Open any newspaper on any given day and chances are pretty high that you will find an article about violence in the Middle East. As Israel enters into the second half of its sixth decade, sentiments about the country’s policies, U.S. involvement and even Israel’s right to exist run high. But, those debates don’t stop at the edge of the country’s disputed borders. In fact, for most Cornell students they are alive and well here in Ithaca.
“People have personal ties to the region. A lot of students and faculty have a deep sense of connection with the region and its people. Also, in this kind of global news environment, you’d have to be pretty closed off not to know what’s going on. You get drawn in to the day to day [occurrences],” said Prof. Ross Brann, co-chair of the Near Eastern Studies (NES) department.
Yet, with all of this interest, Cornell has not seen the sort of violence and activism that some campuses have. At Harvard, for example, tensions became so high that Harvard President Lawrence Summers gave a speech at the Memorial Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts in which he said he was “seriously worried” about anti-semitism.
He cited the divestment campaign that students and faculty of Harvard and some other universities have initiated. The campaign asks that the universities not invest any of their endowments in Israel.
In response to this sort of campaign, members of Cornell Israel Political Affairs Committee (CIPAC) here at Cornell have started an investment which asks for the opposite.
According to a recent article in the National Review, at other universities, bricks have been thrown through Hillel windows, swastikas have been painted on Hillel walls and “Zionazi” has been sprayed on campuses.
At San Francisco State, participants in a pro-Israel rally had to be escorted to safety by the campus police as people shouted slogans such as “Get out or we’ll kill you!” and “Hitler didn’t finish the job!”
Cornell has, for the most part, been free of such violent reactions.
“I have to credit the leadership of various Jewish, Muslim, and Arab organizations. I think there’s been some intentionality on the part of students to keep it from going down that road,” said Rev. Kenneth Clarke of Cornell United Religious Works.
That is not to say, however, that the University has been completely free of what some view as an offensive reaction.
“One of the beauties of this campus is that there are so many outlets for people to express themselves. Different viewpoints are encouraged. With that said, however, there have been bias-related incidents against Jews and Muslims. None have been adequately reported,” said Rachel Isaacson ’02, the Jewish student life coordinator.
She said that last year there were advertisements handed out that equated zionism with apartheid and mock-Birthright Israel fliers that said “Free Trip to Israel: Kill Innocent Palestinians.” Birthright Israel, a partnership between Jewish-American philanthropists, the Israeli government and United Jewish Communities, was established in 1999 to send young Jewish adults on their first tour through Israel.
This sort of response “comes from people who feel that is the only way they can voice their opinions. They are individuals who seek to anonymously make statements reflecting their political points of view. They are a cause of grave concern for those of us who seek to promote civil discourse that puts people face to face,” Clarke said.
CIPAC often hands out fliers and brings in speakers. “Sometimes people don’t respond well to the information that we’ve been passing out,” Cohen said.
According to Muhammad Umair Khan ’03, former vice-president of the Arab Club, the campus has been much calmer than in years past.
“Two years ago, when Sharon was elected, was a very heated year. There was a lot of animosity between groups and a lot of tension. Now you see a lot more moderate elements as opposed to more conservative,” he said.
To help ease any tension that does exist, the NES department hosts dinners that often serve as grounds for discussions between Arab, Muslim, Jewish and other interested students. CIPAC, the Muslim Education and Cultural Association (MECA), the Arab Club, the Progressive Jewish Voice, and other groups on campus all run events that encourage discourse, challenge stereotypes, and educate the Cornell community.
Events of the past year have also heightened community interest.
“We’re a community that takes a serious interest in other parts of the world … Sept. 11 really brought American involvement in the Middle East very close to home,” said Prof. Kimberly Haines-Eitzen, NES co-chair.
That interest has manifested itself in the classroom as well.
“In a normal year at Cornell we’d have 40 students in first year Arabic. This year there are 65 students in regular first year Arabic and 15 in Qu’ranic,” Brann said.
Other NES classes also have higher enrollment. Brann explained that the department’s classes have become more popular over the past few years, but this year enrollment has “spiked.”
Within the classes themselves, interest is also high.
“In the Judaism, Christianity and Islam class, my sense is that there is a lot of wait and interest in the upcoming material [related to Islam],” Haines-Eitzen said.
Haines-Eitzen teaches the class and at the beginning of the semester, she asked students to write down questions they had for course.
“80 percent of questions had to do with the assumption that Islam is a religious tradition that is very different from Judaism and Christianity and the misconception that Islam is a religion that condones violence,” Haines-Eitzen said.
Brann’s Arab-Israeli conflict class is also a place where tensions can run high.
“In the class, I attempt to take as balanced a view as possible of the history of the conflict while taking into account the competing historical narratives [of the region],” Brann said.
But, Brann is quick to point out that the discussion “doesn’t end at the classroom door. In some ways it just begins there.”
Archived article by Freda Ready