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Universities Have Failed Their Democratic Mission by Repressing Gaza Protests

Universities are using draconian measures against student protesters who refuse to deem Palestinian suffering “unreal.”

Students chant during a pro-Palestinian protest at Emory University on April 25, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Part of the Series

As two U.S. philosophers, we feel compelled to bring our experience and perspective to bear on the current crisis in academia and the pressing need for solidarity with those suffering from Israeli brutality in Gaza and campus protesters who seek justice and freedom for Palestinians. In the piece that follows, we each sequentially offer reflections on the nationwide campus protests against the genocide of Palestinians, the ways in which university leadership has used draconian policing tactics to suppress and silence student voices, and the dangerous, problematic and wrong-headed conflation of critiques of the Israeli state with antisemitism. We join these reflections together in solidarity and shared sorrow.

Dispatch From Emory University

George Yancy: At Emory University, my academic “home” — a place where I have taught my students to be diligent in their resistance against and critique of injustice wherever it exists — the Atlanta Police Department and the Georgia State Troopers were arranged in tactical formation. The entire scene was surreal, one that for me triggered the long history of anti-Black policing in this country in the form of slave patrols that were designed to inflict fear and terror on Black people. The historical scenes of trauma recycle; the Black body doesn’t forget.

It was also not lost on me that some of these Georgia police officers engaging in violence at Emory may have been trained by the Israeli military. If this is the case, then the surveillance and brutal physical tactics learned within the context of Palestinian existential destruction were brought onto “our” campus, where nonviolent and defiant Emory University students understand the ethical and political urgency of now. Our students refused to bow down and have their political imaginations and resistance against injustice and the despicable exercise of Israeli violence in Gaza defined by those who seem hell-bent on weaponizing antisemitism to silence those who criticize the Israeli state. That form of silencing — or attempted silencing — is indicative of McCarthyism, but in this case the objective is the repression and persecution of protesters against Israel’s massacre of Palestinian people, and a campaign to spread lies about purported antisemitism and support for terrorism.

Attacks on supporters of Palestinian human rights aren’t new in the U.S. This phenomenon is known as the Palestine Exception to Free Speech, an egregious set of practices that attempt to destroy the lives of those who refuse to be intimidated: Their voices are silenced and their right to free speech is violated as they speak out against Israel’s colonial violence. If we’re not careful, our very expression of grief for those who suffer injustice will be policed under conditions of martial law. The emergence of a right-wing political sovereign may outlaw the conditions that make an embodied and emboldened ethical existence possible.

As I stood with our students in the evening, there was no hint of antisemitism. Indeed, earlier that evening I also stood with Jewish Emory students who expressed their opposition to those who attempt to equate the protests with antisemitism. These Jewish students wholly reject the blatant lies spewed by Benjamin Netanyahu, who has claimed that antisemitic mobs have taken over leading universities in the U.S. and that students are calling for the annihilation of Israel. Such violent and vitriolic discourse was not used by the Emory students whom I stood by, and in solidarity with. Emory students are appalled by the deaths of so many Palestinians, the continued occupation and the fact that “nearly 85 percent of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been displaced.” The only violence that I witnessed was the intimidation tactics and actions perpetrated by the police. The officers’ actions posed the only clear and present danger. As for the students, I witnessed the pursuit of social justice, an actual expression of tikkun olam (the aim to repair the world).

Suddenly, I heard the shots. I experienced a very painful involuntary coughing, choking and uncontrollable tears. My respiratory system was suddenly under attack. My body responded under duress. I could hear the panic. I witnessed the outrage, anger, disbelief and looks of betrayal on the faces of Emory University students. The students began passing out masks, looking for water and milk to counteract the impact of the chemical agents used to disperse the protest. I saw the police in tactical formation, ready to pounce, ready to bring dystopic chaos to bear upon an otherwise peaceful protest where Emory University students (and some faculty) had gathered and refused to be silenced. Some will try to argue that the police were necessary for “security” reasons. Given the police’s brutal attack on students, one is left to ask: “Security for whom or for what — certainly not security for protesters.”

