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Emerson College head tries to appease anti-Israel students

University president Jay Bernhardt said protesters would not face disciplinary hearings and sent staff to bail them out after they were arrested.

Emerson College occupies this row of buildings across from the corner of Boston Common. Photo by John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons.
Emerson College occupies this row of buildings across from the corner of Boston Common. Photo by John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu on Tuesday defended the police against charges by student protesters at Emerson College that officers had engaged in extreme brutality while removing their anti-Israel tent encampment, which had commandeered a city street.

The mayor said a city review found no protesters had been hospitalized. They “wanted to get arrested,” she added.

She noted that the school had offered the protesters rooms to use 24 hours a day but the response of the student organizers was to “keep the tents up to get arrested.”

The mayor’s no-nonsense response contrasted sharply with that of Emerson College president Jay Bernhardt, who has assured the protesters he “could feel the pain.”

His approach has won him little love among the student population, judging from recent meetings.

Many students called on the president to resign at a town hall meeting held on April 29, which centered around events leading up to the April 25 arrest of 118 students by the Boston Police Department. Police acted after protesters at the “Popular University Encampment” at 2 Boylston Place Alley refused to vacate the public street.

Student calls for the president’s resignation echoed a Student Government Association general assembly meeting on April 26, when students unanimously voted no-confidence in Bernhardt, who is Jewish, demanding he resign.

“Get him out,” some chanted, according to the school’s student newspaper, The Berkeley Beacon.

Bernhardt, who retains the support of Emerson’s Board of Trustees, has continued his placatory approach. In a campus-wide email on the Monday after the town hall meeting, Bernhardt wrote: “As I listened to the 100-plus stories, passions ran high, and I could feel the pain expressed by those arrested, those who cared for them, and those who were adversely affected by the encampment.

“I certainly heard and now better understand the pain these recent experiences have caused our community. I deeply regret that despite our best efforts, our students’ activism resulted in police action over their encampment, especially in the heartbreaking way it occurred,” he wrote.

What “heartbreaking way” the police acted is unclear. Boston police gave students fair warning to leave the area. Bodycam footage shows an officer cautioning students on April 25 at about 1:30 a.m.

“We don’t want to arrest anybody. We support your right to protest. I’m indifferent. OK? I don’t have a side either way. I want you to be able to peacefully do this. However, with a popular street, I can’t have that. I need you to open up. Leave it open. Otherwise, I have to uproot you from there,” the officer said.

No students were hurt during the operation, though four officers were injured, one seriously, the police said.

Students disputed the police account at the Student Government Association and town hall meetings.

At the Student Government Association event, students took turns at the microphone describing in high-strung tones how they “watched our friends bleed.”

“I will never forget being able to see fluorescent yellow through the umbrella I was holding,” said one.

“Why is it so hard for not just the people here and our politicians and our fellow human beings to care about other human beings?” said another.

“It was an incredible escalation of violence, but I’m so proud of our community for showing up today,” said Nandan Nair, incoming executive president of the Student Government Association.

Students at the town hall expressed anger at the press for not reporting their version of events. “To the media, [we] will not forget the lies you distributed and the woeful failure of your journalism,” a student said. 

“What happened on that day was completely unconstitutional,” said a student joining via Zoom. “Class [action suit] should be started.”

“I got charged with trespassing on my college,” said one indignant student. (Police noted that 2 Boylston Place Alley is not owned by Emerson College and the protesters were violating city ordinances.)

Students mainly held Bernhardt responsible for the encampment’s dismantlement and for not ceding to their demands.

“Show us action. Show us anything. You have already failed us,” said a student at the town hall. “But if you cannot respect us enough to concede to our demands and resign, then prove yourself. We are waiting. We are watching, history is watching, history will remember where you stand.”

Protesting students demand Emerson call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, disclose all financial investments, and divest from entities supporting Israel.

They also insist that all disciplinary charges be dropped against the organizers, a demand Bernhardt met, announcing in an email to Emersonians last week that the college wouldn’t bring “any campus disciplinary charges against the protestors and will encourage the district attorney not to pursue charges related to encampment violations.”

‘The most extreme voices’

He also revealed the school had sent staff to police precincts and posted bail for “arrested students, canceling and modifying classes so our community could process what had occurred, and providing additional care and support for our community to heal.”

Bernhardt’s decision brought criticism from Anti-Defamation League CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt.

“The president of Emerson is going out of his way to make sure students who broke the law and violated Emerson’s own policies face no consequences,” Greenblatt said. “This capitulates to the most extreme voices and rewards their disruptive conduct.”

The ADL called on Bernhardt to reverse his decision and “urges the Suffolk District Attorney to enforce the law.”

Although similar encampments at other schools have been rife with antisemitism, Emerson’s protesters insisted theirs was different.

“I have not heard one utterance of anti-Jewish hate speech. That’s just not what we do,” Owen Buxton, a member of Emerson’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, told The Boston Globe in a video on YouTube, even as he called for a boycott of “all Zionist entities.”

Later in the video, protesters chanted, “Palestine will be free. From the sea to the river,” generally regarded as a genocidal call for Israel’s destruction.

Emerson student Roni Moser, 19, a freshman from Israel, who said that her parents warned her not to speak Hebrew or tell anyone she was Israeli, nevertheless spoke out, taking the podium at a pro-Israel rally in Boston on April 28.

She described a situation in which Jewish students were intimidated, “to the point where many had to be removed from campus and temporarily placed in hotels.”

Emerson Student Roni Moser speaking at a rally to support Jewish students, April 28, 2024. Source: YouTube.

“Friends of mine were called terrorists, were compared to the KKK and were harassed and offended for believing Israel has the right to exist,” Moser said.

“People have the right to protest, and people have the right to protest things we don’t necessarily agree with. People shouldn’t and don’t have the right to use such violent and antisemitic speech.”

Examples of hateful speech Moser provided: “Long live the intifada,” “Israel is antisemitic,” “From the river to the sea” and “F*** Zionists.”

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