January 28, 2014

In Opposition to Cornell’s Stance on Academic Boycotts in Israel

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By REBECCA JOHN

I have a print of Yuri Kochiyama and Angela Davis on my wall at home, two activists who worked tirelessly towards racial and economic justice in this country and continue to do this work well into their old age. Sometimes, I have to look up at their pictures and remind myself of people who never got tired of working towards transformative social change, or persisted when they did tire. Sometimes, I get really tired; the most meaningful things begin to sound cliché. Time passes, people circulate in and out of this institution and little seems to change. Sometimes I get tired of thinking, of writing. But other times, I have to put aside the disillusionment and exhaustion to remember some things that we must never get tired of saying, because there is no comfort or protection in silence.

The preparations for the construction of the Cornell NYC Tech campus on Roosevelt Island and the recent joining of the American Studies Association (ASA) in the academic boycott of Israeli institutions are reminders that institutions like Cornell are not the scenic havens of knowledge and learning that we might imagine; they are implicated in material violence, which must be responded to in material ways. Right now, a hospital on Roosevelt Island is being demolished to make way for the tech campus, displacing many low-income and undocumented patients who will not be relocated to the same type of care. At the same time, Cornell supports Israel’s genocidal state apparatus through its partnership with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Several hundred years ago, the largest military expedition against Native Americans was launched on the ground that Cornell stands on today, wiping out the Iroquois people and making way for America’s colonial settlement. If these things do not seem related to you, it is only because we have normalized the web of violent realities of our past and present. This is a tired, but persistent, plea to unlearn and speak against that violence.

Like June Jordan in her poem, “Moving Towards Home,” “I do not wish to speak” of massacres, of rapes, of ethnic cleansing, of historical revisionism and cultural theft that erases the existence of an entire group of people. I do not wish to speak of settlements, of racist and exclusionary state policies, of small children locked up and tortured because they were deemed “threats” to security. I do not wish to speak of restricted movement and restricted food, of the strip of land that has been called the “largest open air prison in the world.” I do not wish to speak of an entire diaspora of refugees born out of violent expulsion from their homelands. I do not wish to, and am tired of, discussing these things, but I must, because I go to a university that is partnered with an institution that is deeply complicit in crimes committed by Israel against the Palestinian people. In fact, it is a major producer of weaponry that not only assists Israel’s violent occupation, but is also exported to violent regimes around the world.

The American Studies Association made a commendable move to join the boycott of Israeli institutions (following in the way of Association for Asian American Studies, the first scholarly organization to join the academic boycott of Israeli institutions). This boycott cannot be weakly reduced to “singling out Israel” like a bully would single out an innocent bystander. The boycott is not simply a baseless moral judgement that is being passed; it is what over 170 civil organizations have asked of the international community, which is to refuse to collaborate with Israeli academic institutions that are complicit in occupation, dispossession and discrimination. It targets institutions which choose to represent or support the Israeli state, not individuals, something which opposition to the boycott on the grounds of “academic freedom” fails to engage with (not the mention the fact that academic freedom is something regularly denied to Palestinian and non-Palestinian scholars who talk about justice in Palestine).

If we are singling out anything, we are singling out occupation; we are singling out death. These are things that we must have the academic freedom to single out, or, put another way, expose and end. We cannot get tired of talking about this, especially when The Cornell Daily Sun itself has a history of misrepresenting views opposing Israeli occupation of Palestine. Divestment from Israel is divestment from death.

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