Much earlier that day, before the encampment was destroyed by the Atlanta Police Department, I was able to bear witness to and take pictures of the organized encampment while on my way to teach a class. It was such a calm space. There were tents and effigies of Palestinians murdered, wrapped in white marked with blood stains, along with names and dates. The sight was hard to bear. Because I had to teach, I shook the hand of one Emory student who has been indefatigable in making others aware of the existential catastrophe that Palestinians face. By shaking his hand, my aim was to communicate my respect for the students’ courage, determination, shared grief, compassion and commitment to fighting injustice. Moreover, I witnessed calm. Little did I know that about five minutes after I left to go to class, 17 Emory students and three of my university colleagues were arrested — some thrown brutally to the ground — zip-tied and taken to jail. I want to emphasize the calm before the police storm. Clearly, it was the police officers’ presence and their actions that initiated the unnecessary violence perpetrated against Emory students and faculty. After class, I personally witnessed police shoot someone on campus at close range with a gun filled with chemical agents and then brutally thrown to the ground. I saw students running as if fleeing for their lives on a campus that they see as their “academic home.” That sense of “home” will forever be marked with disgust and shame.

One of my colleagues told me that during the quad policing rampage an officer pointed a long gun (one intended to shoot chemical agents) pointed directly at their head. They do not know how they will move forward, or whether they will feel safe on Emory’s campus again.

The message from administrators is clear: You will lose your status as a student if you exercise the rights that belong to you as students.

While I was in the last class of the semester, as per my pedagogy I recounted to my students the importance of the Socratic tradition of critical thought, of rejecting conformism, and of refusing injustice, racism and sexism. I emphasized the critical importance of resisting the urge to cave in to fear of forms of violent authority that attempt to silence them, to suppress their voices. I see my pedagogy in the spirit of Paulo Freire, who characterized education as a form of love, instead of as fear and suppression of critical analysis; it is a form of love, as James Baldwin says, that “takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without.” So, while I was reminding my students why they should value the Socratic tradition, my pedagogical efforts were being undermined on the quad. Then again, perhaps the violence that took place on the quad in the face of peaceful and nonviolent resistance reflected the fatal consequences that Socrates faced.

Unlike the president of Emory, who could have admitted that it was unwarranted to call in the Atlanta Police Department, and who mischaracterized who had powerfully orchestrated the protest on the quad (it was Emory students and not so-called outside instigators), Emory students exercised forethought and practiced the best of the tradition of nonviolent resistance. And, yet, they were met with violence — not dialogue, not compassion, not vulnerability, not genuine leadership. I know that there will be those who will say I’m committing a false equivalence, but it is hard not to feel and see at least some similarity to the brutal tactics deployed by the infamous white racist Bull Connor, the police commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, who on May 3, 1963, unleashed vicious police, attack dogs and fire hoses to attack Black protesters fighting against Jim Crow racism. Those young Black students understood what it meant to stand for justice. Keep in mind that at Emory, most of the students protesting were students of color.

While my students can and did speak for themselves, it is my duty, as an educator, to testify on their behalf. They understand what Martin Luther King Jr. meant by the lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” They understand what Audre Lorde meant when she wrote, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” They understand what Toni Morrison meant when she wrote: “Anger is better. There is a sense of being in anger. A reality and presence. An awareness of worth.” They understand the sense of urgency in the actions of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said, during the Vietnam War, that he couldn’t pray. He replied to a journalist: “Whenever I open the prayerbook, I see before me images of children burning from napalm.”

It is this profound understanding that testifies, in this case, to the titular meaning of Emory University’s mission, which is “to create, preserve, teach, and apply knowledge in the service of humanity.” This is precisely what Emory students were doing. They were creating sites of knowledge production, opening spaces to counter modes of willful ignorance. They were preserving their ethical and epistemic integrity. They were, through their actions, teaching the world something about what shared love looks like in the face of mass graves in Gaza that have resulted from Israeli violence. They were applying their knowledge of historical injustice and fighting against it in its current manifestations. And they were doing all of this in the service of humanity, in the service of the humanity of Palestinians.

Emory University students know what it means to be, as Judith Butler writes, “undone by each other.” They know what it is like to be undone by the massive suffering of Palestinians, to be disorientated or feel themselves gone missing because so many Palestinian lives have been taken, lost. That is what grief does, that is what it should do.

