about Israeli hostages, students disrupt speakers instead of listening, and faculty members worry we may find antisemitic greetings on the whiteboards in our classrooms. It can be hard to see where to find a friend or ally.

Jews are tough. The need to hide or flee to escape hatred has plagued us historically. But living with socially acceptable hate among those we thought shared our values— taking punch after punch when we’re already licking painful wounds—is new for many of us.

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A Jan. 19 Faculty Council meeting here at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed me a new low. The meeting started with great promise. I attended because my husband, Michael J. Gerhardt, was honored with UNC’s Thomas Jefferson Award for teaching and research that exemplifies principles of democracy. Our new interim chancellor, Lee Roberts, spoke after the award presentation, offering criticism of antisemitism and an explanation of how we can combat it while still protecting robust free speech. Had the meeting ended there, we would have left inspired, more of a community, connected by our common purpose as educators, unafraid of tackling the most difficult challenges. But then the meeting took a turn.

Next on the agenda was a resolution condemning statements by a guest speaker who called Oct. 7 a “beautiful day” during a Nov. 28 roundtable event on campus. That black Sabbath was Israel’s Sept. 11, the worst day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust. It was a day when sleeping children were pulled from their beds to watch their parents murdered, a day of violent rape and mutilation of women and girls, torture and killing and terrorizing of civilians so brutal that even family dogs were slaughtered for the sin of living in Israel. Before the day ended, more than 1,000 innocent people were dead and hundreds were taken hostage—some of them babies and young children. More than 100 of them remain in Hamas captivity. Yet the faculty as a whole had said nothing in response to the remark by the guest speaker.

Seeing the resolution condemning this view, I thought, Yes. Thank you. Finally, some will have the courage to step up and say they disagree with those cruel words still reverberating across the campus. My Jewish students are struggling with broken friendships and disapproving mentors, and I want them to know that many UNC faculty see them too as valued members of our community.

The proposed resolution stated three points: (1) it condemned the antisemitic statements made during the Nov. 28 event, (2) it reinforced the faculty’s belief in free speech and (3) it condemned the incitement or celebration of violence against any religion or nationality.

Let’s be clear for a moment about the law. Anyone who calls the violence of Oct. 7 “beautiful” is entitled to her opinion. As a lawyer and deep believer in the First Amendment, I would defend the guest speaker’s right to contribute her viewpoint. But the First Amendment also gives us that right and responsibility to push back, because truth only emerges when false and hateful ideas are challenged. At this meeting, the UNC faculty had the chance to say that we disagree that the horrific murder of innocents on Oct. 7 was a beautiful day.

A few people expressed concerns. Faculty present at the meeting asked questions: What does antisemitism mean? How should the Faculty Council define it? What will our students sympathetic to Palestinians in Gaza think? Would passing this resolution chill speech? One faculty member moved to kill the resolution (to postpone it indefinitely, which effectively kills it). Time was eaten up explaining this procedure. No clear instructions told us when nonmembers of the council might speak, and if so, how much time we would be permitted. One professor who wasn’t on the council spoke for so long in opposition to the resolution that the frustrated chair refused to hear from another non–council member who is an Israeli citizen.

With few exceptions, the discussion reflected a stunning lack of empathy for the group actually targeted by the guest speaker’s belief that Oct. 7 was a beautiful day. One professor, alluding to the fact that UNC is under federal investigation for permitting a hostile educational environment for Jews, noted that refusing to condemn the celebration of antisemitic violence would support those hostile-environment claims. As I tried to both listen and organize my thoughts, I lost my chance to speak.

The council voted 32 to 29, with six abstaining, to kill the resolution. I left just after the vote to huddle in the hall with a handful of colleagues, several in tears. I felt horrible—that our Israeli colleague was ignored and not permitted to speak, and that I had not raised my hand aggressively to say that inaction or a vote against the resolution would make an already-tense climate worse.

In discussions condemning racism or gender inequality, I don’t remember any similar instances of measures being tabled to allow time to define these terms. Were such basic points about antisemitism truly new and unclear to my colleagues? Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I wish I had clarified: “Antisemitism is hatred for Jews. It is not criticism of Israel. Antisemitism is holding Jews to a different standard than any other group.” The professor who proposed the resolution asked the faculty members to consider how they would vote if violence against any group other than Jews were celebrated. Would these same faculty have condemned a statement by a speaker at a UNC event celebrating the killing of George Floyd or the kidnapping and rape of women by Boko Haram in Nigeria?

Principles are meaningless if they apply to some and not others. While the First Amendment supports anyone’s right to celebrate Oct. 7, it does not demand that we stay silent when we hear it. Incidents of antisemitism worldwide are increasing in number and severity. Within the past couple of weeks, a couple of friends in London were hospitalized after a crowd overheard them speaking Hebrew and assaulted them, and a Jewish student in Berlin was beaten so badly by a student holding pro-Palestinian views that he too ended up in the hospital.

I am grateful to know that 29 of my colleagues anonymously voted to consider whether the celebration of Oct. 7 should be condemned, but I don’t know who they are or how they would have voted on the resolution itself. I have a pretty good guess about where the other 38 stand. If you’ve ever wondered what might have happened differently in Germany had citizens spoken up for themselves and their Jewish friends and colleagues, we now have the chance to learn.

Deborah R. Gerhardt is the Reef C. Ivey II Excellence Term Professor of Law at the UNC School of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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