Georgia colleges and schools face criticism responding to Israel-Hamas war

This story has been updated.

Students and demonstrators, about 100 of them, gathered on the main greenspace of Georgia Tech’s campus Wednesday to talk about the war between Israel and Hamas and how the school has responded to the ongoing crisis.

The demonstrators demanded an apology from the school’s president, Ángel Cabrera, for statements some feel diminished the plight of Palestinians. They called for support and solidarity for Palestinians and condemned Georgia Tech, saying it has failed to do the same.

“We have to continue our fight for liberation by openly being ourselves and protecting each other. We cannot rely on the school, we cannot rely on our government, we cannot rely on the organizations that are connected to this web of oppression,” said one of the speakers, Moustafa El-Mattrawy, a Georgia Tech student.

As various institutions have shared thoughts about the Israel-Hamas War and expressed grief for those who have died, many have faced criticism that highlights the polarization and sensitivity related to the decades of conflict. Perhaps the clearest divisions have been drawn at colleges and schools, where leaders face difficult decisions about how to acknowledge a contentious subject and show support for their campuses’ diverse students and staff.

Harvard, for example, has been criticized that it hasn’t forcefully addressed a statement by a pro-Palestinian student group that held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” Several hundred University of Pennsylvania faculty and students walked out of classes last week, complaining a statement from its president didn’t mention Palestinians or the deaths of people in Gaza. The head of the State University System of Florida announced this week it’s deactivating a pro-Palestinian student organization, saying its actions show support for Hamas.

Some messages from education leaders in Georgia have failed to satisfy the activists, students and parents, who have conflicting opinions on the war. Cabrera acknowledged suffering on both sides, saying “many more innocent lives, both Palestinian and Israeli, will be lost in the ensuing war.” He also urged students to be kind to one another and “to treat others with respect — especially those we may disagree with.” Georgia Tech said in a statement late Wednesday that Cabrera and other administrators have met with Muslim student leaders to answer questions, hear concerns and to provide support.

Georgia Tech has by far the highest international student enrollment of any of the state’s public universities.

At Emory University, Gregory Fenves, the school’s first Jewish president, has written in recent days about his personal pain at “the reality of Jews being senselessly murdered and taken as hostages” and described a June trip he took to Israel, his first visit in 40 years. He condemned “the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel” and also wrote: “Acknowledging that a war has begun and more lives, both Israeli and Palestinian, will be lost to this conflict fills me with grief.”

Attendees embrace and sing Jewish songs after a vigil for Israel at Emory University in Atlanta on Wednesday, October 11, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /


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Some students told The Emory Wheel, the campus newspaper, that the message did not do enough to honor Palestinians who have been killed.

Fenves wrote in an online letter Wednesday that he was “appalled” that “antisemitic phrases and slogans were repeatedly used by speakers and chanted by the crowd” during a protest earlier that day. His post did not detail what was said during the protest.

“We welcome a vast range of ideas and perspectives. But antisemitism targeting Jewish members of our community, even as part of a protest protected by our Open Expression policy, must be called out for what it is — divisive and reprehensible,” he wrote.

Last week, Emory placed a Palestinian-American assistant professor in its medical school on leave, saying an investigation is underway after the university became “aware of the recent antisemitic comments made on a private social media account.” Emory has not detailed what was in the posts. Screenshots of posts obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution included a poem with the lines: “They got walls we got gliders Glory to all resistance fighters.” Some of the Hamas attackers used hang gliders in an Oct. 7 assault against Israel. The professor, Dr. Abeer AbouYabis, has not responded to requests to comment on those screenshots.

Emory’s investigation has raised concerns about academic freedom, though it is supported by leadership at Emory Hillel, a campus group that serves about 1,500 Jewish students.

Metro Atlanta has seen a variety of demonstrations and vigils showing solidarity with Israelis or with Palestinians, with more planned in coming days.

Local school districts that chose to weigh in on the war also have faced backlash. The Cobb County School District was accused of fear-mongering at the expense of Muslim and Arab students, and Atlanta Public Schools was criticized by parents who felt the district’s statements minimized the anguish that Jewish students may have felt following the attacks.

Colleges are “reaping what they’ve sown” from their decisions in recent years to weigh in on sociopolitical issues both big and small, said Alex Morey, an attorney with the nonprofit campus free speech organization Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. Schools that issued milquetoast statements on the war are being criticized, and so are those that came out with strong language, she said.

“Now we have a situation where campuses are split, and they’re being asked to get on one side or another,” she said. “And, universities are going, ‘We get on one side or another all the time, which side do we get on?’”

FIRE recommends universities maintain “institutional neutrality” on such issues. But instead, some leaders have deepened campus divides, Morey said.

“This should be a wake up call to universities that they are going to be seeing a lot more of these PR crises if they keep doing this,” she said. “What would be better is if university administrators genuinely cared about the climate for open debate about these incredibly important issues.”

Kristen Shahverdian of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education team said, “Whatever choice universities make really needs to be grounded in policy and be pre-determined” to ensure consistency and prevent influence, either externally or internally. PEN America’s mission is to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide.

“They can provide insight, they can talk about their values as an institution and what they are hoping for the future. They can talk about the principles of higher education, academic inquiry and things like that. They can also really talk about how they’re supporting their students and what they are going to provide in terms of resources knowing that this has impacted students and some students really directly.”