This August, Israeli consular officials in the southeast U.S. arranged meetings with a dean at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to discuss a graduate student teaching a course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to two UNC professors with knowledge of the meetings, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution, the Israeli official accused the Ph.D. student of antisemitism and said she was unfit to teach the course.
The intervention by an Israeli government official, Consul General to the Southeastern United States Anat Sultan-Dadon, followed a pressure campaign by right-wing pro-Israel websites and an advocacy group to remove the graduate student, Kylie Broderick, from teaching the history department course called “The Conflict over Israel/Palestine.” The websites and pro-Israel advocacy group pointed to postings Broderick had made on Twitter that criticized Israel and Zionism and, without evidence, cited the postings as evidence of antisemitism.
In addition to the intervention by the Israeli government, the school faced pressure from a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, the two UNC professors told The Intercept. The professors said Rep. Kathy Manning, D-N.C., also met with the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to exert pressure over Broderick’s course.
“It is not a new phenomenon where outside parties have tried to stifle academic freedom on this subject,” Broderick said. “But these people have never seen me teach, never seen my past evaluations which have said that I treat students fairly, and thus have no right to dictate what I say inside the classroom.”
Israel-Palestine has become one of the most politicized areas of academia, with periodic firings of professors, prosecutions of students, and even the maintenance of public blacklists helping impose an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship over the topic. Even by that standard, the intervention of Israeli government officials directly with an American university over the teaching of a course represents a troubling new threat to academic freedom.
“I think that a representative of a foreign government attempting to police an academic class is, in the first place, ridiculous, and an obvious overreaction to what is essentially an issue that started on Twitter,” Broderick said. “I also think it is strange that the Israeli consulate general was granted an audience. If this was a class on Hungary or Australia, would the university have permitted the attempted interference of a foreign government? The fact that this meeting happened at all is clearly a threat to academic freedom.”
“The fact that this meeting happened at all is clearly a threat to academic freedom.”
The controversy started over several tweets sent by Broderick that were highly critical of Israel and U.S. foreign policy, including support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. Broderick rejected accusations leveled by Israeli consular officials that her criticisms of Israel on social media constituted antisemitism. “A critique of Israel and the political ideology of Zionism does not constitute bigotry any more than a critique of Iran, which calls itself an Islamic Republic, constitutes an Islamophobic attack,” Broderick said. ”States are not religions, nor are states a people.”
Broderick had expected scrutiny of some of her teaching, as Israel is always a hot-button issue in the United States. What she did not was the degree to which the smear campaign against her would balloon, up to and including interventions from officials of two governments.
In a statement to The Intercept, Sultan-Dadon confirmed the meeting with the dean of UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences about Broderick. Though Sultan-Dadon declined to comment on the specifics of the discussion, she doubled down on her view that Broderick was antisemitic and unfit to teach a course on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Regarding the matter of the course ‘The Conflict over Israel/Palestine’ at UNC Chapel Hill taught by PhD student Ms. Broderick, I do have significant concerns regarding public statements that have been made by Ms. Broderick on this subject matter, some of which are not only heavily biased, but fall clearly under what is defined as antisemitic by the IHRA working definition of antisemitism,” Sultan-Dadon said, referring to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s heavily contested definition of antisemitism.
The consul general went on: “I think it should be of concern to anyone who stands against antisemitism, and for academic freedom, that an individual who has not only made public antisemitic statements in reference to Israel and the Israeli Palestinian conflict, but also publicly stated that she does not believe there are two sides to this conflict and does not want to teach her students both sides, is the selected teacher for a course on ‘The Conflict over Israel/Palestine.’”
Manning’s congressional office did not respond to a request for comment on the meetings with UNC officials. Manning’s website is short on foreign policy positions but says that support for Israel is a key issue for the U.S. House member.
The dean’s office and UNC declined to comment on the meeting with officials. However, UNC officials appear to be holding firm despite the heavy outside pressure over Broderick’s teaching of the course. An email from the chancellor’s office this August, circulated online by pro-Israel groups, indicated that the course would go forward as planned, and Broderick has since begun teaching without controversy or complaints from students.
The controversy over Broderick’s teaching of the course began this summer, after the pro-Israel website Algemeiner did a story focused on a series of tweets Broderick had made that were highly critical of Israel or deemed by the author, Peter Reitzes, to have been “crass.”
The issue snowballed from there as other activist news websites picked up the issue and began spreading it in their networks — even reaching mainstream news. In August, a local ABC affiliate broadcasted an investigative story by journalist Jonah Kaplan. Kaplan quoted students saying that Broderick’s tweets criticizing Israel were reminiscent of the rhetoric that fomented the Holocaust, describing them as a “new mutation of what anti-Semitism is today.” Another student told Kaplan, regarding Broderick’s tweets, “Just replace Zionist with Jew and it’s pretty obvious it’s anti-Semitic.”
Similar campaigns, accusing critics of Israel of antisemitism despite a lack of direct evidence, have long become commonplace in U.S. academia.
“In a weird way, what is interesting about Broderick’s case is that in all likelihood she is going to be fine, and that is a massive change from what would have happened even a decade ago.”
“Academic courses all over the U.S. have been taught for a long time with a massive bias in favor of Israel, and if people in a classroom or faculty are pro-Israel, they should be allowed to make that argument. But what all this outside pressure on academics is trying to do is prevent the same from happening from the Palestinian perspective,” said Jonathan Brown, a professor of Islamic civilization at Georgetown University. “There are fundamental questions at stake here about academic freedom and whether academics are expected to teach according to donor or even foreign government preferences.”
In many ways, however, the discourse over the conflict is changing, with polls showing growing sympathy for the Palestinian cause and openness to criticism of Israeli government policy among Americans, including among liberal, progressive, and Jewish organizations that also prioritize the fight against domestic antisemitism. The intense pushback, even against graduate students critical of Israel teaching courses on the subject with the Israeli government itself directly involved, is seen by some as a way of trying to maintain a slanted status quo that is now going out of favor.
“When I was in college 20 years ago, if someone said something critical of Israel in class, you could hear a pin drop. It was frightening. Things are very different now,” said Brown. “In a weird way, what is interesting about Broderick’s case is that in all likelihood she is going to be fine, and that is a massive change from what would have happened even a decade ago.”
Correction: September 28, 2021, 2:08 p.m. ET
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated North Carolina Rep. Kathy Manning’s political party. She is a Democrat.