Dear President Fenves,
I received your 9:30 p.m. email last Wednesday. At worst, I expected tepid institutional non-promises. Instead, I read your email and felt fear.
This past Wednesday, a hundred or so Emory University students marched to your office building. The students protested two intertwined issues: the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center and the death of then 6,546 Palestinians (now over 8,500) by the Israeli military.
One of the students’ demands was that Emory “cease all repression of students including [Emory Students for Justice in Palestine] and Emory Stop Cop City.”
You’re right that Emory’s Jewish students deserve your support against antisemitism. But I believe they deserve more: A University that won’t conflate their religion, their culture and their identity with advocacy for genocide. That you won’t use their trauma as an excuse to endanger their peers.
President Fenves, I know you might read this and call me an antisemite, too. I’m not. Though I am not Jewish, I’m deeply grateful for the Jewish community I grew up in. In public schools I learned extensively — as all students should! — about the horrors of the Holocaust. I learned how German politicians and civilians exacerbated centuries of antisemitic oppression to kill six million Jewish people. I learned what genocide has looked like around the world. I don’t claim expertise in these topics I learned early on. What I mean is, I’m grateful this education shaped how I think.
I also learned to take Jewish people seriously when they talk about genocide. As such, my views are shaped by Jewish Voice for Peace, which calls for “all people of conscience to stop the imminent genocide of Palestinians.”
My views are shaped by Jewish organization IfNotNow, in which activists argue “We need a ceasefire, a release of the hostages. A de-escalation. And to address the root causes of this violence, which are decades of occupation, apartheid and siege.”
So when I read your email, President Fenves, I thought of those Jewish activists who have unequivocally stated that “criticism of Zionism should not be conflated with antisemitism.” I thought of the thousands of Jewish Americans protesting on Capitol Hill and in Grand Central Station for a ceasefire.
Or is this Jewish-American activism the sort of thing your email referred to as “hateful rhetoric” that “has no place at Emory”?
As a professor of writing who knows how powerful words can be, I am appalled that you described a crowd of protestors — many of them Black and Arab students — as “divisive” and “reprehensible.” You said their actions “violate our core values” and “degrade [our] important work.” Is it even possible that you didn’t know your words would exacerbate the danger these members of our community are already in?
In your email, you described the protest with vague language that misrepresented student actions. This email planted seeds of misinformation. Subsequent media attention directed increased scorn toward students who had protested, in part, for need of protection from online harassment. This tension is particularly alarming in the context of rising Islamophobia in the United States, particularly that directed toward student protestors. Indeed, Emory’s Students for Justice in Palestine have already told us that they are forced to “silence their voices and self-censor” as they are “targeted and threatened by members of the Emory community.”
Unlike most of the student protestors, I am white. That privilege may protect me from much of the risk of voicing support for Palestinians. Universities have fired faculty of color, like Steven Salaita, for supporting Palestine. Though whiteness (and Judaism) didn’t protect Michael Eisen, editor-in-chief of the journal eLife before he was fired last week.
I sincerely hope you don’t fire me. I love my job. But I would not deserve this job I love if I were so cowardly, so complicit, that I silenced my opposition to genocide.
After all, I’m queer, disabled and neurodivergent. In the past three weeks, as people around me approve of the deaths of thousands of Palestinians, I’ve feared the spread of that vitriol to additional targets. Many of our students share my marginalized identities. I wonder if they share my fear.
Our community deserves better, President Fenves.
Our Palestinian students deserve to know they are fully respected members of this community. They deserve “a statement in support of Palestine.” They deserve your recognition that the shooting and bombing and starvation of Palestinians is genocide.
President Fenves, you claim that this campus is “an inclusive environment for all who learn, work, and live on our campuses.” But your rhetoric puts our students in danger.
Dr. Donna McDermott, Emory Writing Program Assistant Teaching Professor