February 19, 2012

Stand Up for Israel, President Skorton

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Last week I attended a Shabbat dinner where President Skorton was the featured guest. Addressing a crowd of over 300 Cornellians, he congratulated the Jewish community for its many accomplishments and then moved on to a timelier subject: the University’s groundbreaking partnership with the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology on the “tech campus.”

He began by expressing enthusiasm for the project: Good. He then noted his opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to delegitimize Israel in the cultural and academic spheres: Even better. However, he then stated that the University’s decision to work with the Technion was in no way a political statement: Not so good.

Skorton strained to persuade us that there was no symbolic meaning behind the partnership, telling us that instead “natural forces,” such as similar agendas and good relationships, brought the two institutions together. We were not to think that Cornell was expressing its solidarity with the State of Israel or even its opposition to BDS. We were to conceive of Cornell’s decision as morally neutral.

This is wrong-headed for two reasons. One is that partnering with an Israeli university constitutes explicit rejection of the BDS movement, no matter how vigorously the University tries to convince us otherwise. The second is that we have an obligation not only to reject BDS but also to make the reasons why we do so explicit. Since neither Skorton nor anyone else in the University administration is willing to do this, we must pick up the slack.

As far as I can tell, there are only two formal statements of opposition to the partnership with the Technion. The first is an “open letter” from the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel; the second is an online petition entitled “We oppose Cornell University’s collaboration with Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.” They’re virtually identical. Simply put, both assert that Technion has played a major role in Israel’s “war crimes” — or, if you prefer, its campaign of “ethnic cleansing” — by both designing weapons for the Israel Defense Forces and partnering with private companies who do the same.

On its face, this might strike readers as a complex problem. But you can’t possibly still think that after looking at their objections more closely. They deplore the Technion’s efforts to create “complex weapons” for the IDF, sure. However, they also lambast the Technion for its role in developing the “Apartheid Wall” and an “advanced hybrid armor protection system” for military tanks.

Let’s pause. If the case for opposing the Technion’s contributions to the IDF’s anti-terror arsenal is only weak, the case against its enhancements to Israel’s defense is downright inconceivable. Indeed, we should ask how they justify opposition to something as basic as tank armor. Do they want to increase Israeli soldiers’ susceptibility to attack?Though it’s certainly possible, I’m not sure we need to go that far. The real answer, I believe, is connected to the reason these groups will never boycott Cornell even as it makes itself “complicit” in Israel’s supposed crimes. These protests are not about Cornell; they’re not about the Technion; they’re not even about the IDF. It is about the legitimacy of Israel itself. A country whose armor is criminalized is a country that has no right to defend itself, and by extension, no right to continue existing as a sovereign nation.

This is the unmistakable subtext of BDS, a movement whose members have not and will never call for similar measures vis-a-vis either the United States — whose military aid should, according to their logic, render it complicit in Israeli “aggression” — or Syria, whose hideous regime murders civilians daily. Again, this isn’t really about pacifism. This isn’t about human rights. This is about delegitimizing the Jewish state.

Another dimension of the movement’s backwardness reveals the same point. As Tom Friedman has noted, Israel’s universities create tremendous opportunities for its Israeli Arab population, far more than the left-wing professors who wish to boycott them. That the BDS movement is undermining the very institutions that achieve its stated goal should come as no surprise. The stated goal was never the real objective: I don’t think I need to tell you what was.

Skorton must therefore stand up to the Technion’s opponents because they seek to undermine Israel’s legitimacy, something he has justly never questioned. He must do so because they advocate a course of action that no person serious about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could support, and he is one such person. And finally, he must do this because prominent faculty from our English and Government departments have already aligned themselves with this deplorable cause and might let its pernicious message wander into the classroom.

Some might argue Skorton has done enough by facilitating the partnership; however, this is a case where doing a good thing without publicly explaining its goodness isn’t sufficient. It’s clear that the moral stakes are high here. It’s profoundly sad, though, that only the wrong side of the argument seems to recognize this.

Judah Bellin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at jbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin