As Israelis and Gazans fire missiles at each other in the Middle East, hundreds of Cornellians took to Ho Plaza Monday for dueling demonstrations in support of each side of the conflict, bringing with them flags, chants and barbs of their own.
Emotions ran high as the two groups tried to get the attention of a crowd of bystanders with passionate speeches, huge banners and loud cheers. While members of the Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee observed a moment of silence for victims on both sides of the border, Students for Justice in Palestine read out the names and ages of Palestinians — including infants — killed in the missile strikes on the Gaza Strip.
Although SJP alleges that Cornell University Police Department unfairly forced them to leave Ho Plaza, police maintained that their actions were justified, as the organization “didn’t file a use of University property form” as CIPAC did, according to CUPD Chief Kathy Zoner.
“[CIPAC] had rights to the space and they asked [SJP] to move out,” she said. “There was an official complaint filed that [CIPAC] had booked the space and [SJP] didn’t rent the space. So it’s just matter of who filed for the space.”
However, according to Emily Koppelman ’13, treasurer for SJP, CUPD officers harassed SJP protesters and tried to subdue their demonstration.
“We actually had a couple of police officers come and harass us as we were making our speech on Ho Plaza with our megaphones. [They] actually tried to subdue us and move us, which we didn’t do until we decided that we wanted to move,” she said.
Koppelman also criticized CIPAC for lodging a complaint against the dueling protest.
“[CIPAC] tried to get us to be silent us on our own campus,” Koppelman said.
Emily Schlussel ’13, co-president of CIPAC, said she was disappointed by what she called the University’s late response to CIPAC’s complaint, as police watched for half an hour before evicting SJP protesters.
“I was disappointed with the University for not upholding their policy [of removing unregistered groups] from reserved spaces and other group’s lack of respect for our reservation and our event,” she said. “Other than that, I was glad to see that a lot of people care on campus.”
CIPAC held the event, “Display of Solidarity with Israel,” to defend Israel’s right to self-defense, Schlussel said.
“Israel has been under fire from rockets from Hamas-controlled Gaza, which has been targeting Israeli citizens,” she said. “We are gathering here because we stand for Israel’s right to defend itself against terror.”
For 30 minutes, however, CIPAC’s display was met with an equally vociferous protest from SJP. Tensions rose amid shouts of “Free Palestine” and “No more money for Israel’s crimes,” as SJP protested the recent attacks on the Gaza Strip by Israel, according to Koppelman.
“We support the liberation of Palestine territories that are being occupied by Israel right now,” she said. “We know that this occupation is illegal under several international laws, as is this current attack on the Gaza Strip, which is being sold as self-defense.”
Eli Shaubi ’13, co-president of CIPAC, said he was upset that the other side of the protest did not heed his request for a moment of silence.
“I was a little disappointed that [SJP] didn’t stop for the moment of silence that we had for both Israelis and Palestinians killed and injured. Besides that, I think it is great that both sides had a chance to express themselves,” he said.
During the demonstration SJP handed out literature, requesting “a statement from the Cornell administration condemning the Israeli assault on Gaza Strip and that Cornell immediately divests its portfolio from companies profiting from Israeli occupation.”
“[Our goal] right now is to get the University to condemn the Israeli actions in Gaza,” Koppelman said. “We see no reason why this institution shouldn’t conform to the ideals of human rights and humanitarianism that other American institutions usually do.”
For members of CIPAC, the display brought together the “Jewish community and pro-Israel community” to advocate Israel’s right to defend itself, according to Rebecca Haft ’13, president of Cornell Hillel.
“There have been rockets fired into Israel from Gaza for months and years,” she said. “After escalation, we feel that Israel has the right to defend itself and no one deserves to live in a community where they are constantly barraged by rockets.”
Yet, according to Carl Gelderloos grad, a Palestine supporter, CIPAC’s argument was “a little disingenuous,” as it overlooked “underlying structural causes.”
“Their main point is about the rockets. They will talk about thousands of rockets fired or millions of rockets under Israelis under the range of these rockets, but they never mention how many people these rockets have killed,” he said. “Since 2004, 26 [Israelis have died]. More Palestinians citizens have been killed, by more than twice that number, in the past week alone.”
However, constant rocket fire for the past 11 years by Gazans has built-up a case for Israel’s self-defense, according to Shaubi.
“I think it is important for us, as Americans, to realize that Israel has had an average of three rockets fired at it every day,” he said. “That’s as many times as we hear a chimes concert at Cornell.”
Schlussel echoed his sentiment.
“Israel withdrew from Gaza as a statement of peace and has since received a constant fire of missiles. So instead of creating a thriving state, they went and destroyed all positive infrastructure and turned it into a launching pad,” she said. “Hamas is a terrorist group, and they can’t continue what they are doing.”
Koppelman pitched SJP’s cause as a “grass-root [movement] and activism against corporate politics.” She said SJP has garnered over a short period of time from a racially and religiously diverse group of people at the University.
“The base of our support is not a homogenous community,” she said. “If you saw the crowd of the pro-Israel demonstration, they are completely homogenous.”
The difference in the two events is parallel to the situation of Palestine, Koppelman said.
“[CIPAC] put flags on the Arts Quad. We don’t have the resources to do that,” she said. “It’s the same parallel structure, as the Palestinians don’t have the resources that they need in the United States or the international community to put up such a resistance, which is why we have to get involved.”