Stop! Pro-Palestinian students active in Students for Justice in Palestine recently put up mock eviction notices on dormitory doors of Jewish students at Emory connected with the annual hate Israel Apartheid Week. Student rooms with Jewish inhabitants were among those targeted but were not the only ones gifted with flyers.
What was the university’s initial response to the action of putting up mock eviction notices? What was its response to the hurt this caused Jewish students who received the notices and to the outrage expressed by the Jewish community?
Apparently, Emory University’s Office of Residence and Housing had reviewed the flyer and put its official approval at the bottom of the handout. Subsequently, the Residential Senate Open Expression Committee, which oversees the university’s free speech policies, issued a gratuitous conclusion that the mock eviction notices were not antisemitic. On what expertise this judgment was developed remains unclear. The Committee basically defined the issue of housing and eviction narrowly as a contemporary policy issue and construed the SJP action as primarily one of affixing mock eviction notices to students’ doors without their permission in violation of Emory’s posting policies.
President Claire E. Sterk thus initially issued a quite weak statement to the campus community stating that Jewish students at Emory found the eviction notices amidst escalating intolerance on and off campus and it thus might be understood how they could feel threatened. In Sterk’s view, the challenge seemed to be one of defending free speech, so the event was seen in an optic where the president sought to reassure all and sundry that this is a cost of freedom of expression.
Sterk offered: “As we defend our shared right to express controversial views, we must recognize that words and actions have consequences. Freedom of expression has costs.”
But regretfully, this was not the best that university leadership could offer. Concerned to fly the flag on behalf of protected freedom of speech, President Sterk was less concerned to deal with the action as a probable assault on Jewish students and their sense of safety in university housing. As the Antidefamation League pointed out in a statement critical of the university’s initial response: this was a discrete incident that clearly impacted Jewish students and the Jewish community. It should have been treated as such.”
ADL Regional Director Allison Padilla-Goodman, after meeting with university leaders, lamented openly that: “The issue at hand is conduct, not expression by SJP, which invaded the privacy of student residences in violation of Emory policy. Padilla-Goodman observed that Emory policy ensured all students a myriad of avenues to express themselves.
Other Jewish leaders and organizations, including the Atlanta Jewish Federation and the American Jewish Committee, agreed more should be done and also spoke with the president.
The placing of such mock eviction notices, especially to the extent they targeted Jewish students, was something other than free speech. It was an act of harassment and intimidation, an assault on the sense of inclusion by Jewish students in the university.
Moreover, the action was antisemitic, premised on the assumption that Jewish students on campus are linked together sharing common concerns and are in some way implicated in Israeli actions in the territories. SJP activists think about Jewish students as part of the broad Zionist collective. They treat fellow students like the Israeli academics they boycott. SJP made sure the flyers were distributed in dorms with significant Jewish presence.
This mode of intimidation has occurred at other universities earlier. When mock eviction notices were distributed in the dormitories at Northeastern University and of New York University during 2014, university leaders recognized these as acts of intimidation. At Northeastern, the SJP was suspended for deliberate acts of intimidation directed against pro-Israel students. At NYU, SJP actions were described as “dorm stormings” and critics pointed out the concrete differences between handing out flyers on the street to any and all passers-by and sliding them under targeted student doors, including doors with mezuzahs.
In these earlier actions, too, there was little proof that the flyers targeted Jewish students only, but at NYU SJP openly boasted that the action affected two thousand students in NYU’s Palladium and Lafeyette dormitories. The responses at these universities understood these were actions going beyond speech and violating conduct policies. Why did not Emory think this as well?
First, university approval and university markings should not be on such flyers. This was a mistake at Emory. Second, the university has a code of conduct to regulate student behavior and speech, underwriting free expression but also regulating speech and conduct on behalf of good university order. The code at Emory should be reviewed and updated, and students reminded that they must follow appropriate time, place, and manner guidelines in addressing controversial issues. Any revised code should openly bar placing broadsides on or under doors to private rooms, selecting inhabitants as targets of ethnic or racial intimidation.
Third, President Sterk should grab hold of her full responsibilities to set the moral tone for the university community. She should speak out forcefully about antisemitism, drawing on the special expertise of excellent faculty at Emory to assist her, and sponsor and highlight special programming focused on intolerance and antisemitism. Finally fourth, she might also initiate training for diversity and equity officials, residential housing staff, and student residents in the dormitories. The ADL can be tapped to assist in such training.
Emory University historian Deborah Lipstadt has just published a fine book about “Antisemitism: Here and Now.” Professor Lipstadt’s views and contribution should be sought as well as that by other selected scholars working on contemporary antisemitism as it appears on university campuses. The time is now. Jewish leaders, I am told, came away from meeting with President Sterk confident that she would initiate further action extending beyond the initial institutional response and would speak again on the matter of moral community.