There is a rich and vital history of activism at Cornell University, a history linking this supposedly isolated, apathetic cam pus to political struggles on levels local, national and global. During the early nineteen-sixties dozens of undergraduates bussed down to Arkansas to register African-American voters. Only a few years later the university’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society was the third largest in the country and campus protest against the Vietnam War was both highly organized and widespread. A columnist for the Cornell Daily Sun reported on his participation at a march on the Pentagon, writing of himself and his student peers “each of us might have been a soldier instead of a marcher; and each soldier might have been a student and protestor.” African- American students campaigned for fundamental changes at Cornell, responding to racism at home and abroad, from a cross burned on a dormitory lawn to the lack of any academic programs devoted to the study of minority histories or cultures. Protest did not diminish over the next few decades. In 1985, over a thousand members of the Cornell community were arrested demanding, in a variety of actions and events, the university’s divestment from financial involvement with apartheid South Africa. In 1993, over a hundred students occupied Day Hall, using the incident of racist acts of vandalism to highlight the university’s continued neglect of Hispanic interests and studies. In these and many other protests, students, faculty and staff did not seek university approval beforehand; rather, they acted directly, exercising their freedom of speech and passion for justice without the bureaucratic blessing of a higher authority. As is usually the case, seeking approval for dissent defeats the very reason for that dissent in the first place.1
This history is especially important to recall in the present context of protests against the university’s highly question- able involvement with Israel’s brutal occupation of Pales- tine. There are as many ways for a university to be involved in political questions and controversies as there are causes or opportunities for organized resistance. Indeed, the university is a political space through and through, so activism is necessary. The point is not only to transform Cornell, or any other academic institution, from an apathetic, apolitical and isolated place into a politicized, engaged one, but to also show how members and institutions of our community are deeply enmeshed in political struggles whether we know it or not and whether we want to be or not. In the case of Cornell’s special relationship with Israel, this point is crucial because of the efforts of so many—the university administration, various student groups, the Cornell Daily Sun and others—to obscure the political nature of that relationship, not to mention the persistent injustice of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians living in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Just as Cornell’s vibrant activist past linked a variety of sites to specific demands for change—university finance, campus policing, academic curriculum, student life, faculty employment—so too does this “special relationship” touch on nearly every feature of Cornell University as an academic institution.
Nothing makes this more apparent than the Cornell president David Skorton’s recent visit to Technion University in Haifa. In the midst of Israel’s attacks on Gaza (officially titled “Pillar of Defense”) Skorton was hailed by Technion’s president as “a true friend of the State of Israel.” Why this dubious honor? Skorton’s public reaffirmation of support of Technion as Cornell’s partner for the university’s future campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City. An exciting opportunity for the university in a number of ways, this venture is tarnished by Technion’s involvement. If anything undermines the naïve separation of academics from politics, it is the case of Technion, which is deeply embedded within Israel’s mili- tary-industrial complex. For those few Israeli Arabs allowed to attend Technion, there are a series of discriminatory policies prohibiting the formation of Arab student groups or political protest against Israeli military actions. More disturbingly, Technion has undertaken several joint programs with companies like Elbit and Rafael, which have been responsible for developing tanks, unmanned aircraft, remote control bulldozers (used to make way for Israeli settlers on Palestinian land) and the separation wall running through the West Bank. Campaigns have already been organized at universities like McGill and Concordia against exchange programs with Technion. Cornell’s planned campus goes much further and represents the most prominent academic collaboration with an Israeli university in the world, one that has already provoked an outcry from concerned Cornellians and residents of New York City. What’s more, Technion’s involvement was deliberately kept hidden from the Cornell community by the administration, bypassing democratic debate within the Faculty Senate as well as any discussion with students, including even those who helped Cornell win the bid in the first place.
While the Technion collaboration is the most direct instance of Cornell’s involvement in Israel’s continued subjugation of the Palestinian people, there are a host of other important links. The retirement fund for Cornell faculty, TIAA-CREF, has investments in companies that directly profit from the occupation of the West Bank and attacks on Gaza, including Northrop Grumman (helicopters and F-16s), Motorola Solutions (surveillance systems) and many others. The demand for TIAA-CREF to divest from these companies has been is- sued around the world as have similar measures undertaking response to Palestinian civil society’s call to boycott, divest and sanction (B.D.S) Israel until it starts treating Palestinians and Palestinian land in accordance with international law and human rights. Following the example of protest against apartheid South Africa, this is a movement that highlights the many ways economic pressure can, especially in a world of incessant globalization, produce political change.
