Since 1967, the Israeli government has demolished more than 50,000 buildings in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, leaving roughly 140,000 Palestinians homeless. These are not disputed statistics. A few days ago, Emory Students for Justice in Palestine (ESJP) posted these statistics, along with a few other statements, onto the doors of Emory residence halls and off-campus housing. I’m agnostic regarding the actions of the Israeli government, but I’m repulsed by the community response to this form of passive protest.
One would hope that such a protest would galvanize every concerned student and prompt much-needed dialogue about the difficult questions raised by the Israeli settlements and the occupation of Palestine. Instead, the response by many was to play the anti-Semitism card and petulantly treat the event as an attack on the Jewish community, destroying any hope of such discussion.
It was an effective protest. Was it provocative? Yes, that’s the point. But those who were offended by the protest clearly misinterpreted it. Amazingly, even in the aftermath of this incident, it is the pro-Israel students who have claimed to be the ones open to dialogue, saying that these flyers are what has shut down the conversation.
If your bar for anti-Semitism is so low that this protest sets you off, offends you enough to keep you from engaging in conversation or has brought you to tears, then you have no right to claim that you are the ones open to dialogue.
The flyers were not anti-Semitic, nor were they an attack on Emory’s Jewish community. They were an attack on the actions of a foreign government. The flyers dispassionately outlined the actions of the Israeli government while attempting to make the statistics feel personal. There was no violence; there was no anti-Semitic rhetoric.
There is real anti-Semitism out there, but when supporters of Israel pretend that criticism of the State of Israel like ESJP’s flyers is an attack on Judaism, all they are doing is stifling discussion and making it harder to call out the real anti-Semites.
The community response would have been appropriate if the flyers were actually anti-Semitic, but they were not. The claims they make are, if not incontrovertible, arguable, and accepted by many. In fact, the United Nations condemned Israel’s demolitions in 2004 — a vote from which Israel’s strongest ally, the United States, abstained.
Maybe there would be an argument if these flyers were placed only on the doors of Jewish students, but according to both ESJP and Dave Cohn, the director of Emory Hillel, they were not, the latter writing, “There has been no evidence that Jewish students were specifically targeted in the distribution of these flyers,” in an April 2 email. Investigations are ongoing, but so far, no red flags have been raised by Emory’s Office of Student Conduct.
The other claims on these flyers were more or less the same — if not simple, verifiable facts, then mainstream opinions of legal scholars, like the assertion that such demolitions violate Article 53 of the Geneva Conventions and that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. Are these claims controversial? Absolutely. Are there mainstream scholars on both sides of the issue? Yes.
These issues are difficult to discuss, but that is precisely what makes them worth discussing.
The only factual error in the whole document was the minor claim that the Israeli government referred to this process as “Judaization,” when in fact this is a term used by Israel’s critics.
But the fact that ESJP provoked such an outcry from these claims — claims that are not even the toughest to grapple with — leaves me with little hope for the Emory community as a marketplace of ideas and of free exchange thereof.
Last year, the Israeli Defense Forces killed 56 children and 234 adults, and this is a modest figure in comparison to the rest of the past two decades. Since 1967, the West Bank (which the vast majority of countries have recognized as belonging to Palestine) has been under military occupation by the Israeli government. In the past few decades, Israeli citizens have flocked to the West Bank to create settlements in this territory, often at the expense of Palestinians — something even Alan Dershowitz, an avid supporter of the occupation itself, has condemned; and the growth of these settlements has accelerated under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule during the past decade. Thirteen percent of those living in the West Bank, de jure Palestinian land, are now Israeli citizens.
To assert that a provocative protest about these issues constitutes an attack on one’s community is a deplorable way to claim victim status and abdicate responsibility from having to answer for the actions of the State of Israel — the place that so many of the counter-protestors claim to love so dearly.
How many past and current Emory students have casually bemoaned the hypersensitivity of students of color, dismissing them as snowflakes for expressing discontent with the culture at Emory? How many of these same students have now rallied behind Emory Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League, the latter whose director called the protests “offensive and intimidating”?
In an April 2 Emory Hillel email, Cohn wrote that Hillel spent the day “wrangling with the challenges posed by such an action … defending the safety of our students from this intrusion on their privacy and security.” The letter closes reading, “in solidarity.”
In solidarity? A threat to safety and security? Take a step back for a minute. If you had read that statement out of context, you would think that someone had just painted swastikas on the doors of Emory Hillel.
The flyers were distributed to criticize the alleged human rights violations of a foreign government. If something this anodyne makes you feel unsafe, you are not fostering a community dedicated to free inquiry and debate, the two values that ought to be most important on our college campus. But treating these flyers as if they constitute some threat to the safety and wellbeing of thousands of Emory students sure is a convenient way of sidestepping an actual conversation about complex issues.
These are discussions we need to have, but for that to happen, we must make a collective decision not to treat every provocative attack on Israeli policy — especially those devoid of any semblance of bigotry — as if it is anti-Semitic.
University President Claire E. Sterk wrote in a statement, “I’m confident we will balance the need to protect free speech and the security and dignity of all in our community.” In the case at hand, the only way to balance these competing interests that leaves Emory with any claim to “upholding free speech and vigorous debate” is to encourage ESJP to continue their protests in whatever civil, nonviolent way they intend to pursue them.
There was no attack on the Jewish community by ESJP, but there was an attack on the virtue of open dialogue by various members of the Emory community.
Grant Osborn (19C) is from Springfield, Ohio.
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.