February 19, 2009

Gaza Panel Criticized

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According to the Campus Code of Conduct, those who dislike what an invited speaker has to say have the right, among other things, to ask pointed questions and express displeasure with evasive answers. The audience in a packed Lewis Auditorium was reminded of this yesterday before the Gaza in Crisis Discussion Panel, where members of the Cornell community discussed their position on the Gaza conflict.
The panel, which expressed largely pro-Palestinian viewpoints, came after recent events on campus highlighted the impact of the Gaza conflict on the Cornell community. Wasif Syed grad organized the event hoping to encourage discourse.
“I spearheaded this event in light of Skorton’s call for engagement and in light of the incidents that have occurred on campus … These were symptoms [showing] that the campus is yearning for a constructive platform for engagement to discuss the crisis in Gaza in a tangible fashion,” Syed said.
Audience members walked past police stationed at the entrance to the auditorium before taking their seats. The moderator of the event, Prof. Nic van de Walle, government and associate dean for international studies, then introduced the panelists, after acknowledging his own lack of expertise on the subject. He gave a brief history of the conflict, citing Wikipedia as his main source. From there, the floor was opened up to the four panelists for opening remarks.
Prof. Richard Miller, political philosophy, began the discussion by chastising Israel for its invasion of Gaza and the United States for its support of Israel. Syed Saad Ahsan ’10 then delivered an anti-war stance, urging individuals to take action against the Israeli attacks, which he criticized as largely disproportionate to the Gaza missile fire. Luis-Francois de Lencquesaing ’09, president of Cornell International Affairs Review, continued the discussion, focusing on the importance of politics in the conflict and suggesting his view that two separate states of Israel and Palestine are the only viable solution to the conflict. Lastly, Dr. Mossaad Abdel-Ghany, a recently retired Cornell professor of veterinary medicine, gave an explanation of the various stages of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Overall, the panelists largely expressed indignation for the crimes against humanity that they feel Israel committed against the Palestinians in Gaza.
After the panelists’ statements, David Jacobis, law, who studies the occupation of the West Bank, video-conferenced in from Tel Aviv to give his opinion on the subject. Jacobis spoke of Israel’s reaction to the democratic election of Hamas, Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, as well as what he feels was a disproportionate Israeli response on Gaza.
The floor was then opened up for a question-and-answer session, which quickly sparked debate over the creation of Israel and Gaza’s missile fire. While the panel was not supportive of some of the actions of the Israeli state, Ahsan did at one point identify with the Israeli people.
[img_assist|nid=35322|title=Talking it out|desc=Cornell hosts a Gaza discussion panel yesterday in Goldwin Smith Hall.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]“As a Muslim, I identify with the Jewish cause … I feel that if any people deserve peace, it is the Jews because they have been kicked around for thousand of years. But if Israel thinks it can establish peace with its neighbors by bombing them or forcing Israel upon them, that is against Jewish interest. It harms the very nature of what should be done,” Ahsan said.
Other questions ranged from the empathy of Israelis toward Palestinians, the minimal advanced warning that Israel gave to Gaza before bombing, the use of civilians as shields, humanitarian crimes, the United State’s support of Israel, possible resolutions and Hamas as a government.
Many of the responses and questions turned into heated debates laden with emotion.
“I’m emotionally exhausted. I was surprised by how emotional the discussion was … I was also surprised by how expressive [people were] and how much people were cutting others off. It was almost an argument,” said Erika Zambello ’12, a participant.
Some were also angered by the lack of expertise and one-sided arguments presented by members on the panel.
“I feel that the panel discussion was an egregious anti-Israel exercise. The panelists casually advanced misinformation and distortions. Quite frankly, I am appalled that the University sponsored this event and I call on it to answer for the misinformation and distortions being propagated amongst our community,” said Jesse Berkowsky ’09, executive president of Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee.
However, some felt that the panel did foster discussion and present information.
“Most of the stuff that I heard tonight, I didn’t think it was so inaccurate. I thought a lot of it was informative and there was a lot of healthy debate,” said Zubair Azad ’10, vice president of Muslim Educational and Cultural Association.
“Views of Israel and the United States as forces of reason and self-defense in the Middle East, which dominate U.S. media coverage, were challenged and people had objections and questions. I don’t how many people were convinced, but this was a discussion that was open to information and dialogue that’s really closed from the media,” Miller said.
While CIPAC, Hillel and the Islamic Alliance for Justice were asked to join in today’s debate, the groups declined to do so. Jacob Shapiro, president of Cornell Hillel, did not feel comfortable with the terms of the event.
“I expressed constant and unwavering interest in working with Wasif and with others in creating an event that would encourage respectful, educational dialogue; but at the end of the day, his event did not reflect this goal,” Shapiro stated in an e-mail.
Similarly, Shai Akabas ’09, president of CIPAC, said that he was approached to join in the discussion. However, he said he was told how the panel would take place and was not asked to help construct the format.
“We feel that this forum is one that fosters radical opinions and not one that is a constructive dialogue to engage the community,” Akabas said.
However, Tara Malik ’09, IAJ president, said that IAJ chose not to participate in order to give other Muslim groups on campus a chance to voice their opinions.
“The IAJ refrained from participating in this panel because we feel that we have been the center of dialogue on this issue for the past month and know that there are several other diverse and interested groups and organizations who want to be part of a dialogue and participate in panel discussions about this topic,” Malik said.
The panel discussion was cosponsored by the MECA, Office of the Vice President for University Communications Tommy Bruce, Dept. of Government, Cornell Republicans, Cornell Democrats, Cornell International Affairs Review, Turkish Students’ Association, United for Peace and Justice in Palestine, International Leadership Forum and the International Soccer Club.