November 15, 2021

SAMILOW | A False Narrative on Israel and Academic Freedom

Print More

A little over a month ago, my colleague in the Opinion section, Javed Jokhai ’24, published a column with the thesis that pro-Palestinian voices are being suppressed on Cornell’s campus. In his view, the Cornell administration’s purported neutrality on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its unwillingness to condemn Israel and sever all ties with Israeli academic institutions prejudices the free speech rights of pro-Palestinian students and faculty on campus. In reaching this conclusion, Jokhai offers contradictory reasoning and mischaracterizes the nature of academic freedom.

Last spring, amid the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Martha Pollack released a statement expressing concern about the rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes, including several incidents at Cornell and around Ithaca. This was, of course, completely reasonable given that during those weeks we saw Jews beaten in the streets of New York and Canada and pro-Palestinian protesters in London and Brussels chant “death to Jews.” Even at Cornell, where close to 20 percent of students are Jewish, a member of the Student Assembly shared a video of notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan accusing Israel of “practicing dirty religion” on her instagram story. 

Jokhai, however, was troubled by Pollack’s statement. While he admits that the issue of anti-Semitism is “genuine,” he argues that Pollack was wrong to “side step” the politics of the conflict. Jokhai complains that Pollack’s refusal to say the word “Palestine” and take a stance on the issue “treats Palestine as an exception to the question of humanity.” Jokhai doesn’t seem to think it’s acceptable to take a stance against anti-Semitic hate crimes without simultaneously expressing support for the Palestinian cause. This is a bizarre position given that the administration quite commonly expresses concern about developments on campus and around the nation but rarely, if ever, weighs in on divisive geopolitical disputes. Why should Israel be the exception?

A university president has many responsibilities, one of which is to maintain an institutional environment where the rights of all students and faculty to express themselves are protected. Martha Pollack’s duties, however, do not include determining the “truth” about Middle East conflicts.

Jokhai’s next contention is that the administration is failing to create such an environment. As evidence, he cites an incident from last year where a talk by noted anti-Israeli academic Ariella Azoulay was briefly interrupted by a Cornell professor posting a comment in the Zoom chat saying that the department looked forward to hosting a lecture that offered “other viewpoints than those offered here today and in subsequent talks.” Presumably, this is the most egregious example that Jokhai could find. While the professor was perhaps wrong to express that sentiment at the time and in the manner that she did, the notion that this incident reflects a systematic effort to chill the speech of pro-Palestinian academics is laughable. 

Though this was an isolated incident, Jokhai references an open letter from Prof. Jonathan Ochshorn, Department of Architecture that claimed this was part of a “much larger, well-funded, and systematic attempt to silence, intimidate, discredit, and even criminalize scholarship critical of Israel, and to penalize scholars who critically examine the history, policies, and practices of the self-defined Jewish state.” Ochshorn places Hillel Executive Director Ari Weiss at the center of this conspiracy and declares that his intervention was not an “innocent” act and was a result of his past work with the Birthright organization, which Ochshorn is quick to note is funded, in significant part, by the late casino magnate and conservative donor Sheldon Adelson. Rather than accept that Weiss probably complained about the event because he is pro-Israel, as is Hillel, Ochshorn (and Jokhai) chooses to assert it’s because Weiss is on the payroll of a vast, well-funded, right-wing Jewish effort. If this sounds like a trope you’ve heard before, it’s because you have. 

However, after making this impassioned, unequivocal case for free speech, Jokhai quickly reverses himself and argues that while important, free speech can’t include “hate.” This is an inherently incoherent position. Many might consider an argument that Israel doesn’t have the right to exist a form of anti-Semitism and yet it would violate the principle of academic freedom Jokhai holds so dear to prevent an academic with those views from expressing himself. 

Finally, Jokhai turns his ire towards Cornell Tech’s partnership with the Technion, a renowned Israeli university. As I and others explained in a letter to the Sun last year, the criticisms of the Technion partnership are completely without merit. The Technion is not located in disputed territory, nor was any funding from the Israeli government committed to the partnership on Roosevelt Island. Surely, Jokhai wouldn’t assert that a university is responsible for the actions of its country’s government. So boycotting the Technion is not protesting the “occupation” or any specific policy; it is boycotting anyone or anything associated with the Jewish State. As a I wrote last year, “such a position crosses the boundary from legitimate criticism of Israel into anti-Semitism.

Jokhai claims “Cornell’s partnership with [Technion] 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.’” But that’s exactly what his views are — “mere opinion.” One’s views do not carry more weight simply because one claims they are the “correct” ones. 

Ultimately, Jokhai’s frustration seems to be that Cornell and others refuse to accept his view of the conflict as undisputed fact. He is welcome to those views. But no one, the University — students, faculty or staff — are obliged to accept them.

Matthew Samilow is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]On Malott’s Front Steps runs every other Monday this semester.