November 5, 2014

Students for Justice in Palestine: Dismantled Display Reveals ‘Repression’ at Cornell

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Last week, dozens of signs put up by Students for Justice in Palestine in the Arts Quad were dismantled, removed and thrown into trees by unknown perpetrators, sparking a social media outcry by the organization.

According to Alec Desbordes ’17, an active member of SJP, 50 signs depicting negative Israeli interactions with Palestine were planted on the Arts Quad at 8 a.m. Oct. 29 and were sanctioned by the University to remain until the evening of Oct. 31.

“The placards included posters from Visualizing Palestine and various other sources, documenting Israel’s house demolition policy, the segregation of its transport infrastructure and the recent assault on Gaza, among other issues,” according to a blog post on SJP website describing the dismantling incident.

According to Desbordes, the display encountered opposition less than three hours after being put up, when a student — who declined to give comment to The Sun — pulled up several of the signs until she was confronted by members of SJP.

“I feel like it’s ridiculous, but at the same time it as not unexpected.” — Alec Desbordes ’17

SJP’s blog post incorrectly attributed the action to a total of three students, including Reut Baer ’17, the Cornell fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. According to Baer and Emad Masroor ’17, a member of SJP, the implication of all three students was a mistake, though they were all present.

“It was one student, and I just perceived them to be a part of the group,” said Masroor, who is also a designer for The Sun. “They were standing together, so that’s why the blog post said it that way. [Baer] wasn’t the person who was actually pulling them up.”

According to Baer, the student who removed the signs was unaffiliated with any campus political organization and took down the signs as part of a misunderstanding she had over whether the display was properly sanctioned.

“The student went to the resource center in Willard Straight and was told at the time that if there’s no stamp of approval on each one of the signs, any student is allowed to take them down,” Baer said. “But afterward the SJP members let her know that they did get permission, the student looked into it … and didn’t touch them again.”

Police were also called, due to a complaint that SJP members were following the other students after the brief altercation. Baer said she thought the SJP members’ actions in following her and the other students was “excessive,” while Masroor said they had only wanted to explain the situation.

Though this altercation was ultimately resolved, SJP’s display continued to be dismantled and reassembled between last Wednesday and Friday, Desbordes said.

“The signs were vandalized throughout the night each time,” he said. “At first we had doubts, like it could be the wind or something, but when we started seeing signs in the trees and Thursday night two SJP members saw someone taking the signs and running with them, we understood it was manmade.”

According to Desbordes, three quarters of the signs were stolen or destroyed by noon on Friday, causing SJP to remove the signs at 5 p.m., hours before their planned removal.

“I feel like it’s ridiculous but at the same time it was not unexpected,” Desbordes said. “We’ve had a history of being repressed in freedom of speech on this campus. … Each time it’s a hit, it’s a hard blow.”

According to Desbordes, the situation is similar to others in the past in which SJP’s freedom of speech was not respected. One such situation, according to Desbordes, was the tabling of Resolution 72 —  which called for divestment from “companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine” — by the Student Assembly last April.

“The resolution was not even being debated that week, it was just presented,” Desbordes said. “But the fact that it was tabled indefinitely right away before being discussed is kind of a similar way of closing that debate before it even exists.”

Desbordes added that he and other members of SJP may choose to pursue other methods of getting the word out in the future due to the vandalism.

“Each time we try to go through the channels that are offered to us in the University, we get this kind of repression, which obviously does not make us keen to keep using these channels in the formal way,” he said.

Baer said that while she does not support the fact that the signs were dismantled, she said she thinks the messages on them were “problematic.”

“It’s concerning to me personally that SJP can have signs up and claim they’re there for justice in Palestine, but it was all just anti-Israel sentiment,” Baer said. “I’m personally an Israeli student and that’s just not a nice thing to see at all.”

Baer also said she thought the placards were misleading.

“They had all these different figures without mentioning Hamas once, which is a little ridiculous to me,” she said. “On top of that, a lot of the things they had there … weren’t necessarily fact. They had a sign up that said ‘Palestinian land lost since 1947.’ There was no such thing as Palestinian land in 1947; it was under mandate. After that it was under Jordanian rule.”

Desbordes, disagreed, saying the placards accurately represented the history between Israel and Palestine.

“Most of [figures] are basically U.N.-certified numbers and events, all facts,” Desbordes said. “There wasn’t any bias or point of view of SJP or any other group; they were what happened, what the situation is right now.”

Desbordes said he thinks that the incident does not involve a problem with University policy, as the signs were sanctioned. However, he said it exposes Cornell as an unhealthy environment for sharing ideas.

“It’s not a simple of question of policy. Obviously people didn’t have the right to do what they did and they did it,” Desbordes said. “It’s about the atmosphere and the environment that’s created by Cornell for us to actually be able to share knowledge and have conversation about these controversial issues.”