Protesting, listening and learning amid turbulence at Emory

Meaning is always negotiated between a speaker and a listener.
A state trooper watches pro-Palestinian protesters rally April 25 at Emory University in Atlanta. (Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

A state trooper watches pro-Palestinian protesters rally April 25 at Emory University in Atlanta. (Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Editor’s note: A version of this essay appeared in the Emory Wheel.

We write as Jewish faculty members at Emory University who are alarmed by the breakdown in campus dialogue around the Israel/Palestine conflict. This breakdown was reflected in and intensified by the violent arrest of protesters on campus on April 25.

Protests — including those that take confrontational and divisive turns — can provide opportunities for dialogue and learning. Yet our administration missed several opportunities over the past year to model a constructive response to student activism.

The campus community has not seen any indication of systematic analysis — and lessons learned — from its controversial reactions to past protests. Unlike other campuses where negotiations have led students to voluntarily remove encampments and enter productive dialogue about the university’s role in world affairs, we see no evidence of substantive engagement between Emory protesters and administrators prior to the arrests. Nor has the administration shared any concrete evidence of threats to campus safety justifying the use of Atlanta and state police forces. Instead, as soon as tents went up, the police rolled in, and Emory students — and faculty who were simply checking on their welfare — were wrestled to the ground and taken to jail.

The resulting tumult prompts us, as Jews and as educators, to reflect on what has worried us about the protests, what we are learning from them and what kind of dialogue we hope might ensue.

It is impossible to discuss “the Jewish response to the protests” because at Emory and elsewhere, some Jewish students and faculty are protesters — on some campuses, protest leaders — while others have felt unsafe in protest spaces. This corresponds to the Jewish community’s wide diversity of views — including ardent Zionism, anger at Israeli policies and leadership, deep commitment to Palestinian liberation and other perspectives. Some of us hold more than one position simultaneously: As the saying goes, two Jews, three opinions.

Much of the debate surrounding anti-Israel protests involves protesters chanting and spray painting certain language, but we’d like to focus as well on the act of listening. To understand who our words invite in and who they shut out, we all must cultivate curiosity about the histories and experiences of our listeners. We reflect painfully on a shared aspect of our own Jewish upbringing: We were taught to celebrate the founding of Israel as the national liberation of persecuted Jews and a redemptive answer to the horrors of the Holocaust. But this inspiring message, valid on its own, left little space to understand the anguish of Palestinians brought on by the same events, which they experienced as nakba, or “catastrophe.” Neither of us even heard that word growing up. Now that we are familiar with it, we have a tool to help us listen and speak better — and to help us reckon with our own place in history.

This complexity of language extends to discussions of Israel and Zionism at the protests, which have often been painful to our Jewish ears. Even for Jewish students and faculty who, unlike the two of us, reject the very concept of Zionism, an attachment to Israel often remains. Some have Israeli relatives or loved ones who hold strongly Zionist views, some have studied in Israel, and many developed social justice sensibilities through debate about Israeli history and policies. Many Jews also share a collective memory of persecution and transgenerational trauma that was triggered by the atrocities Hamas committed on Oct. 7. Whatever their politics and connections, many Jews experienced the gruesome carnage as an assault on our collective psyche and our very existence. Among the 1,200 killed and dozens still held hostage are friends and relatives of Emory’s Jewish students and faculty. It saddens us that, at times, our own community’s grief and the cruelties of war have blocked us from grieving with Palestinian students who have experienced loss and fear on a scale we can hardly fathom.

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Credit: Kay Hinton

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Credit: Kay Hinton

In the Emory protests, we have heard some positive expressions of hope for peace and righteous indignation at injustice, including anger at the administration’s actions. We have also heard things that block that mutual grieving. One of us previously discussed in an op-ed how upsetting the phrase “From the river to the sea” can be to Jews while still defending students’ right to say it, and we are heartened to see a Jewish student’s op-ed make the same point. Some will be angry at us for making the criticism, others for the defense. This argument, too, blocks grieving.

“Global intifada,” like some other phrases used by protesters, is, for us, even more problematic. In Arabic, intifada means “shrugging off” — a compelling metaphor for resisting oppression. Yet historically, “the intifada” has come to name increasingly violent attacks on Israel, including deadly attacks on civilians. Does the chant imply that those who support or subscribe to Zionist views should be attacked with deadly force anywhere? We certainly hope none of our students intends this. Yet meaning is always negotiated between a speaker and a listener. Whatever the chanters intend, the phrase “the intifada” conjures the violent strategy carried out in Israel and occupied Palestinian territories, thereby frightening or angering those whom the protesters might wish to listen. We would ask the protesters to challenge the leadership of those who call them to use this and similarly hurtful phrases. Administrators are not the only campus leaders whose values and tactics can be questioned.

Jewish students and faculty, too, have an obligation to consider that their words might not always invite others to listen. We have heard reports recently of anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim rhetoric that should be as offensive to Jews as anti-Jewish rhetoric should be to others. Insults, too, have been hurled within our own communities by Jews who detest each other’s politics. More subtly, though, in the context of a protest, a counterprotest or a religious service, even words we use joyously among ourselves might ring out differently to others, shutting down avenues for the listening required to build bridges.

This insight has been grasped by a group of about 40 Jewish and Muslim Emory students who — amid the protests — recently held a ma’ariv (evening) service near the university quadrangle, which the two of us were honored to attend. Their prayers, songs and poems expressed mourning for all those who have died in Israel and Gaza since Oct. 7, hopes for peace and the fear involved in building a very narrow bridge (gesher tzar m’od) during troubled times. As Jewish students, some wearing yarmulkes, explained the Hebrew lyrics to their Muslim friends, some in hijabs, they explained that the word “Yisrael” does not equate to the state of Israel: It can also mean the Jewish people (am Yisrael), the historical memory of the Biblical land (eretz Yisrael) or an aspiration for a better world. Muslim students in attendance went beyond attentive listening to active participation. They snapped fingers and even sang along; one student spoke of the beauty of the songs and their similarity to songs in her tradition.

This service reinforced for us that linguistic care is necessary to build an inclusive community — which Jews, like other identity groups, often struggle to create. As educators, we hope to follow these courageous Muslim and Jewish students’ example as we learn together how to repair this broken world (tikkun olam) and protest injustice without needlessly pushing anyone away. But no one can learn when they fear being wrestled to the ground by police.

Rick Doner is a Goodrich C. White professor emeritus of political science and adjunct professor in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. Benjamin Reiss is a Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of English at Emory University.