April 7, 2014

GUEST ROOM: Why Cornell Shouldn’t Have Invited Ehud Olmert

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On April 8, Cornell University would have been graced by the presence of Ehud Olmert. The former Israeli Prime Minister is rightly absent from campus today, but for the wrong reasons. As the architect of Operation Cast Lead, Olmert presided over a ruthless military operation against an already beleaguered, sanctioned and blockaded civilian population. He also authorized the 2006 invasion of southern Lebanon, which resulted in the death of more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians and one million more displaced. This is nothing new. After all, the state that Olmert headed from 2006 until 2009 — Israel — was founded by forcing the dispossession and displacement of indigenous populations.

I take strong exception to the possibility of Olmert’s appearance at Cornell. As Prime Minister of Israel, Olmert led a brutal campaign against its northern neighbor Lebanon. Its stated goal, according to Israel’s Army Chief of Staff, was to “turn Lebanon’s clock back 20 years.” This was a reference to Israel’s occupation of Lebanon in the early 1980s, when a land invasion by the Israeli military killed more than 1,100 Lebanese civilians.

Even more catastrophic, however, was an attack on the Gaza Strip, code-named Operation Cast Lead, that Olmert commanded in 2008 and 2009. Since 2005, the Gaza Strip has been subject to an Israeli blockade, which severely limits the importation of everything from building materials to medicines and food and confines its two million inhabitants to largely squalid conditions. Operation Cast Lead therefore targeted an almost defenseless population, whom Israel wished to punish for their efforts to achieve self-rule. Thus Israel began by shelling the Gaza parliament building and the headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The then President of the UN General Assembly described Israel’s actions as “genocide;” inviting the person responsible is therefore tantamount to inviting a war criminal to speak on campus.

Why is this relevant to students at Cornell? Because student voices matter. Ehud Olmert’s presence on campus requires a robust response from the Cornell community, not just polite questions from a select audience. In the past, the collective voice of Cornell students has been crucial in shaping the directions taken by the University. Acts of resistance, such as the Willard Straight Hall takeover, shanty towns on the campus and an occupied Day Hall, contributed vitally to worldwide movements for justice.

For Cornell to give public space to a key Israeli political figure is unacceptable. It perpetuates the marginalization of Palestinian people and legitimates the occupation of their lands. It does nothing to undermine the actions of the Israeli war machine. For every Ehud Olmert who is invited to speak on behalf of Israel, there are thousands of Palestinians whose voices are lost in the violent reality of Israeli colonialism and apartheid.

Some would propose that we should welcome any speaker in order to “listen to all sides.” These people often request “dialogue,” while at the same time seeking to limit debate to something unworthy of the name. To make this case about Olmert would present a distorted image of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one which insists that there are “two sides” that should both be afforded “equal space.” Even when motivated by good intentions, the “two sides” approach to the conflict grossly distorts the reality of a vastly uneven balance of power between the Israeli regime and its many victims. Israel has the economic, military and political strength of the U.S. on its side, while the Palestinians have been on the receiving end of house demolitions, land grabs, military operation and economic isolation for more than 60 years. As in diplomatic “peace talks,” dialogue allows this violence to continue, all the more swiftly for remaining unseen.

When the Cornell University administration refuses to take a moral stand on social justice, we are left complicit. This has often happened in the past. When world opinion turned against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, the administration refused student and faculty demands to withdraw the University’s financial investments in South African companies dependent on apartheid labor. Today, Cornell’s ties to Israel remain strong. With the Chief of Cornell University Police trained in counter-terrorism — whatever that means for a college campus — by the Israeli Defense Forces, investments in companies that profit from the occupation of Palestinian Territories and a partnership with the Israeli Technion University that develops military technology used in conflicts such as the ones orchestrated during Olmert’s regime, Cornell has made it clear that it has no intention of standing for justice in the Middle East.

Our university has too often secured the status quo. It is up to us — the students and our allies among the faculty and staff — to challenge this. We must to refuse to support colonialism, occupation and racism by standing with the struggle for Palestinian liberation. By doing so, we will help carry Cornell into the future, rather than allow it to linger in the past.

Emad Masroor is a freshman in the College of Engineering.  He can be reached at [email protected]  Guest Room appears periodically throughout this semester.