February 10, 2009

Protest Gone Wrong: Gaza Display Ruined

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Less than half a day after members of Cornell community peppered the Arts Quad with flags and signs protesting the war in Gaza, those same signs lay in a heap inside the Green Dragon Café. Around 2 p.m., as the 1,300 black flags — signifying each Palestinian and Israeli who died in the attacks — blew in the February breeze, the accompanying signs were destroyed, stolen and discarded.
The signs, which contained quotes from Amnesty International and the United Nations, were meant to inform students about the attacks in Gaza. The exhibit coincided with a fundraiser organized by the Islamic Alliance for Justice, a group that seeks to raise awareness of local and global current events while giving voice to the Muslim community. The IAJ distributed quartercards to raise funds for Mercy Corp, an international humanitarian aid organization.[img_assist|nid=34918|title=Signs of protest|desc=Black flags and explanatory signs denouncing the violence in Gaza line the pathway on the Arts Quad yesterday morning. The signs were later destroyed.|link=node|align=right|width=|height=0]
“There’s not much dialogue on campus,” said Khullat Munir ‘09, outgoing president of the IAJ and one of the organizers of the Arts Quad display. “We wanted to get out awareness.”
Tara Malik ’10, current president of the IAJ and an organizer of the display, added that the protest was meant to spur debate about the issues surrounding the Gaza conflict.
Meda Simaika ’09, an acquaintance of members of the IAJ, saw multiple perpetrators removing the signs from the ground outside Olin Library. She urged them stop as they dismantled the display, stomped on the signs and ripped them.
“There was a lot of physical aggression and personal angst,” she said. “It was very aggressive … these people were so against the truth, so closed-minded. We were very disheartened.”
Cornell Police arrived once the signs had been ripped out of the ground, but were unable to apprehend anyone involved with their removal. Kathy Zoner, deputy police chief, said that there is an active investigation into who removed the signs. She was unable to disclose any details of the case but encouraged anyone with information to contact the police.
Anyone charged in connection with the signs’ removal would face disorderly conduct, or possibly criminal charges, she said. If the perpetrator were a student, he or she would likely be sent to the Judicial Administrator. Otherwise, the suspect would be sentenced through the city court.
The Cornell Israel Public Affairs Com­mittee, along with Hillel, has been meeting with the IAJ and the Cornell Muslim Educational and Cultural Associ­ation on a biweekly basis since the fall, before the conflict began. Shai Akabas ’09, president of CIPAC, said that the groups have a very good relationship. Nonetheless, he was surprised when he saw the display this morning.
In a statement on behalf of CIPAC, Akabas said, “While we strongly condemn commemorating the deaths of Hamas terrorists that this exhibit represents, we equally believe vandalizing the IAJ’s display goes against every individual’s right to freedom of expression, a right that CIPAC firmly believes in.”
Akabas added, “We’re discussing what the response is going to be, but we haven’t officially planned anything yet.”
Jacob Shapiro ’10, president of Cornell Hillel executive board, similarly felt blindsided by the display when he saw it on the Arts Quad this morning.
“I’m willing to say that I thought it was a little bit sad,” Shapiro said. “This conflict in particular has two sides, and the exhibit does not respect both of those sides. As someone who works with these groups I would have appreciated a heads up.”
Shapiro expressed that while he believes the destruction of the exhibit was wrong, he understands how such a display would conjure up strong feelings. He hopes that Hillel and IAJ can continue to interact on a friendly basis.
This is the second time in less than four months that the University has been embroiled in controversy after protest signs were removed from public areas. In October, a Cornell employee removed pro-life advocacy signs placed in the engineering quad by the Cornell Coalition for Life, citing an unwritten rule prohibiting the signs. The signs were later returned.
Munir maintains that the IAJ had approval to place the signs on the Arts Quad. The demonstration was co-sponsored by Dean of Students Kent Hubbell ’67, Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Michelle Moody Adams, the Alice Cook House and a number of professors.
“We [financially] support activities that promote constructive debate regarding contemporary issues of all sorts,” Hubbell said. “We hope that the result will be a constructive one. Sometimes these things are controversial.”
However, Hubbell did not know of any other recent events aimed to provoke discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This protest comes a week after President David Skorton wrote a column in The Sun encouraging an “open and active debate” about the conflict in Gaza in which he touted higher education as a forum for discussion and reconciliation.
This protest stands out from what has been a largely silent response to Israel’s actions in Gaza from American college students. While students at 16 universities in England staged protests of Israel’s actions in Gaza in late January, according to The Guardian, fewer protests at American universities have made the news.
Though the display may be bucking the trend in students’ responses to the events in Gaza, Malik expressed frustration at the events that she believed limited its effectiveness.
These people “can protest any way they want, but vandalism isn’t necessary,” she said.
But Simaika pointed out that the destruction of the display may have increased awareness after all.
“Their actions spoke louder than words could,” she said. “They enforced our point even better.”