One of the core principles of academia is academic freedom, the ability to teach and discuss topics without restriction. All members of the institution have the right to freedom of thought, religion, and security. However, when opinions of one member of an academic institution begin to violate the security of others, the question of academic freedom is called into place.
In August 2021, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) announced they would once again be offering the relevant and desired course “The Conflict over Israel/Palestine.” The course explores the conflict in the region over the past 100 years, and is expectedly a controversial and personal topic to many. This year it will be taught by Kylie Broderick, a PhD student who has been publicly hostile towards those with pro-Israel views.
Broderick’s history of hostility is concerning because the course, which navigates the already-polarized conflict, is being taught by someone who strongly holds that Israel should not exist. While Broderick’s personal biography states that she is “interested in building narratives of justice, peace and equity,” her Tweets display the exact opposite interests. Rather than promoting an open and inclusive dialogue in class discussions on the conflict, Broderick states that there is “only 1 legitimate side” and that the ideologies of Zionism are intrinsically oppressive.
Rather than critiquing the Israeli government, Broderick openly condemns the existence of the State of Israel. In order to have open dialogue on the conflict, one must feel comfortable in voicing their opinions. Thus, if students are aware of the hostile views Broderick has, they may feel uncomfortable in sharing their thoughts. When a staff member of the community impeaches on academic freedom by engaging in an abundance of anti-Israel rhetoric, students who previously had an interest in the class may no longer feel safe or wanted in that environment, as UNC’s Hillel stated. Students’ academic freedom may then be violated as they could potentially feel voiceless or in fear of their grades if they voice pro-Israel views. This then brings to question the possibility of having an open and fair discussion in class. If the educator is pushing their own agenda and unwilling to hear the opinions of others making students feel voiceless, where does academic freedom lie?
This is not the first time the concern of antisemitism has been raised at UNC. Back in March 2019, a conference called “Conflict over Gaza: People, politics and possibilities” was held at UNC. Sponsored by several departments, the conference had the intention of shedding light on the situation in Gaza. One of the guests at the conference was Tamer Nafar, a Palestinian rapper with the hip-hop group DAM. DAM’s song “Meen Erhabe (Who’s the Terrorist),” conflates Israelis with Nazis, a form of Holocaust inversion, while glamorizing terrorists. Furthermore, members of the group openly displayed antisemitic beliefs. At the conference in 2019, Nafar rapped his self-proclaimed “antisemitic song,” asking the crowd to be antisemitic with him by thinking of Mel Gibson, who is notoriously known for his antisemitic comments. Days after the conference, flyers were seen at the library on campus referring to an “evil Jewish plot to enslave and kill you” as well as several books on the Nazi’s were left on a table in the same library.
The immense amount of antisemitism displayed at this conference led to a statement made by the UNC Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz who recognized the hateful language at the performance. A complaint was subsequently filed with the US Department of Education (DOE). The complainant alleged that UNC had discriminated against Jewish students on the basis of national origin at the March 2019 conference. The conference, coupled with the antisemitic flyers and swastikas found around the university, led to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the US Department of Education enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discriminaion on the basis of national origin, the exact discrimination that was exemplified at the conference.
Along with taking action, the DOE resolution stated four additional actions the University must take in order to address the situation, including antisemitism training for at least three academic years following 2019. Despite UNC agreeing in 2019 to take actions ensuring Jewish students’ safety on campus, they have now forgotten about the consensus and in doing so, may have violated Title VI. Broderick, who will be teaching “The Conflict over Israel/Palestine” course, publicly dismissed the Resolution Agreement by calling it an “attack by the federal government.” Broderick then went on to quote from a student groups statement on Title VI that refused to denounce the antisemitism displayed at the conference while failing to recognize the main actions of the Resolution Agreement; antisemitism training, stricter policies and discussion with Jewish community members. The Resolution Agreement did not call for the remaking of the Middle Eastern studies program as the students statement alludes to.
Broderick openly rejecting the purpose of the DOE resolution yet still being slated to teach the course on Israel/Palestine is a violation of the Resolution Agreement. However, when Jewish community members raised their concerns over Broderick teaching the course, UNC Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz responded that the environment is “welcoming and inclusive” and he is “confident that students enrolled… will benefit from a thoughtful presentation of information.” Because UNC is state-funded, it has the potential to breach the First Amendment as well as academic freedom, meaning that the future of the school’s funding is put into question.
The issue goes beyond UNC, as Broderick helped to construct a course that geared K-12 teachers on the issues in the Middle East. The course, which was supposed to occur in the spring before the Hamas/Israel war, has since been rescheduled for the fall. It is unclear if Broderick will also push the hostile anti-Israel agenda in this course as well. What is clear is how children are extremely susceptible to the information provided to them by superiors. If the course only pushes a one-sided narrative, the next generation could potentially be raised with more combative views.
Upholding academic freedom should be of utmost concern to the administration at UNC, especially given their long history of antisemitism on campus. Students at UNC deserve the right to engage in meaningful and challenging conversations that do not violate their academic freedom or safety. However, the potential violation of the DOE agreement sends the message that the Jewish community at UNC is of little priority as the administration has taken minimal actions to stand by their Resolution Agreement.