April 17, 2019

GUEST ROOM | Dialogue Beyond BDS

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Corrections appended.

With the failure of the BDS resolution before the Student Assembly this past Thursday, Cornell Hillel and Cornellians for Israel, both of which strongly opposed the measure, declared a victory for peace. However, peace and dialogue have not won out just yet. If Hillel and CFI are serious about promoting human rights of Palestinians and Israelis, they must walk the walk.

If Hillel cares about dialogue, it should strive to bring in Palestinian speakers as well as Israeli critics of the occupation of Palestinian land such as Breaking the Silence, a group of Israel Defense Forces veterans that candidly discusses military activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and B’tselem, a human rights organization dedicated to ending the occupation. If the one-sided narrative of BDS disqualifies it as a genuine path forward in the conflict, as I believe it does, then Hillel should reconsider the way it runs Birthright trips, which since 2017 have not allowed Palestinian speakers to talk to the participants. The trip could be supplemented by information about the Palestinian narrative. The two Israel trips that Cornell Hillel runs, Birthright and Perspectives (formerly Fact Finders), are both largely funded by Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate and big-time Trump donor who has claimed that “the purpose of Palestinians is to destroy Israel” and has called on the US to nuke Iran “in the middle of the desert” where “it doesn’t hurt a soul.” This sort of rhetoric does not sound like a peaceful and balanced alternative to BDS.

Cornell Hillel has said that “a lasting and secure Israeli-Palestinian peace can only be achieved through the lens of a two-state solution,” a solution that recent polls have shown is opposed by most Israelis and most Palestinians, especially young people. Time is running out for a two-state solution: Benjamin Netanyahu, or as his supporters call him, “King of Israel,” won the Israeli election on Tuesday last week after promising to annex parts of the West Bank. This move would end the viability of a Palestinian state, leaving most Palestinians in the West Bank living in fragmented Bantustans under civil control of the Palestinian Authority but with the Israeli army calling the shots. If Hillel really supports two states for two peoples, it must act now. In the words of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, “If this bloc of millions of ­Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

I do not mean to dismiss the real and valid safety concerns of Israelis, whether they live in Israel proper or in illegal settlements on occupied land. I have family in Israel, and I myself lived in Israel during the Second Intifada, a wave of Palestinian popular resistance and terrorism in which hundreds of Israeli civilians were murdered. During this period, over 1,000 Palestinian civilians were killed by the IDF in response to protests and violence. Despite the value of safety, however, I am uneasy with the claim made by the CFI president during the Student Assembly teach-in that Israeli security justifies de jure discrimination within the West Bank such as segregated roads, and I suspect that I am not alone.

Currently, Hillel supports a range of religious options for Jewish students, but the only flavor of pro-Israel activism available is effectively anti-Palestinian and pro-occupation by omission. Hillel should increase opportunities for Jewish students like me to engage with J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian organization that advocates for a negotiated two-state solution, or the Shalom Hartman Institute, an Israeli research center supporting democracy and religious pluralism, as well as more left-wing organizations such as If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace. My freshman year, Hillel obtained funding for me to attend a J Street student conference, and it would be great if students could take this a step further and establish a J Street chapter on campus. Voices opposing the occupation must be part of the Israel discussion at Hillel. In addition, Hillel and other Jewish institutions at Cornell should welcome in non-Zionist, anti-Zionist and post-Zionist Jews to bring their full selves to our Jewish community. Judaism is a religion built on dialogue and recognizing difference, and it is a shame that the Israel-Palestine discussion promoted by Hillel is so strictly limited. The willingness expressed by Cornell Hillel to engage in dialogue around the conflict is admirable. The question now is whether Hillel will follow through.

If you would like to stand up for Palestinians in Israel, the Occupied Territories and beyond within the framework of the Cornell Jewish community, get in touch! Let’s organize.

Yinnon Sanders is a senior in the College of Engineering. Guest Room appears periodically this semester. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Corrections: A previous version of this article incorrectly claimed that Dani Dayan is the head of the Yesha Council. In fact, Dayan left the position in 2013. The article also wrongly claimed that Dayan had advocated destroying Palestinian neighborhoods in Gaza. The incorrect statements have been removed. We regret the errors.