In a letter of response sent to Students for Justice in Palestine, President Martha Pollack addressed the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement on campus and recent efforts to pass a supporting resolution within the Student Assembly, as The Sun previously reported. Reactions by student groups and Student Assembly presidential candidates varied from supportive to critical.
Pollack’s letter to SJP, posted by Cornell Hillel on Facebook on Feb. 28, acknowledged the movement on campus but clearly rejected any notion that Cornell would, or could, use its endowment for “political action.” Her response, including her personal opinion opposing the BDS movement, has galvanized a contentious issue prior to S.A. elections.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement is an international call for a boycott of Israeli goods and divestment in Israeli companies by universities, other organizations and governments, as well as the imposition of sanctions on Israel. Dating back to 2005, BDS aims to push Israel into changing the way it treats Palestinians through economic and diplomatic pressure.
On Feb. 18, Students for Justice in Palestine delivered a letter to President Martha Pollack, requesting that Cornell “divest its endowment pool from companies complicit in … human rights violations in [Palestine].”
The Sun reached out to groups on campus with direct interests in BDS and to the current S.A. presidential candidates, looking for what the future of the movement may entail and how the Student Assembly plans to address the divestment issue, which it tabled in 2014.
In an interview with The Sun, SJP facilitator Laila Hayani ’19 issued a strong rebuke to Pollack’s letter. “[SJP is] deeply disappointed in [Pollack’s] failure to stand up for human rights in the name of ‘academic freedom,’” said Hayani. “We are bringing [BDS] to the S.A. because we are interested in the University doing the right thing, not dialogues on what makes people most comfortable. No one should be comfortable with human rights violations.”
In response to Pollack’s writing that BDS “unfairly singles out” Israel for sanction, Hayani responded, “[SJP has] also targeted other countries that have committed atrocious human rights violations … This same rhetoric of ‘singling out one nation’ was used to oppose divestment movements against South Africa during the time of apartheid.”
Jillian Shapiro ’20, president of Cornell Hillel, said she was happy to see Pollack’s response, citing flaws in the movement.
“President Pollack [addresses] why it does not belong on our campus,” Shapiro said in an interview with The Sun. “[She] rightly points out that BDS does not lead to peace.”
Jay Sirot ’19, president of Cornellians for Israel, expressed a similar sentiment. The BDS movement represents a “double standard” that places sole blame for the conflict on Israel, “while ignoring the malign actions of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority,” Sirot told The Sun.
“We’re unclear as to why this is one of the only issues that the S.A. is debating and why it’s being framed in the negative … There are many ways of finding nuance in this conversation and ways of working together to invest in understanding and mutual cooperation,” Shapiro said.
Candidate for S.A. president and current S.A. representative for the School of Industrial and Labor Relations John Dominguez ’20 echoed Sirot’s sentiment in an interview with The Sun, saying that people feel “unsafe” when BDS is a movement on campus.
“This is not in the jurisdiction of the Cornell Student Assembly,” said Dominguez. “At the end of the day, if the trustees and president are not on board, then nothing is going to happen.” If elected, Dominguez said he is willing to facilitate dialogue between SJP and Hillel “separate” from the S.A.
Candidate for S.A. president Trevor Davis ’21 declined to offer an opinion to The Sun, citing his focus on winning his election to “put it on [his] resume.”
Joseph Anderson ’20, candidate for S.A. president and current S.A. executive vice president, viewed Pollack’s response with some criticism.
While Anderson did not find Pollack’s stance “that surprising,” he believes “it might have narrowed the window for dialogue on our campus,” Anderson told the Sun.
“In order to have a conversation on this topic, I feel that [S.A.] members need to continue educating themselves,” Anderson said.