March 7, 2019

GUEST ROOM | Rejecting Boycott, Extending an Olive Branch

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Cornell, an intellectual Garden of Eden, has been my “home away from home” for three miraculous semesters. There is only one other paradisiacal location on earth that is as close to my heart as the Big Red: The State of Israel. I deferred my enrollment to Cornell, resisting the allure of its 25-acre Botanic Gardens, to take a gap year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with its similarly alluring 25-dunams Botanical Garden on Mount Scopus. The miracle of a “nation reborn,” as Israeli author Daniel Gordis characterizes the return of the Jewish people to their homeland, lies at the heart of my deep connection to the State of Israel. I was accepted to Cornell nineteen years after having been born in the Weill Cornell Medical Center; Big Red was my destiny. Likewise, my people were destined to return to Zion. When the former threatens to boycott the latter, as Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine has, my heart breaks.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against the Jewish state officially returned to campus last month, after being defeated in 2014. On Feb. 18, SJP announced the start of its #CornellDivest initiative, describing my homeland as “morally reprehensible.” Two days later, SJP chose division over dialogue by threatening to come after Israel using the “names and addresses” of her supporters. SJP then publicized its divestment letter to President Pollack. Riddled with inaccuracies and vitriolic language, the letter and its corresponding Facebook caption ignore Jewish indigeneity to Palestine and engender hatred towards pro-Israel Cornellians, such as myself. Unfortunately, this is not the first time SJP chose hate over love, in direct contravention of Cornell’s founding principles. Last semester, as a barrage of rockets from Gaza were raining down on southern Israel, an SJP member published a letter in The Sun approving  the “destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.” I responded to this hateful attack with an article of my own, in which I extended an olive branch to “well-meaning critics of Israel.” I offered to “engage in civil and substantive dialogue” and encouraged “all Cornellians to stay true to our university’s motto of accepting ‘any person.’” This olive branch was beaten to a pulp as SJP has carried on with its vilification of the Jewish state. The current hate-filled BDS campaign is their latest iteration.

I will not dignify SJP’s vicious, fiction-based sloganeering (e.g. “racialized apartheid state,” “settler-colonial project rooted in genocide,” “ethnic cleansing”) with a comprehensive rebuttal. SJP’s most recent attack against the pro-Israel community on campus speaks for its ill-conceived self: In response to a report in The Sun about a “closed door meeting” between an “executive board member of Roitman Chabad Center at Cornell” and S.A. representatives, SJP accused Chabad, an apolitical Jewish organization, of “shady politics.” This accusation is wholly unfounded; the Chabad ‘executive board member’ did not meet with S.A. representatives in an official capacity, according to Rabbi Eli Silberstein, the Roitman Chabad Center at Cornell director. SJP’s smear also came with a message of “[sincere] hope that this entire process is kept civil.” Here is my message to SJP: Instead of using the antisemitic canard accusing Jews of ‘shady politics,’ heed your own advice and behave civilly. Also, my offer from last semester still stands. Let’s exchange points of view in a respectful manner, rather than threaten BDS and Israel’s destruction.

The BDS movement has three demands: 1) “Ending [Israel’s] occupation and colonization of all Arab lands,” 2) “Full equality” for the “Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel,” and 3) “Promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.” My questions for SJP are as follows: In demanding an end to Israeli “colonization of all Arab lands,” are you denying Israel’s claim to any of historic Palestine? In demanding that some 5 million Palestinians be granted a “right of return,” is your aim to erase the Jewish character of the State of Israel, thereby dismantling the safe haven of my people? Regarding demand number two, I recognize that inequities exist in my country, as they do in countries worldwide. I also agree wholeheartedly that Israel must ensure full equality to its 20 percent Arab minority. Our response, however, should not be to seek the elimination of Israel, but to strive for meaningful reforms. So long as BDS and Israel’s destruction are no longer on the table, I am your ally in the fight against lingering inequalities in Israeli society.

Finally, I urge SJP to consider the grievances against BDS that Cornellians for Israel (CFI) outlined in a recent letter in The Sun, as well as the words of our University’s president. In a statement responding to SJP’s #CornellDivest initiative, President Pollack wrote that BDS’ call for “academic boycott” is “at odds with Cornell’s core commitment to academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas.” An example of this ‘core commitment’ in practice is the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, a joint venture between Cornell and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to “serve the worldwide common good.” Does SJP want to see the dissolution of this globally altruistic partnership as well? Reflecting on my experience at Hebrew University in an article for the Times of Israel, I described “education” as having the power to “break down walls.” I am confident that by rejecting BDS and instead engaging in productive discourse, we can break down the wall between the Slope and Mount Scopus.

Avraham Spraragen is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at abs356@cornell.edu.