As mentioned, Cornell was one such site for protest against apartheid in the nineteen-eighties and shamefully, despite intense and consistent pressure, its Board of Trustees refused to divest from companies profiting from South Africa’s racist rule of law. Today the economic connections between an institution like Cornell and a similar apartheid system in Israel are more numerous and thus there are many opportunities for local campaigns. Even the smallest step contributes to the cumulative effect of B.D.S.’s globe-spanning campaign. Cornell’s cafeterias offer Sabra hummus, which is co-owned by a company that financially supports military brigades responsible for multiple human rights abuses against Palestinians. Several colleges have already forced their administrations to cut off ties with companies like Sabra, who make their money from occupation, war and settler colonialism.
There is another area of Cornell life directly implicated in this business: Cornell’s chapter of the Israel Public Affairs Committee, Israel’s powerful American lobby. C.I.P.A.C receives financial and intellectual support from the lobby so as to campaign against peaceful, non-violent movements like B.D.S. Other national organizations, like Hillel, offer similar support, evidenced most recently by the signs of a counter- demonstration on Ho Plaza on November 19th, proclaiming “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel.” The disturbing logic of this statement reveals the crude “with or against” ideology of groups like C.I.P.A.C.: always stand with Israel, no matter its policies. Any questioning or criticism thereof is added to a blacklist of usual suspects like Hamas or Iran.
This censoring of any and all criticism goes against the very principles of democracy directly at stake in the struggle of the Palestinian people for both human rights and statehood. Most disturbingly, such censorship was recently performed by Cornell’s own police. Kathy Zoner was the first police chief of an American university to attend an “Experience Israel Training Tour” to learn about Israeli counter-terrorism and security measures. According to Zoner, the experience “tied in nicely with our jobs here of keeping the campus safe from external threats.” While the number of terrorist incidents in Ithaca has remained at zero, this lack of “external threats” has not stopped the campus police from participating in censorship. At the aforementioned rally on Ho Plaza in November, officers attempted to shut down a SJP rally in solidarity with Gaza in direct violation of the university’s charter on public assembly. They were asked to do so by members of
C.I.P.A.C., as those members explained to the Cornell Daily Sun (“Conflict in Gaza Sparks Heated Rallies at Cornell,” 11/20/2012).
While the Sun has, in its opinion section, refused to honestly engage the issue of Israel’s disastrous policies or Cornell’s complicity in those policies there has been plenty of debate in guest editorials, letters to the editor and online comments. While internet posts on this and most issues rarely offer up a model for productive debate, it is worth quoting the words of one poster, who proudly admits “I am an Islamophobe,” lumping himself with that noted authority on Islam, John Quincy Adams, quoting this sixth president: “The precept of the Koran is, perpetual war against all who deny, that Mahomet is the prophet of God.” It is certainly easy to imagine the reaction to similar citations of ignorance and hate against other religious faiths, for instance Adams’ take on the Jewish people: “[They] are all wretched creatures…. And they would steal your eyes out of your head if they could.”2 But we quote the sentiment of this internet troll only to point to its unsettling proximity to the words of one of Cornell’s former professors: Benzion Netanyahu. The father of Israel’s prime minister, Professor Netanyahu once taught in what is now the department of Near Eastern Studies. Before passing away this past April, Netanyahu shared his thoughts on “Arabs” in an interview: “The tendency towards conflict is in the essence of the Arab. He is an enemy by essence. His personality won’t allow him any compromise or agreement…His existence is one of perpetual war.”3
Beyond the internet troll and emeritus professor, there are a variety of ways Cornell’s community discusses and learns about the State of Israel, both about its friends like President Skorton as well as its supposed enemies, like members of Cornell S.J.P. Whether one agrees or disagrees with any of these individuals or groups, one point above all needs to be confronted: we cannot abstain from the politics of Palestine’s oppression because we are already complicit in it. It forms part of the very fabric of Cornell’s future as a university and community. Recognizing this fact is the first step in accept- ing responsibility and with that acceptance two questions become unavoidable: where do we stand with r3espect to the Israeli occupation and what are we going to do about it? In thinking about this future, it is worth looking to Cornell’s legacy as an activist university so that we can start honestly answering these questions.
1 “Sixties Protest Culture and What Happened at Cornell.” Cushing Strout. New England Review, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Spring, 1998), pp. 110-136.