The political effort to silence critique of Israel’s violent decimation of Palestinians, in the form of the Antisemitism Awareness Act, is dangerous to an already deeply fragile U.S. democratic experiment. It would penalize legitimate assembled forms of collectively expressed grief for others and thereby undermine the conditions for unambiguously identifying gratuitous violence when we see it. I proudly stand with the nearly 700 Jewish professors who reject the Antisemitism Awareness Act.

What I witnessed at Emory University was a moral, political and institutional failure. To see the draconian measures and violent police tactics unleashed and condoned by many university presidents across the U.S., those who answer to board members, donors and politicians, is to bear witness to what Judith Butler calls “violence done against those who are [deemed] unreal.” If such violence is done against Palestinians who are deemed unreal, then, as Butler writes, “from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated.”

I urge the president of Emory and other U.S. university “leaders” who are taking callous actions against their students to take a moment to imagine 14,000 murdered Palestinian children, their bodies are bloodied and broken, looking deep into their eyes and asking: “What if we were your children?”

University administrators, I challenge you to tell the truth. If the children murdered in Gaza were your own children, wouldn’t you then be moved yourself to protest on campus quads, create encampments and shelter in place, march, block traffic, defy orders to disperse, occupy buildings, stage walkouts and scream the names of the murdered? Wouldn’t you keep coming back despite the chemical agents, despite attacks by police and their brutal tactics to protect property, despite threats to your academic standing, despite being falsely accused of not being concerned with other children who aren’t your own? Wouldn’t you want to dismantle every form of financial investment that is complicit in the vicious murder of your child? It is the least you could do to demand justice for those you love in the face of staggering injustice.

Student protesters have been moved to take these actions because — unlike the university administrators who are repressing them — they are not willing to forget that Palestinians in Gaza, like all of us, are fellow humans worthy of love and respect.

An Echo of War Tactics on Campuses?

Judith Butler: The brutal police actions against these students recall for all of us multiple different histories of force being unleashed against peaceful protesters. These histories carry the traumatic legacy of racism, and that history is relived in the tactics and aims of the police violence against Palestine solidarity protesters this spring. It matters as well that so many police forces are now trained in military methods, treating protesters as domestic enemies who must be forcibly subdued and displaced. As we know, Israel is among the military powers who have been training police in the U.S. and elsewhere in military methods. The distinction between police and military activities collapses, with the result that a version of war is waged against students, undermining their rights to participate in campus discussions about investments that establish complicity with Israeli state power and its current genocidal actions.

The practice of suspending students before arresting them attests to the fact that students do have a right to assemble on campus. That right is assaulted as they are forcibly removed from encampments. The message from administrators is clear: You will lose your status as a student if you exercise the rights that belong to you as students.

In recruiting police against students, administrators undermine the basic trust that should exist on campuses. Students and faculty should be able to express their views outside the classroom without fear of reprisal. Public debate on controversial issues is something that every university should support and protect. Recruiting the police to strip students of their rights and their student status is an assault not only on the idea of the university, but on the place and role of universities in democratic societies.

Some administrators have engaged in productive conversations with student protesters, showing how a university community can be strengthened by open and transparent forms of communication and disagreement. The student demands that have been met on some occasions include a) full disclosure of how endowment funds are invested and b) the end to all investments that support or profit from the Israeli military machine. These are reasonable demands based on clear principles of justice. Some administrators have listened to these demands and arranged direct communication between students and board members who make investment and divestment decisions. Such actions wisely keep the police out of the picture and strengthen the sense that campuses are meant to strengthen communication rather than engage in censorship, expulsion or the unleashing of police force against their own constituents for exercising basic rights of expression.

I wonder whether we can say that administrators who recruit police force are mirroring or extending war tactics on campuses. Obviously, a strict parallel cannot be drawn, since campus roads are not strewn with the body parts of murdered people, as we have seen in Gaza. Many jurists have concurred that genocide is the appropriate term for describing the targeting of innocent lives in Gaza and the destruction of the infrastructures of life itself. The military destruction of Rafah threatens to confirm the full decimation of conditions of habitability, along with the deliberate creation of widespread famine. As the tactics and methods used by both Israeli forces and U.S. police link Palestine and college campuses, so too does the practice of falsely associating speech critical of Israeli action with the scourge of antisemitism.

