Jarrod Tanny

A Modest Jewish Victory at UNC Chapel Hill

This will be a short piece, coming on the heels of a miserable two weeks for Jews who support Israel (and really for all Jews who are now living in fear) on college campuses.

I shall not provide links, because this has been documented to death and, we diaspora Jews who believe that Israel has the right to exist without witnessing apologetics for Hamas on campus, let alone the now frequent justifications for the terrorist attack of October 7, 2023, are simply exhausted. And we can’t even fathom what our Israeli brethren are experiencing. We have all seen enough. We have read about the harassment of Jewish students at the University of Michigan, UNC Chapel Hill, CUNY, and so many other campuses. We have all witnessed Jewish studies faculty ignoring everything – or worse, issuing statements that “All Lives Matter” the Jews. We know Jewish studies is collectively compromised and willing to tolerate or even support organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine, who celebrate terrorism publicly. There is nothing new here except for one thing: October 7, 2023 was the largest mass killing operation targeting innocent Jewish civilians since the Holocaust. This is the only “context” that matters at the moment and there is no space for “nuance,” which the left rejects anyway because Israel’s imaginary genocide against the Palestinians comes first, EVEN THOUGH, Hamas replicated an act that had not been replicated since the Final Solution.

This should have been a threshold moment, a wake up call. But no, for most Jewish studies programs it’s been business as usual.

At this point I am not averse to naming names. The Jewish Studies Zionist Network issued a statement demanding that Michigan and Harvard’s Jewish studies programs publicly speak out against the victim blaming and the attendant harassment of Jews on their campuses (Okay I lied, I inserted one weblink). But they have not. One prominent Michigan Jewish studies professor insisted on my Facebook page that I am spreading misinformation: they are in fact taking action on campus. That’s all well and good (if it is in fact true and I have no idea if it is), but if such action is not accompanied by a public condemnation of the student organizations who vilify “Zionists” and offer support to terrorists, then the American Jewish community will continue to think the University of Michigan is not a safe place for Jews. It certainly appears that way from where I’m standing. Words matter and I have seen virtually nothing from Jewish studies. I invited him to sign the JSZN mission statement, but he accused us of of spreading “falsehoods,” even though we back up all our statements with evidence.

But occasionally pushing back achieves victories, however small.

On October 13 I read with alarm the statement that UNC Chapel Hill’s Jewish Studies Program (the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies) published on their website. It “All Lives Mattered” the Jews in the worst possible manner. This is what they wrote:

“The Center is heartbroken by the surge of violence in the Middle East, and extremely concerned for our extended community of students, alumni, and faculty currently in Israel. For those with friends and family in the region, please know that our thoughts are with you. We are reaching out to all our constituents to offer support and share in our combined grief…”

I will not unpack this statement because its horrifying pusillanimity should be obvious to all. For all we know, they could have been talking about a conflict in Yemen.

As a Jewish history professor in the UNC system who has worked with Chapel Hill in the past, I concluded that something had to be done. So I wrote and sent the following email to every professor affiliated with their program.

“Dear Colleagues

Many if not most of you know me. I hold the Block Chair in Jewish history at UNCW. I’ve enjoyed working with your center and your faculty over the years.

I’m writing to express my extreme disappointment with the statement regarding events in Israel you sent out to your affiliates and posted on your website.
Why did you not condemn Hamas and state that you stand with Israel? You referred to the “Surge of violence in the middle east” What does that even mean? Need I remind you, scholars of Jewish studies, that this was the largest mass killing operation of Jewish civilians since the Holocaust. All you needed to do was use that in your opening sentence and condemn Hamas as the terrorist organization that it is.
When you “all lives matter” the Jews in such a way you give ammunition to those who seek to harm us domestically. You legitimize the views expressed by Students for Justice in Palestine, which only a few weeks ago celebrated the Second Intifada because it “still terrifies the Zionist entity to this day.” SJP held a rally on your campus yesterday, attended by 200-300 people. I’m all for freedom of speech, but if you don’t voice opposition to student organizations that endorse mass violence against the Jews (and if they celebrate the Second Intifada that means they endorse terrorism) then you are putting the lives of Jewish students on your campus in danger.
It is quite possible to condemn the mass murder of Jews without implying that you reject Palestinian self-determination.
But you have chosen to do otherwise. You couldn’t even muster the courage to do the bare minimum.
With great disappointment,
Jarrod Tanny”
Two professors answered me and their responses were essentially the same: this statement does not reflect their views; they did not even know that such a statement had been issued, as it was written by the Seymour & Carol Levin Distinguished Term Professor, Dr. Patricia Rosenmeyer.
I replied that they should be concerned and even infuriated that someone issued a statement in their name without consulting them first. Surely it is unethical for the director of a program or the chair of a department to claim the right to speak for others on such sensitive issues, especially when it comes to mass murder?
What makes matters so much worse is that Chapel Hill has a serious antisemitism problem. Reports of Jewish students getting harassed by “activists” for Palestine are frequent. Apparently, Jewish studies has no interest in publicly condemning this either.
I left it at that, content that I had spoken up, but infuriated nonetheless.
But a week later I was pleasantly surprised to see that the shameful statement had disappeared from their website and a new one had been issued:
“The Carolina Center for Jewish Studies condemns, and is deeply grieved by, the terrorist attacks by Hamas against civilians in Israel and extends heartfelt condolences to all those who have been affected. We have been reaching out to students, alumni, friends and colleagues in the US and abroad to offer support and sympathy, and we continue to be concerned about escalating violence in the region. These are extremely difficult and emotional times, and we are working on ways to further support our community by encouraging thoughtful and productive engagement and discussion.”
Of course, this statement is far from perfect. It lacks any commitment to standing with Israel’s defensive actions to rid Gaza of its terrorist government. Worse, it lacks any commitment to standing with Chapel Hill’s Jewish students in the face of antisemitism.
Even their chancellor had the beytzim to write that “I condemn this terrible violence and fear the cascade of events these attacks are provoking, both locally and globally.”
Cowardice in the face of antisemitism is unacceptable, especially from our intellectual class whom students look to for support. Time after time, Jewish studies faculty have let down their community. And the national Jewish community is watching. Donors are pulling their money and parents are having second thoughts about sending their kids to these campuses.
Nevertheless, I consider this a small victory. And although I will never know if my letter was the catalyst for center’s (far too late) condemnation of Hamas, I would like to think it made a difference.
Keep pushing back. Jewish studies Faculty who act as “bystanders” are not beyond rebuke. If they throw their Jews under the bus, then Jews from the outside will hold them accountable.
Okay I lied again: this wasn’t a short piece.
About the Author
Jarrod Tanny is an Associate Professor and Block Distinguished Scholar in Jewish History in the Department of History, University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is the author of City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia's Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa. He is also the founder of the Jewish Studies Zionist Network,
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