Tensions over the boycott, divest and sanction movement came to a head at the Student Assembly meeting on Thursday, after a community member who identified herself as a Jewish Cornell student made comments towards Omar Din ’19, College of Human Ecology representative and one of the proponents of the BDS resolution, that he described as “Islamophobic.”
During the open microphone session, Sydney Eisenberg ’21 questioned Din, a leader of Students for Justice in Palestine, on his cultural background and his involvement in minority organizations, said Mahfuza Shovik ’19, S.A. representative for the College of Engineering.
Eisenberg then implied that Din was active in both the Palestinian and Arab communities, said Shovik. When Din responded that he was neither Palestinian nor Arab, but was involved with the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association, Eisenberg said she was “uncomfortable” with his presence on S.A., said attendee Jaqueline Hutchinson ’19, a supporter of Students for Justice in Palestine who was present at the meeting.
Eisenberg then suggested that Din had a “conflict of interest,” said Mackenzie Smith ’21, S.A. representative for the College of Arts and Sciences. According to Hutchinson, Din objected to the characterization before the open microphone session was closed. Soon after, Eisenberg left the room.
The meeting then continued as scheduled, addressing other items on the agenda. At the end of the S.A. meeting, Din publicly decried Eisenberg’s comments as “Islamophobic rhetoric.”
“[The comments] make me feel most unwelcome here in the Assembly and in the community and I really, truly hope that when this debate continues, it’s done with a level of civility and with a level of openness and welcomeness for everyone,” Din said emphatically.
President of Cornell Hillel Jillian Shapiro ’20 then approached the microphone. She apologized repeatedly, saying that Eisenberg’s comments were “not representative” of anyone on the anti-BDS campaign, including Cornell Hillel or Cornellians for Israel.
“It was clearly a miscommunication of some sort, and I know she was sorry about that, personally and institutionally,” said Shapiro.
After the meeting, Shapiro reportedly personally apologized to Din. “I really appreciate the apology. I see that it was coming from an honest place and reflects a lot of the discussions I’ve had with her [Shapiro] in the past and with the previous president of Hillel as well,” said Din.
Smith told The Sun that she did not believe that Eisenberg’s comments came from malice but from a misunderstanding of the assembly.
“What she was getting at, I think, is that she felt like the assembly had a very vocal advocate for BDS and SJP and didn’t have an equal voice representing the other side,” Smith said. “What she failed to understand or consider is that every assembly member is elected and is allowed to hold their own opinions. She was absolutely mistaken and ignorant in the comment she made, but she wasn’t attacking anyone and she wasn’t being racist.”
Eisenberg did not provide comment to The Sun by press time.
After the proceedings, members of the Student Assembly condemned Eisenberg’s comments.
The comments were “absolutely Islamophobic,” said Barbaria. “They may have come out of place of ignorance, but they were inappropriate regardless.”
Shovik expressed similar sentiments. “As [a] fellow visible Muslim on the S.A., [Eisenberg’s] comments made me feel unsafe, something I never expected to feel while serving on the S.A.”
“I feel like there was a lot of hatred, a lot of hurt feelings … this was really disheartening and frustrating to see,” said minority students liaison Moriah Adeghe ’21.
S.A. representative for the School of Industrial and Labor Relations John Dominguez ’20 called Eisenberg’s comments “deeply problematic” and “unacceptable,” saying the meeting’s proceedings were a “testament” as to why BDS does not belong at Cornell.
“[BDS] is a conversation that does not deserve to be on the Assembly,” said Dominguez. “This is a very sensitive conversation, and things like this might happen, and this kind of shows that [BDS] needs to be pulled.”
On Friday, Cornell Hillel issued a public statement via Facebook addressing the controversy.
“Those comments do not represent Hillel, as we strongly condemn bigotry and racism, including Islamophobia. Cornell Hillel remains committed to working with other communities on campus to create an inclusive campus community,” the statement read.
Eisenberg’s comments were not the only source of tension at the meeting. S.A. vice president of diversity and inclusion Catherine Huang ’21 described a prior meeting between Huang and Din in which she said Din demanded she conduct an email vote for the BDS resolution to pass through the Diversity and Inclusion committee, which she chairs. The email vote would allow the resolution to pass through to the S.A. floor without debate.
According to Smith, this was the reason why Eisenberg and other Jewish students had attended the S.A. meeting. “A large contingent of Jewish students came to the meeting today to raise concerns about facilitating open dialogue and making sure that both sides were given an opportunity to participate in debate [and] discussion,” she said.
Huang asserted that Din had used “coercive language” to push a vote on the resolution prior to the S.A. meeting, saying that he would “personally be furious” if the resolution did not pass the committee.
Huang then turned to Din. “Omar, I’m not happy with our conversation. I just want to clarify that I think the way and the language you used felt coercive.” In a later interview with The Sun, Huang said she felt that the whole situation was “totally inappropriate because no member of the S.A. or any S.A. committee should be voting on something they are not completely informed of.”
“Later that night [after the meeting with Din], I checked in with [the S.A. executive board], and they all agreed that it was inappropriate for the email vote to happen and to basically hold off on the vote until they could speak to Omar on how we could best proceed in a way that maintains the integrity of the resolution process of the S.A.,” Huang told The Sun.
Huang commented after the S.A. meeting that she was “really sorry that this is happening. I just wanted to reiterate that I did not promise [Din] anything at this [prior] meeting.”
Din denied these claims in an interview with The Sun. “I did say that I think the communities involved will be angry and furious, but I definitely didn’t say that I personally would do anything to her. That’s just frankly not true.”
Din defended his request for an email vote, citing the impending S.A. elections, which begin March 25, as well as the Jewish Passover in late April.
“I wanted to make sure that voters in this election are informed on how this conversation is moving on and that the conversation is allowed to happen on the Assembly floor,” Din said. “I don’t want [discussions over BDS] to be anywhere near the Jewish holiday because I think that would just make Jewish students very uncomfortable and be very unfair towards them.”
After the meeting, S.A. president Varun Devatha ’19 condemned the proposed email vote.
“I think that pushing this through an email vote was completely inappropriate,” Devatha said. “The idea that you would have [the] committee vote on a resolution without engaging in conversation and debate is pretty inappropriate to me.”
During the meeting, the Student Assembly also passed resolutions 30, 33 and 34, approving amendments to the Student Activities Funding Commission Funding guidelines, establishing Student Health Advisory committee bylaws and approving amendments to the International Students Union constitution, respectively.