The recent protest by Emory Students for Justice in Palestine (ESJP), which involved posting fake eviction notices on student doors, received undeserved praise for initiating discussion from Anthony Wong (21C) in a Wheel op-ed on Wednesday. Unfortunately, these flyers have damaged the discussion about the treatment of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank by actually further polarizing groups that disagree, and his language has alienated some Jewish students from these supposed conversations. ESJP’s protest was a misguided attempt to raise awareness, which should have instead been aimed at beginning a necessary multi-perspective conversation on Israeli-Palestinian relations — a conversation that can thrive on this campus given we are taught to appreciate nuanced debate here at Emory. The University community must use ESJP’s actions and Wong’s article both as examples of how not to approach critical dialogue on campus and as inspiration for programming that seeks to actively engage groups with differing opinions.
In an eloquently written Facebook post addressing the controversy, Max Rotenberg (21C) wrote that the simultaneous occurrence of both Israel Week and Israel Apartheid Week “presents us with the perfect opportunity to explore this complicated subject with the depth and intellectual honesty it deserves.” While we had the opportunity for such a conversation, it was left unfulfilled. Instead, the flyers that were posted, in the words of Rotenberg, “appeal to our worst emotive impulses without exploring the complexity of the issue.”
Wong noted that the flyers served to foster conversation by providing statistics about the grim living conditions of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. No matter the veracity of these statistics, the prominent placement of them on random residence hall and apartment doors have only inflamed those who ESJP should have sought to better engage. The flyers were a poor attempt to interact with the Emory community and alienated students who are already skeptical of ESJP’s efforts. Simply communicating statistics that purportedly bring attention to Israel’s human rights abuses, especially in such an indirect manner, serves to do little more than aggravate many individuals. We should seek to first engage directly through discussion before resorting to tactics of protest like those used by ESJP.
Wong’s mention of some people comparing Palestinian living conditions to those of Jews in Nazi ghettos also detracts from the efforts of ESJP. The “some” Wong cites in his op-ed is the blacklisted academic Norman Finkelstein, who is notorious for his controversial stance on the conflict, especially for his statement likening Gaza to Nazi concentration camps. For some in the Jewish community, Finkelstein exemplifies the radicalism that has overtaken this topic in public discourse. Extreme opinions are crucial to any dialogue that is as multifaceted and intricate as the Israeli-Palestinian question, and Finkelstein and others with similar views deserve a seat at the table in this debate.
However, the highly emotional nature of this issue demands that more moderate rhetoric and perspectives also be showcased if we are to bring opposing sides of our campus together to arrive at actionable steps for curbing humanitarian problems in Palestine. Rather than relying on the opinions of divisive academics, Wong should have reached out to more universally respected scholars, especially experts at Emory who can contribute their vast knowledge to this complex debate. Instead of using flyers that reify divisions among students on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, ESJP should attempt to start a diverse, intellectually driven conversation. This could be done by reaching out to Jewish and Palestinian student groups and Emory’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel to offer programming for the wider student body that aims to unite people rather than polarize them.
Wong also incorrectly equates Emory’s Jewish, multinational, pro-Israel students with the “Israeli community.” He then assumes that this community is not being “self-reflexive and open to conversations about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.” He comes to this opinion from the fact that Emory Hillel, one of the Jewish student organizations on campus, wrote in an email that it “[expected] the University to issue a statement reinforcing its commitment to ensuring the safety our students deserve to feel in their homes on campus,” which the administration proceeded to do. I cannot see how this disqualifies Hillel and other Jewish groups on campus from being “self-reflexive” and “open to conversation.” Just because students feel threatened by a particular form of protest does not mean that they are closed off to the idea of engaging in critical conversation. ESJP members may have thought their protest was well-intentioned, but such energy could have been better spent by directly addressing their concerns with Hillel, Emory-Israel Public Affairs Committee (EIPAC) or other Jewish groups.
EIPAC’s response to the protest includes key parts of this ongoing conversation: Its commitment to “ideals of peace, coexistence and mutual respect regarding Israeli affairs” needs to be a commitment taken up by all groups and individuals with a stake in this debate. However, EIPAC should also be wary of the way it singles out Emory’s administration and acknowledge that these ideals must also apply to Palestinian affairs. The group’s response expressed that the administration’s email to the school community “in no way provided reassurance to students that Emory’s administrative staff would seek to prevent such unwarranted, emotionally-damaging invasions of property from happening again.” EIPAC should not look to the administration for a solution to a problem it can solve on its own, and it must, like ESJP, be more active and direct than just “[urging] Emory to take stronger, more defensive actions in order to promote freedom of expression, but not at the expense of individuals’ wellbeing or sense of safety.” EIPAC could take it upon itself to bring together school officials, ESJP and its own members to evaluate how certain protests can be detrimental to critical dialogue and devise strategies to preserve free expression.
But it is unreasonable to treat these flyers as safety threats to students; they were clearly fake, and EIPAC comes close to delegitimizing real threats to Jews in modern America when it treats this form of protest as a threat to individuals’ safety. The “United Against Hate” response from the Atlanta Jewish community is the clearest indication that this protest is being blown out of proportion, as it requests the University hand down “serious consequences” for the flyers being posted. The statement is melodramatic and close-minded for calling on Emory to stifle students’ free speech rights. Treating these flyers as threats to safety — the flyers even acknowledged, “This is not a real eviction notice” — rather than an opportunity to shape this conversation and reconsider how we approach debate is a failure of empathy on the part of Jewish leaders in our city.
The students who posted these flyers do not need to be punished. They need to be brought into a conversation that they clearly feel left out of. Jews on this campus, in this city and across this country should look at this protest as a cry for help: If students advocating for Palestine feel that they must resort to shock-value protest tactics to get their point across, it is clear that they do not have enough forums to openly engage with those they disagree with. The Jewish community’s response threatens to further undermine a situation that is already laced with divisiveness and petty name-calling.
There is one part that Wong is right about in his op-ed’s conclusion: Emory undoubtedly holds free speech in high regard. While the University should continue to be an incubator of free speech, it must also, as Rotenberg points out, be “a laboratory of ideas, where the free-flow of ideas builds the next generation of critical thinkers and leaders of a free society.” Emory can only foster inclusive and engaged dialogue on this controversial issue when it has buy-in from all sides.
Even though ESJP hosted multiple discussion events aimed at addressing its concerns about the Palestinians’ living conditions, their distribution of the flyers overshadowed those attempts to foster conversation and tainted their reputation with provocative rhetoric. The group’s efforts undermined the opportunity to build bridges by implying, through its seemingly random distribution of phony eviction notices, that students who disagree with them are unwilling to debate like mature young adults. Its flyers were a waste of paper, and Wong’s op-ed, though perhaps well-meaning, flouted the nuance of this debate; he mistook the rejection of open dialogue’s potential for the constructive, honest conversation that this controversy desperately needs.
Jake Busch (22C) is from Brookhaven, Ga.
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.