We attended the demonstration that Emory University President Gregory Fenves criticized as “antisemitic” in his Oct. 25 message to the Emory community. We come away from both the demonstration and President Fenves’ letter with profound disappointment, even sorrow.
We found the demonstration very problematic, even counter-productive, and it was no way to build a coalition to stop Cop City. Combining Stop Cop City with a particular position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one that included the chant “From the river to the sea,” surprised and alienated potential allies. Many came to the rally understanding it was a demonstration against Cop City. Several left the demonstration upon hearing pro-Palestinian chants. Further, our understanding is that even students whose main preoccupation is support for Palestinian rights were not apprised of the leaders’ decision to include an assertion about Palestine and Israel, and a particularly strong one at that, alongside the Stop Cop City message.
It also alienated those, including us, one of whom is Jewish, who oppose Cop City and have been deeply critical of Israel’s position toward Palestinians. The chant “From the river to the sea,” which was used frequently in the protest, can imply calling for the end of the state of Israel. For some, it also implies opposition to Jews in general. This, combined with the absence of any criticism of Hamas, implies support for Hamas’ tactics and long-term strategy. That is profoundly chilling and disturbing.
We agree with the follow-up statement issued by Emory Stop Cop City, which acknowledges that “as long as one people’s existence relies on the oppression of another, Palestinians and Israelis can never share freedom.” However, while the statement says that “many academics explain antisemitism is not intrinsic to the phrase,” the statement also needs to acknowledge that for many Jews, the idea of the end of the state of Israel is threatening. And the claim that fear of a Jewish massacre “holds deeply racist and Islamophobic notions” is at best blind to the actions of Hamas on Oct. 7. If those actions did not resemble a massacre, what does?
But we were also disappointed by President Fenves’ letter in response to the protest.
First, he seems to have automatically concluded that the chants were antisemitic, thus effectively allying himself with those for whom any criticism of Israel constitutes antisemitism. By seemingly encouraging people to lump those critical of Israel with support for antisemitism, President Fenves contributed to polarization on campus.
Second and related, President Fenves’ letter failed to educate as we would expect of a university president. Rather than delivering a blanket charge of antisemitism, he could have elaborated on the specific issue which concerned him and have invited the demonstrators to clarify how they understood that message.
Third, he could have challenged what seems to be an increase in doxxing (posting personally identifiable information for the purposes of shaming or silencing individuals), whether by students or alumni, of Muslim or Jewish students. Doxxing may well be protected speech, but we think the practice is nefarious and ought to be discouraged publicly. Leaders are supposed to establish healthy community norms. This era is very difficult for our Muslim and Jewish students in particular. By not condemning the practice of doxxing, President Fenves has failed in his responsibility to ensure the safety of all members of the Emory community.
Finally, President Fenves could have acknowledged that the main thrust of the demonstration was opposition to Cop City and Emory’s de facto support of Cop City through its links with the Atlanta Committee for Progress. Even if he disagrees with the students, as a leader President Fenves would have done well to applaud their concerns about their university’s de facto support for such a contested public project. These students were following Emory’s long-standing call for civic engagement. They did so peacefully, emphasizing their identity with the University. Why, despite disagreements on the issue itself, would Emory’s leadership not recognize and support such engagement?
Goodrich C. White Professor (Emeritus)
Dept. of Political Science
Adjunct Professor, Rollins School of Public Health
Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor
Dept. of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Institute of African Studies