Mideast-related tensions flare, upping pressure on Emory University leaders

Many are calling on university officials to do more to make students feel safe
Some Emory students have said they feel vulnerable and complain that university leaders haven’t done enough to make the campus feel safe since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in the fall. (File photo)

Some Emory students have said they feel vulnerable and complain that university leaders haven’t done enough to make the campus feel safe since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in the fall. (File photo)

The Israel-Hamas war has made for some difficult times at Emory University this school year.

The latest clash took place about two weeks ago. Two men were arrested on disorderly conduct charges after a protest outside Chabad at Emory, a place that provides educational, social and other forms of support for Jewish students. Days later, two civil rights groups filed a federal complaint against Emory, accusing the school of allowing anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab and Islamophobic discrimination.

The events of recent weeks have been “a new low” on campus, said 20-year-old junior Dawnya Green.

Dawnya Green, a 20-year-old student at Emory University, said she's noticed a lot of tension on campus this year related to the Israel-Hamas war. (Cassidy Alexander / cassidy.alexander@ajc.com)

Credit: Cassidy Alexander

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Credit: Cassidy Alexander

“There’s always a level of tenseness within the student body, just because Emory is such a competitive place,” she said. “But over the past academic year, it’s gotten concerningly bad.”

Several students on campus have said they feel vulnerable and complain that university leaders haven’t done enough to make the campus feel safe. Emory administrators have recognized it’s been “challenging times on our campus” and say they are offering resources to help all students.

It’s an unusual position for Emory, the largest private university in Georgia — and one of the most academically prestigious schools in the nation. It was founded nearly two centuries ago by the Methodist Episcopal Church and prides itself on celebrating its diversity.

“Emory does not tolerate behavior or actions that threaten, harm or target individuals because of their identities or backgrounds,” Emory spokesperson Laura Diamond said in a statement. “We recognize that many members of our community are concerned about the ongoing war, hostage situation and humanitarian crisis. Emory continues to offer a variety of resources to support all of our students.”

The heightened tensions come amid a new front in the ongoing conflict: Iran’s weekend air strikes on Israel. The Atlanta Police Department announced it’s working closely with other law enforcement partners, religious institutions and community leaders to ensure safety.

‘Violence’ and ‘silence’

Tensions between supporters of Israel and of the Palestinians have flared at Emory since Hamas militants attacked Israel in early October.

Roughly 200 students gathered in the rain on campus for a vigil for Israel four days after the Hamas attack. Anger enveloped Emory a few weeks later when administrators placed a Palestinian American assistant professor in its medical school on leave after the university became aware of “antisemitic comments” attributed to the faculty member. Emory later announced that the professor was no longer employed by the university.

Attendees embrace and sing Jewish songs after a vigil for Israel at Emory University in Atlanta on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. The vigil came after Hamas militants waged a surprise attack on Israel. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Many colleges and universities across the country have had trouble managing protests and the differing viewpoints about the war. Earlier this month, police arrested 20 students at Pomona College in Southern California and temporarily banned some from campus stemming from the college president’s response to pro-Palestinian demonstrations, according to a published report. At Vanderbilt University, suspensions of students who’ve held protests in relation to the war have drawn criticism of administrators.

On April 2, protesters gathered outside an event where two Israel Defense Forces reservists were scheduled to speak at Chabad at Emory. There, someone standing inside the fence at the Chabad house was holding a flag, which two or three protesters grabbed and started pulling on, according to a DeKalb County Police Department incident report.

The person holding the flag said they were punched in the stomach, which officers could not confirm after reviewing a video of the incident, according to the report. But two people, ages 38 and 43, were arrested on disorderly conduct charges. The police report did not indicate whether they were Emory students.

In a statement posted on social media from the Emory Israel Public Affairs Committee and Emory Eagles for Israel, students called on the university to investigate the incident and condemn violence. “Your silence endorses their violence,” they wrote in one post.

The Students for Justice in Palestine Club (SJP) said in a lengthy post of their own that while they did not organize the event, they condemn characterizations of the protest as “violent.”

The Georgia chapter for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Georgia) and Palestine Legal filed the federal civil rights complaint against Emory a few days later on behalf of Emory SJP.

The organizations referenced “numerous incidents” of harassment over the last six months in a news release about the filing. The groups declined to provide the complaint, but said in the release that students have been followed on campus and filmed; called terrorists or fake Muslims; and been individually targeted and doxed on social media. The students have filed more than a dozen complaints with the university since October, the organizations said.

“We want the (U.S.) Department of Education to do what Emory failed to,” Emory SJP said in a statement in the news release, “which is investigate our reports of bias properly, listen to our voices, and hold Emory accountable, so we can safely advocate for Palestinian rights without fearing for our safety on campus.”

The university’s response

For Emory students without direct connections to the war, the anxiety on campus is still noticeable.

“You can obviously feel the tension when there’s (protests) happening outside a dorm room,” said John Coppolino, a 20-year-old student at Emory. “I haven’t really had any moments where I’ve felt unsafe personally ... but I could see why someone would feel uncomfortable.”

John Coppolino, a 20-year-old student at Emory University, said he could understand why students with ties to Israel or Gaza may feel unsafe on campus this year. (Cassidy Alexander / cassidy.alexander@ajc.com)

Credit: Cassidy Alexander

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Credit: Cassidy Alexander

This being an election year isn’t helping things, Green said. There’s a sense of time running out as November draws closer — that people have to make others see their side of the issue by a certain deadline.

Emory leaders, including its president, Gregory Fenves, have tried to address the differing viewpoints on the war several times this school year to mixed student reviews.

In a message after the protest this month, Provost Ravi Bellamkonda and Dean of Campus Life Enku Gelaye said the school is looking into recent claims of harassment, discrimination and assault.

“We know these are challenging times on our campus,” they wrote. “As we debate serious issues, we want to be clear that no member of our community should ever fear for their physical safety, and no member of our community should face discrimination in any form.”

Rabbi Zalman Lispkier, who leads Chabad at Emory and has been at the school for more than 20 years, said he’s met with university leaders and believes they are taking the problems on campus very seriously.

“They’re not taking it lightly. That doesn’t change the fact that when you’re walking through campus and someone’s yelling ugly things, that doesn’t make students feel safe,” he said in an interview. “I don’t know if they have the magic wand.”