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Professor's past comments, actions at protest raise concerns among students

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Counter-protester and UNC religious studies professor Evyatar Marienberg raised an Israeli flag at the pro-Palestinian protest organized by Students for Justice in Palestine on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023.

Two days after the militant group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Evyatar Marienberg, a tenured professor in the religious studies department, sent his class a Canvas message.

“I am not functioning in the last few days. I will do class tomorrow of course, I will try my best, I cannot read posts, grade, or think about the midterm at this point,” he said in the Oct. 9 message.

Marienberg was born in Israel and came to the University in 2009. According to his biography published on the religious studies department’s website, his research interests include Rabbinics, contemporary Catholicism and the social history of Jews and Christians in Medieval Europe.

Three days after the message, Marienberg attended the Oct. 12 pro-Palestine demonstration in front of Wilson Library as a counter-protester. He raised an Israeli flag in front of the protesters as they chanted "Free, free Palestine."

Later during the demonstration, Marienberg shouted “Nazis" at pro-Palestinian protesters. UNC Police escorted him from the scene but did not arrest him. Marienberg remains employed as a member of the UNC faculty.

Marienberg did not respond to The Daily Tar Heel's multiple requests for comment.

Following the protest, more than 20 UNC religious studies graduate students and alumni signed a public statement denouncing Marienberg’s actions. The statement was circulated via a listserv for graduate students in the UNC Department of Religious Studies.

Ellis Azcona, a religious studies doctoral student who signed the statement, said it came together because some graduate students wanted to provide a different perspective within the department apart from Marienberg's.

“Marienberg is not new to this kind of behavior: on numerous occasions dating back to 2016 he has targeted faculty in our department who are Muslim and have shared information about boycott, divestment, and sanction efforts in support of Palestinians, facing little-to-no repercussions or formal disciplinary actions from department heads,” the statement said. 

The DTH obtained a 2016 email that Marienberg sent to graduate students and faculty in the UNC Department of Religious Studies. In the email, he reacted to a previous listserv email that shared information about Religious Studies Scholars for Boycott Divestment Sanctions, an organization that supports divestment efforts in solidarity with Palestine.

He said that supporting BDS with "department resources" did not show "high social skills." Marienberg continued, claiming many who supported BDS could not "pinpoint where Israel and Palestine are on a world map." 

In the email, he also said it is "very trendy to make Israel the source of all evils." 

"He also argued that it was hypocritical for scholars to participate in a boycott against Israel," Annie O'Brien, a religious studies doctoral candidate, said.

In Marienberg's email, he said "many Muslims are very much involved in recent years in horrific acts of violence against minorities, gay people, civilians, other countries, airplanes, and more." 

A graduate student who requested anonymity works in Carolina Hall, where Marienberg's office and the religious studies department are located. They said they attended the Oct. 12 protest in support of Palestine.

“To hear him call [protesters] the word ‘Nazis’ over and over and over again, I think really diminishes Jewish pain from the past,” they said.

After the event, the graduate student filed a report with the UNC Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office concerning Marienberg's behavior at the protest. 

Elyse Crystall, a professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature and the faculty advisor for UNC Students for Justice in Palestine, spoke at the Oct. 12 protest.

She said Marienberg’s actions at the protest were “inappropriate” because there’s an “age difference” and “power difference” between him and undergraduate students.

According to the Freedom of Speech and Expression University Policy, UNC says it provides "an inclusive and flourishing environment for free speech and expression consistent with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Section 14 of the North Carolina State Constitution.”

Most comments on Marienberg's page of Rate My Professor — a website where individuals can anonymously review university professors — are positive. One comment, posted on Oct. 14, said, “Wonderful man and amazing professor. Knows a lot about his field and really cares for the students.”

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Grace Pawloski, a global studies senior and one of Marienberg's current students, said Marienberg’s class is a “really great learning environment” and one of her favorite classes.

“He offers a lot of really interesting insight because he’s Jewish on the current situation with the Israel and Hamas war,” she said. Pawloski also said she was not aware of Marienberg’s involvement at the protest, and was "shocked" when she found out about his involvement.

“I did not know about the protest,” she said. “That’s not something we talked about in class. But he’s let students in a little bit on how hard the situation has been for him emotionally.”

UNC religious studies professor Yaakov Ariel said the chair of the Department of Religious Studies, Randall Styers, is the only member of the department who can offer an “authorized response” on Marienberg's behavior at the protest and the role of faculty in campus expression.

Styers redirected The DTH’s request for comment to UNC Media Relations.

In an email statement, Media Relations provided a link to UNC’s free speech policy and said it could neither confirm nor deny any current or past complaints, as well as any other protected information of a state employee, due to the State Human Resources Act.

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