To the Editor:
Deborah Gerhardt’s February 8 column (“My Colleagues Stayed Silent When Oct. 7 Was Called a ‘Beautiful Day’”) contains some alarming misapprehensions and mischaracterizations of the Jan. 19, 2024 University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Faculty Council meeting, in which a vote on the proposed ‘Resolution to condemn antisemitism’ was indefinitely postponed.
It is patently untrue that our “Israeli colleague was ignored and not permitted to speak,” as Gerhardt claims, and her observation that “I have a pretty good guess” about where “the other 38 stand,” a reference to the majority of faculty who voted either to table the resolution or to abstain, constitutes a tacit accusation of antisemitism against dozens of colleagues whose sole offense (at least in my case) is a difference of opinion about how best to combat antisemitism on our campus.
As a Jewish faculty member at UNC who was also the first to speak out against the proposed resolution, I reject the position that I or my colleagues have capitulated to “silence” about antisemitism, either on our campus or around the world. Similar resolutions, issued with increasing regularity in recent years by the governing bodies of universities or academic institutions, are often profoundly ineffectual in improving campus climates or in reshaping political discourse outside of the academy for the better.
It is entirely reasonable for faculty leaders to grapple with the question of when such resolutions may do more harm than good, either because they heighten divisiveness over volatile issues or because they are not sufficiently precise in what they condemn. A resolution that condemns antisemitism without ever defining it is, in the current academic and political climate, imprudent and perilous.
There need to be some serious, protracted conversations in higher education about what does or does not constitute antisemitism—does using the term “Zionist” as a slur qualify? What about employing the Nazi swastika as a symbol of Palestinian resistance? What about labeling Israeli citizens “settlers” regardless of their ancestry or family history? Or calling all Jews “white” regardless of their skin color or their self-determined ethnic identity? The way forward, if we are to have such urgent conversations, cannot begin with a resolution that condemns challenging, or even offensive, viewpoints.
Marcel Bataillon Professor of English & Comparative Literature
UNC Chapel Hill