Last week, Students for Justice in Palestine at Cornell installed fifty placards on the Arts Quad for three days, from October 29 – 31. The placards included posters from Visualizing Palestine and various other sources, documenting Israel’s house demolition policy, the segregation of its transport infrastructure, and the recent assault on Gaza, among other issues.
To our disappointment, the signs were repeatedly damaged and vandalized, and half of them were ultimately stolen in a brazen attack on the freedom of expression at Cornell.
The signs had only been up for about two hours when it was first subjected to a blatant attack by three self-appointed censors of political expression. The three individuals took it upon themselves to simply pluck the stakes from the ground and remove them. Fortunately, two members of SJP happened to be there. They confronted these individuals and inquired as to why they were taking the signs down. One of them responded by saying that the posters do not have the “Cornell stamp of approval”. (No such stamp exists for public displays of this kind). When informed that SJP did, in fact, have permission to put the signs up, the three students left the vicinity without further ado, not caring to see the approval forms they had demanded we provide them.
One of the aforementioned students is a fellow of CAMERA, the self-described Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. CAMERA describes itself as media-monitoring, research and membership organization devoted to promoting “accurate” and “balanced coverage” of Israel and the Middle East. These words should be taken lightly.
Two members of SJP later met with the same group of students to clarify our position: that the three students should cease their policing of political expression, and apologize for the damage and extra labor they had caused us. Unable to find any official policy that they could use against the display, they conceded that the entire incident was a ‘misunderstanding’, and assured us that they were doing their best to independently verify our reservation of the space. Note that “misunderstanding” entails a genuine attempt to understand and therefore to communicate with the other party. No such attempt was made when the signs were being removed.
While our members repaired the installation, two Cornell Police officers arrived at the scene and began to question us regarding the signs, informing us that they had received a complaint. Finding nothing objectionable about our display, the officers cordially left the scene satisfied, after reviewing the Use of University Property form.
Not content with harassing SJP members by calling the police unnecessarily and by forcing us to repair damage that they had caused, one of the same three students then filed another complaint with the police, this time spuriously claiming that one SJP member had been following and intimidating them. This assertion was based on the simple fact that the member went after the student to engage in a dialogue about the incident. A police officer then came to the site again, this time to individually question the member named in the complaint. After several minutes of questioning, the officer left with a warning not to approach the individual who had made the complaint.
Over the next two days, the signs were repeatedly found bent, overturned, or uprooted. One placard was even found in the branches of a tree, stake and all! Multiple times over the three days, members of SJP had to repair the installation and keep watch over the display to ensure that it wasn’t destroyed. It was a losing battle, however, and by the evening of the last day, half of the signs had disappeared entirely, while the other half were in bad shape and had to be taken down before the end of our reservation period.
This incident clearly shows the inability of Zionist students and student groups at Cornell to respond maturely to criticisms of Israel and its actions. Rather than respond to the content of this criticism, these students would rather do everything in their power to try and take down any public displays which challenge the Zionist narrative, and therefore preemptively shut down meaningful discussions about Israel and its actions.
The information on our display was based on irrefutable facts and internationally accepted statistics. We refuse to be silenced by cowardly tactics – vandalizing placards, stealing signs, and ‘calling the police’ – and call on Zionist students to instead ask the important questions: why can Palestinians not travel on Israeli buses? Why were more than five hundred children killed this past summer in Gaza? Why have settlements continued to expand on shrinking Palestinian land?