Yes, we can find examples where it is Jews and Judaism that are targeted by some speech, and we should all be opposing that kind of speech as we would any form of racist speech. But it is an abuse and overreach of the allegation to include all criticisms of Israel or Zionism as examples of antisemitic speech. Indeed, the allegation loses its meaning and efficacy when it becomes an instrument for suppressing or maligning legitimate and necessary protest, especially when it is Palestinian voices that are trying to be heard. It is Palestinian and Arab students whose speech is suppressed, and who have no access to the claim of “feeling unsafe” even when threatened with censorship and police repression.

Students from every background are seeing and naming what is true in a truthful way — and too often being punished for saying what so many others fear to know and say. We should support their speech and their effort to know and say what is true.

The term “genocide” can be debated by scholars of international law, but that means there is a debate, and such debate should be considered as protected speech on college campuses.

In a recent op-ed published on CNN’s website, Frida Ghitis writes that “Many people see, as I do, a direct connection in the genocide accusations to a centuries’ old calumny that has bedeviled the Jewish people, used since the Middle Ages to taunt them and even to justify massacring and exiling them. It’s called the blood libel, and it has long helped fuel the apparently undying fires of antisemitism.”

Recruiting the police to strip students of their rights and their student status is an assault not only on the idea of the university, but on the place and role of universities in democratic societies.

But what precisely is the “direct connection”? Ghitis appears to think that it does not need to be demonstrated, and that her own association is enough to ground her claim. If the state of Israel commits acts of violence that conform to the legal definition of genocide, then we would all be irresponsible for failing to name and oppose this radical injustice. The allegation of genocidal practices bears no resemblance to the false and flagrantly antisemitic allegations of blood libel against Jews, which did indeed lead to their massacre. Ghitis’s remarks in the present imply that the allegation of genocide leads to, or could lead to, a massacre of Jews.

According to this logic, any effort to describe the Israeli massacre of Palestinians as genocide is nothing other than a pretext for massacring Jews. This wild conjecture denies the genocidal character of Israeli violence by inverting it, establishing Israel as the victim. Of course, Israel was attacked on October 7 in a truly horrific way. And there is no reason to shy away from condemning those acts. But now is the time to focus on stopping a much worse and continuing violence.

Not to speak out against this genocide is itself irresponsible. The repression of speech denies students a way to take an ethical stand against this continuing horror. We cannot oppose genocide against one people and condone it against another without losing all ethical consistency. Nor can we condone a genocide by conjecturing a genocide that any condemnation will bring, especially when one is actually happening on the ground, and the other is a phantasmatic conjecture that draws from the past to incite further violence in the name of “self-defense.” Ghitis attributes the violence the state is doing to those who are suffering its actual effects, thus exonerating the state slaughter conducted in the name of “self-defense.”

When any effort to name and oppose Israeli violence is taken to be a violence against Israel itself, then a brutal trap is imposed on those struggling to speak. The allegation of genocide is construed as genocidal against the Jews. The Jewish people are held up as the truest victims in this twisted narrative. This inversion can only happen, however, by conflating Israel with all of the Jewish people. Such a conflation turns all criticism into “antisemitism.” And it fails to acknowledge that the Israeli state, like any militarized state, can be guilty of unconscionable violence. As it surely now is.

Because the state of Israel itself claims to represent the Jewish people, it enables the conflation of Israel with all Jewish people. If the world accepts this conflation, then indeed every allegation against the state is ipso facto an allegation against the Jewish people as such. And yet, to oppose antisemitism, we demand that all of us who oppose the Israeli state distinguish between the Jewish people and the state of Israel. That effort to oppose antisemitism is defeated in advance by an Israeli state discourse that refuses this very distinction. Indeed, we should ask, what has the Israeli state done to Jewishness now that it is tied up so tightly with its own criminal violence. And yet, there are those who seek to refuse to keep Jewish values from this fate of destruction and to ally with the nonviolent struggle for a free Palestine in the name of justice.

As far as I can see, thoughtful Jews everywhere, young and old, committed to a justice wrought through a political solidarity with Palestinians are refusing this conflation, as is evident by the escalating number of Jews now joining Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now, and exemplified by the vital slogan: Not in Our Name! In solidarity, the hope for justice stays alive.