Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine protested and held a die-in at an Israeli Independence Day celebration in Anabel Taylor Hall on Monday, angering many of the event’s student hosts and leading to arguments with Cornell Police who provided security at the event.
The festivities in Anabel Taylor were sponsored by Cornell Hillel and held with several other Jewish campus organizations to celebrate Israel’s declaration of independence in May of 1948.
“It’s all about spreading positivity, really just to let people have a good time,” said Cornell Hillel President Brandon Cohen ’18. “We are just here to celebrate the Jewish people having a state, with anti-semitism on the rise around the world.”
About 20 SJP members distributed fliers that said “the modern day Jewish state was founded on the expulsion of the indigenous population” and marched from Goldwin Smith Hall to enter the event, but were initially stopped by police.
“What I’m saying is that it is a little odd that you’re here to attend an event and everybody is getting ready to pull out a flag,” a policeman guarding the entrance told protesters. “We’re not saying you can’t protest, you’re just going to do it outside because you are not going to disrupt the event.”
Organizers eventually agreed to let SJP members into the private event once they promised police that they would not protest and agreed to swipe their Cornell IDs.
Within five minutes of entering, however, four members of SJP held a sign that read “Celebrating 69 years of Genocide” while others handed out fliers. Most members lay silently on the floor, some covered in flags, as part of the die-in protest.
“The celebration of Israel Day ignores a lot of genocidal histories and ignores a lot of the human suffering that is going on in Palestine right now,” said Hadiyah Chowdhury ’18, an SJP member, adding that “it also appropriates a lot of Arab culture and clumps it together in one weird category that we think is pretty racist.”
Cornell Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Ari Weiss said he was disappointed that the protesters had lied to gain access to the celebration.
“They said that they were coming as individuals,” Weiss told The Sun. “We asked them if they would protest, they said they wouldn’t, they lied. When they came in, I said ‘Did you lie to me?’ and one member shrugged their shoulders and nodded their head yes.”
Ithaca College students who planned to join the protest were not supposed to be allowed into the event, although Weiss said a few made it in. Cohen told The Sun that Hillel only wanted Cornell-affiliated people at the event because they have previously had trouble with violent actions by non-Cornell affiliated students at an event in 2014.
At one point on Monday evening, SJP members told police that someone had attempted to push and trip one of their members during the altercation, but the officer said he had not seen anything. SJP members then told the officer that they would file an incident report.
Cornell Police Chief Kathy Zoner confirmed late on Monday night that CUPD made no arrests during the protest.
Weiss told The Sun that Cornell Hillel members explicitly conveyed to CUPD that they did not want any force to be used against protesters.
“Because they are students, we have no interest in violence or force, and we will continue to celebrate Israel’s independence because we are proud Zionists,” he said.
After about 20 minutes of protesting, organizers, protesters and the police came to an agreement that the protest would end within 10 minutes. Protesters stood up and peacefully exited the room around 8:30 p.m.
Nicole Sochaczevski ’20, a member of TAMID Group at Cornell and the Jewish Greek Council, said she was glad conflicts like Monday’s occur less often than on other campuses and believes SJP should have the right to express its opinion, but added that she was still concerned with the protesters’ message.
“The fact that some of the terms used by some groups are very specific, and to me the term genocide has a very specific meaning,” Sochaczevski, who is Jewish, told The Sun late on Monday night. “There is no genocide occurring in Israel.”
Chowdhury said she was disappointed that police ignored the alleged physical harassment against a member of SJP.
“We were really disrespected by the police, who ignored an incident of physical harassment in which one of our members was shoved,” she said. “We are really disappointed by the way CUPD treated us and are certain it was a result of racism.”
SJP members discussed plans to file two incident reports relating to verbal and physical harassment that occurred at the event.
Piragash Swargaloganathan, a member of SJP, said the protest did not go according to plan, but said he thinks the group achieved its goal of raising awareness.
“It didn’t go as what we were expecting, but our goal is to … bring awareness that we need the people who are celebrating this event to be uncomfortable and to confront that they are celebrating a genocide, and I think we did achieve that,” he said.
Chowdhury said the main reason the group demonstrated is to draw people’s attention to what she said is an uninformed campus.
“I think this campus is very ignorant of this issue in general, or if not ignorant, not well informed — intentionally or not intentionally — and drawing attention to this event and its racism and the problems that it ignores is really important to me and others,” she said.
Swargaloganathan echoed these sentiments, saying Cornell tacitly supports what he said is Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.
“We believe that Palestinian voices throughout the entire U.S. college campuses have been oppressed,” he said. “We feel the need that this voice also needs to be heard, just as any other community’s voice.”
Many other SJP protesters declined to speak with The Sun when approached for comment. Cohen, the Cornell Hillel president, said Hillel members have reached out to students who disagree with the group in the past and that many were “not as interested in having a conversation and were more interested in protesting.”
“It would be nice to actually have a conversation rather than just being antagonistic against us,” he said.
“We are all Cornell students, we are all here to get experiences in college, and obviously this is a very hot topic, but I think it is important for people to experience different things.”
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs ’19 contributed reporting to this article.