On the morning of April 2, several Emory students were surprised to wake up to eviction notices posted on their doors. The notices were fake, part of an Emory Students for Justice in Palestine (ESJP) campaign intended to bring awareness to the forced eviction of Palestinians from their homes under the Israeli government. The flyers, posted on the second day of Israeli Apartheid Week at Emory, had been approved by the Office of Residence Life and Housing Operations prior to their posting, though they were ultimately removed for violating a Campus Life policy which restricts posting flyers to students’ residence doors without their consent.
That evening, Interim Vice President for Campus Life Paul Marthers sent an email to Emory students regarding a number of individuals “upset and concerned” by the flyers. The email described the ESJP campaign in vague terms but ultimately called for open dialogue on the subject, and rightly so. By the next day, however, it seemed that the dialogue had been set firmly in one direction, with news sources and Facebook groups dedicated to stopping anti-Semitism posing the campaign as an attack against Jewish students, claiming that the notices had only been posted on the doors of Jewish residents.
While an email from Emory Hillel stated that no evidence existed to back this argument, the impact of such an assertion was still felt, and the original intent of the ESJP campaign was quickly overshadowed by discussions over the supposedly anti-Semitic nature of the protest. And while this is in some ways a unique case, the argument that it brings up is not new. It is not uncommon for pro-Israel groups to call upon a history of anti-Semitism to diffuse critiques of Israeli occupation, especially those accounts that draw attention to the violence perpetrated by the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli government against Palestinians. Writers and commentators on the issue have attempted to draw a parallel between this state-sanctioned violence and displacement with the violence targeted at the Jewish diaspora, particularly with reference to the Holocaust. Such criticisms are not attempts to lessen the severity of Jewish oppression, but rather to create a narrative of empathy.
Many people, Jewish or not, have called this comparison problematic. They raise the issue that the nature of Jewish oppression and methods of ethnic cleansing make it incommensurable with other instances of violence. And they do have a point here. Anti-Semitism is still alive and well throughout the world, and the memory of the Holocaust as well as centuries of oppression should not be erased. It may be difficult for many of us who are conscious of this history and its continuing impact to reconcile this fact with the reality of Israeli brutality. But it is critical to remember that Israel does not stand for all Jews and not all Jews stand for Israel. Critiques of Israeli policy and of Zionism as a whole do not necessarily constitute anti-Semitism. The nature in which these critiques are presented may have the capacity to present anti-Semitic arguments, but in general the two are simply not the same. Critiques of Zionism and the Israeli government are critiques of the actions of a regime, not of the religion for which the regime supposedly stands. And attempts like ESJP’s flyers to call attention to the realities individuals face because of such a regime is not meant as a concentrated attack on all Jews.
The intentions of the ESJP campaign to bring awareness to the plight of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation cannot be forgotten or ignored. Forced evictions are only one reality. Palestinians live under constant Israeli military presence; their access to food supplies and clean water is severely limited; their access to proper healthcare is made extremely difficult; and some do not have the same citizenship rights as Israelis, which limits their civil rights and access to due process under the law. This isolation within their own homeland makes them only more susceptible to instances of violence which are not rectified. We must take this reality seriously and make sure that it is not ignored; it exists, it is happening daily, and failure to acknowledge such injustice is a major failure on our part as individuals who claim to stand for democracy and social justice.
To decry something as anti-Semitic is a serious matter. The memory of centuries of Jewish oppression is not something to be blindly brought up against actions which do not truly have harmful implications for all Jews. To do so is an insult to its historical gravity. Often, anti-Semitism is brought up as a means of silencing issues presented by individuals critiquing Israeli occupation. This is a mistake. Our goal in the future should be to develop a nuanced understanding of complicated issues and take the time to get to the root of arguments instead of rushing to assumptions.
We have not only the capacity but the responsibility to think critically about such issues and how best to respond to them in a way that is both productive and conducive to opening dialogue rather than closing it.
Julia Levy (18Ox, 20C) is from Roslyn, N.Y.
Assistant Opinion Editor Zach Ball (21C) previously served as president of Emory Students for Justice in Palestine and was not involved in editing this op-ed.