September 27, 2021

JOKHAI | The Discussion on Palestine Challenges Free Speech on Cornell’s Campus

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Last Thursday, Cornell’s Institute for Comparative Modernities hosted a talk with Palestinian human rights lawyer, scholar and author Noura Erakat on the topics of “Palestine: Settler Colonialism, Sovereignty and Apartheid.” Erakat started by laying bare the ultimate struggle for academics when trying to address Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Erakat finds that the main issue of talking about Palestine is the idea of Palestine as an exception to fundamental truth. It is deemed too complicated and, therefore, no truth seeker is allowed to appeal to basic decency or common sense. In her perspective, this state of being an exception leads to endless “debate” by those in power, but none that will protect Palestinians and their basic human rights.

This idea of perpetual discussion being a tool of oppression towards Palestinians was certainly not directed at anything specific. Like all discussions regarding human rights and their violations, the conversation is not localized, but global, affecting all people. The point struck incredibly close to home for me. Earlier in 2021, the Palestinian struggle gained global notoriety due to the eviction of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, leading to a rally of Cornellians sympathetic to the cause, organized by Prof. Eric Cheyfitz and members of Students for Justice in Palestine, at which others and I gave speeches. Cornell’s response to our voices left much to be desired. 

President Martha Pollack responded by side stepping the genuine politics and focusing on the nonetheless genuine issue of a “national rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes.” She never said the word “Palestine’ ‘and only noted the “need- for rigorous discourse and debate” about the complexities of the Middle East. President Pollack’s decision to focus only on the discussion of truth without ever settling on any specific truth, eerily parallels Erakat’s critique. It would seem that President Pollack is another powerful figure that treats Palestine as an exception to the question of humanity, whose very name should never be said aloud. Sadly, this is not the first time in recent history that the articulation of Palestinian struggle and resistance on Cornell’s campus was quelled. On Oct. 5, 2020 a visiting Brown University Professor of Comparative Literature and Modern Culture and Media, Prof. Ariella Azoulay delivered a lecture at Cornell titled, ‘Palestine Is There, Where It Has Always Been’. Shortly after starting, she was interrupted and her lecture’s thesis disregarded by a comment regarding “other viewpoints than those offered [at the lecture] and in subsequent talks” before the professor could finish. The incident led to the harassment of Prof. Azoulay and the curator of the lecture, Prof. Henni, Department of Architecture. The Cornell administration offered apologies to both professors in private regarding the matter. However, Cornell has yet to publicly address the incident as an occasion in which free speech was deterred on campus. It is in the interruption centered around “different viewpoints” where one can see that the viewpoint supporting Palestine is never allowed to articulate itself. 

Following this situation, Prof. Jonathan Ochshorn, Department of Architecture,  wrote an open letter to the head of his department, Dean Meejin Yoon. In it, Prof. Ochshorn exposes the external pressures to intimidate those critical of the Israeli state’s actions. Addressing the Dean, he writes, “I want to emphasize one of the key points raised … there was ‘outside pressure to interfere in this academic event.’ …   you also acknowledged that there was external pressure, including by Rabbi Weiss, Executive Director of Cornell Hillel, to marginalize and discredit (my words, not yours) the lecture and the speaker.” This begs the question: Why can’t Cornell understand the struggles of Palestine?

To question the reasons behind limiting freedom of speech requires looking at the  inherent issues that need to be addressed, especially in regards to the discussion of Palestine. The fight for freedom of speech is always in line with speaking truth to power, but also carries with it those that wish to use their free speech to bring down others. The argument of freedom of speech has been used throughout history as an excuse to insult, ostracize and alienate Jewish people. The freedom to smuggle anti-Semitism into spaces, through means like conspiracy theories, is not free speech at all but hate. It must be dealt with as such. The genuine fight to speak up for those who cannot yet, like that of the fight for Palestinian liberation, must be kept separate from those desiring to speak offensively about Judaism. One can do this by utilizing what hate speech does not have, measurable facts. Thus, we must explain why Cornell’s culture is hesitant with academic freedom regarding Palestine with material information.

In Oct. 2011, Cornell announced its partnership with Technion – Israel Institute of Technology to win former Mayor Bloomberg’s bid to turn Roosevelt Island, New York City, into a hub for technological innovation akin to Silicon Valley. Despite Cornell’s bylaw that “The functions of the University Faculty shall be to consider questions of educational policy which concern more than one college, school or separate academic unit, or are general in nature,” Cornell’s administration decided to ignore democratic processes including faculty, devaluing rigorous debate when debate could actually matter. There were panels and forums arguing the ethics of the move even after Roosevelt Island was approved to be used by the Cornell-Technion partnership. It was here that genuine dialogue about Technion’s documented moral failures prevailed. Examples like Technion’s development of the unmanned D-9 bulldozer utilized in Operation Cast Lead that culminated in 1,400 Palestinian deaths and their development of “the Scream,” an acoustic crowd control weapon utilized to suppress peaceful protests in occupied territories hung over those conversations just as they do over our campus today. Cornell decided that public discussion of its ethics are acceptable, as long as Cornellians never express dissenting opinions at at time where those opinions are needed most. 

Though Cornell-Technion does not explicitly develop military technology, Cornell’s partnership with them creates an academic culture where anyone  who condemns its role in maintaining Israeli occupation risks their argument being relegated to the realm of “mere opinion.” The act of questioning is emptied of its impact as the criticism would happen under an institution that would rather chase lucrative partnerships and real estate than listen to concerns. 

Cornell cannot be an institution that values academic freedom while legitimizing an institute that unequivocally perpetuates oppression. However, until this changes, it is the duty of academics like Prof. Ariella Azoulay and Noura Erakat to push for an end to the endless debate that claims to value both sides but ends up unquestionably supporting the status quo of oppression. There is much to discuss about how to finally solve the situation between Israel and Palestine. However, this discussion must not be allowed to silence the truth: Under Israeli oppression, Palestine is struggling, and it is in line with human rights and human decency to support Palestinians in their resistance.

Javed Jokhai ’24 is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. J-Punk runs every other Tuesday this semester.