April 14, 2014

GLICK | Why the Student Assembly Was Right to Table Resolution 72

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If there is any issue over-discussed at Cornell, it is the ongoing crisis between Israel and Palestine. Last Thursday, this oftentimes-heated campus conversation reached a climax as hundreds of people watched the Student Assembly vote to indefinitely table Resolution 72, which called for the University, currently “a complicit third party in human rights abuses and violations of international law,” to divest from certain companies profiting from the aforementioned offenses as they relate to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The result, as you have surely heard, was pandemonium. Amid expletive-filled accusations of stifled free speech, supporters of the Resolution 72 stormed out of the Memorial Room and disengaged — physically and metaphorically — from a discussion in which they ought to be involved.

I understand their frustration. I also understand the op-ed written yesterday by my esteemed colleague, Anna-Lisa Castle ’14. But I fundamentally disagree with  her arguments, just as I disagree in part with yesterday’s Sun editorial, which chastised the S.A. for contradicting its “democratic purpose.” There should have been more leeway for interested parties (myself included) to speak on Resolution 72,  but the ultimate action taken by the S.A. — that is, tabling the resolution — was a courageous and far-sighted exercise of the Assembly’s ability to shape student discourse.

This is in no way “unprecedented;” even the U.S. Senate has procedural checks to distinguish between demagoguery and governance. For an Assembly whose power is far more symbolic than executive, this voluntary restriction of debate is even more important. And yet, the S.A. has been granted imaginary policymaking clout by both Castle’s column and the Sun’s editorial. The approval of Resolution 72 would have made little impact on University policy. Students for Justice in Palestine, the organization that sponsored the resolution, surely knew that forces within the administration would never have truly divested from companies benefitting from Israel’s presence in the West Bank. The power of the resolution was thus symbolic; it was meant to insert into our campus dialogue an Assembly-sanctioned premise that support of Israel is contrary to Cornell’s “legacy of advocating for justice.” When Castle makes technical arguments about the resolution’s relatively narrow scope, she fails to admit that the significance of Resolution 72 was not its specifics, but its spirit.

The worldview endorsed by Resolution 72 (and resoundingly rejected by the S.A.) presented a heinous, false choice for Cornellians; whether it supported divesting from six companies or six thousand, the resolution pitted the prized progressivism of our University against the actions of Israel. As a Cornellian who is deeply committed to long-term engagement Israel but who also believes that Israel must end its occupation the West Bank in order to secure its future as a democratic, Jewish state, I find this polarity deeply offensive. I understand that the text of the resolution made no direct reference to the broader Israeli boycott movement (commonly referred to as BDS), but it would have lent credibility to those who seek to more wholly disengage from the University — and the Western world’s — relationship with Israel. To make progress towards this dignified, two-state future, the pro-peace community needs dialogue. It needs discussion rather than discord, civility rather than animosity, and understanding rather than name-calling. It needs dialogue.

It is clear to me that those who stormed out of the Memorial Room are not ready for serious dialogue. Instead of taking the rejection of their resolution as a signal to change course — to attempt to understand that not everyone who supports Israel and Cornell’s connection with Israel is not a serf-like ideologue held in thrall to Benjamin Netanyahu and Sheldon Adelson — the rhetoric from its supporters has only intensified. When the entire pro-Israel community is smeared as enablers of “settler colonialism” (Castle’s words, not mine), it is difficult to imagine any conciliatory overtures on the horizon. As resolution supporters launched a verbal barrage against the “victors,” they undermined their legitimacy as partners for peace, and ensured that, on that divisive afternoon, no one truly won.

The S.A. has a duty not simply to give voice to students, but to guard against vitriol and rancor that seeks to penetrate campus discourse. Both supporters and opponents of Resolution 72 agree that its most important implications lay not in its legislative dictates, but in its ability to plunge Cornell into an ideological wasteland where one is either pro-boycott or pro-occupation. As I wrote two months ago, this would force students to choose sides rather than choose peace. The S.A. chose not to accede to the confrontational demands underlying Resolution 72, and instead sent an unambiguous message that this was not an issue it deemed productive to campus discourse.

To achieve peace and true justice in Palestine, Cornell must engage in the open, honest and vigorous debates needed to mold intellectually versatile students who will be able to advocate for — and, one day, defend — a more just future for Palestinians and Israelis. Publicity stunts in front of the student assemblies prove to the world not that American youth are ready to push for peace, but that we have given up on finding consensus on one of the thorniest geopolitical issues of the modern era.

I applaud the S.A. for saying that Cornellians, perhaps, are still serious about peace. I only hope we can prove them correct.