January 25, 2022

GUEST ROOM | Cornell’s Silence is Deafening

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The events at the Colleyville synagogue on Jan. 15, where four Jews were held hostage by gunman Malik Faisal Akram for 11 hours during Shabbat services, shocked American Jews. I, like other American Jews, watched the news in horror as FBI officials waited outside the Texas synagogue and attempted to negotiate with the gunman. Unfortunately, the antisemitism of the day did not end when the hostages escaped.

Usually, liberals speak out against hatred and injustice and immediately flock to social media to express solidarity. On that Saturday, however, social media was silent. The FBI dismissed the gunman’s motivations as being antisemitic, even though these motivations were clear. In what world is it not antisemitic for a man to waltz into a synagogue during Shabbat services with a gun, take hostages and demand the release of a virulent antisemite from a nearby prison? Make no mistake — four Jews were forced to stare down the barrel of a gun for 11 hours simply because they were Jewish. 

As someone on the left and a student at a liberal university, my social media feeds are usually flooded with posts about injustices that my friends see around the world. My generation is sensitized to speak up for minority rights and to always stand with the victim. Yet, this time  was different. The only people on social media who cared to speak out against the horrors in Texas were Jewish. This failure was even broader: President Biden was unable to acknowledge that the gunman’s actions sprung from his hatred of Jews and Israel. Many politicians on the left also failed to address the antisemitic nature of the crime. The New York Times did not even deem Saturday’s tragedy worthy of front page news. As for Cornell, there was no message from the administration condemning the attack or acknowledging antisemitism in the country.

I fear that progressive hatred toward Israel has desensitized the left to acts of violence against Jews, particularly when those acts are not committed by perpetrators who fit our political narrative. In 2018, the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh shooting was a white nationalist who idolized Hitler, sought Jewish extermination and had ties to neo-Nazis. In the case of the Jan. 15 attack, the gunman went to a Texas synagogue to demand the release of Pakistani inmate Aafia Siddiqui. Ms. Siddiqui, a jihadi imprisoned for assaulting U.S. officers, refused defense attorneys because they were Jewish and told a judge that her jury should be tested for Zionist or Israeli DNA. Noticeably, Ms. Siddiqui’s name, as well as the motivations of the gunman, were largely left out of the media’s narrative.

Bari Weiss noted in a recent article that both the type of perpetrator and the the type of Jewish victim seem to determine if much of the country deems an act of anti-Jewish violence worthy of attention. While many of us are familiar with the 2018 Pittsburgh shooting and saw headlines in the media, no such headlines made national attention in 2019 when two Black Hebrew Israelites shot Hasidic Jews in a kosher supermarket in Jersey City. I’ve found that when there is sympathy for Jewish victims, it is largely confined to Jews who look and act like me — secular, liberal and engaged in modern life. 

To me, the lack of attention to Jersey City and the tepid response from the media cannot be divorced from the left’s more recent hatred toward Israel. To be sure, Israel should not be insulated from real policy critiques. However, I’ve noticed of late that many progressives who know nothing about the conflict claim to be disgusted with Israel. When pressed as to why they feel this way, they don’t really have an answer. This is a visceral and emotional hatred rather than a political opinion. In thinking of Texas, I’ve been thinking of the fighting in May between Israel and the Palestinian territories and Cornellians’ response to the fighting. Many of my progressive friends posted on social media, but when I asked them why they felt Israel’s enforcement of a housing law amounted to ethnic cleansing (as they claimed), none had responses. Neither did they care when a Student Assembly member reposted a video of Louis Farrakhan accusing Israel of practicing a “dirty religion.” 

Just in the last few years, Farrakhan has compared Jews to “termites,” “cockroaches” and “rats.” This, however, has not swayed many Democrats to condemn him or even withdraw support. Three of the four Women’s March’s original co-chairs have ties to Farrakhan, and when asked about him, Linda Sarsour called him “too blessed.” When Rep. Ilhan Omar D-M.N. used a nasty trope about Jews to criticize Israel, Sarsour, along with former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, rushed to her defense. It should come as no surprise that once one form of hatred is tolerated in the party, other less socially palatable kinds find their way in, too. 

At Cornell, there are many opportunities to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including an excellent class, GOVT 3977: The History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. I learned a lot from the class and, as a result, some of my views on the conflict evolved. Evidently, many Cornell students have strong feelings about the conflict — on both sides — that are grounded in political and historical knowledge. 

What we as Cornell students must do, however, is ask ourselves whether we are criticizing Israel for political reasons or whether we are indulging in anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hatred because of the social media posts and outrage that we see online. Unfortunately, it has become trendy to demonize Israel, regardless of the facts or the impact on Jews. What I saw after the events at the Colleyville synagogue was a real discomfort with acknowledging Jewish victimhood and anti-Jewish violence when that violence did not come from a white nationalist. The indifference toward Texas was chilling.

My hope is that Cornell students take a moment to reflect on anti-Jewish violence in the country and the complexities of antisemitism. As an American Jew, I see troubling trends on both sides of the political aisle. On Jan. 15, I saw a complacency on the left that can not be ignored. As Cornellians, and as a country, I hope that we take Colleyville as a warning — demonizing Jews and Israel has grave consequences. Antisemitism matters, regardless of who it comes from, in what manner it manifests or which Jews it targets. When we allow antisemitism to slide — in any form or toward any Jew — we jeopardize the safety of all Jews. If we really believe in liberal ideals of equality for all, then Colleyville must matter. 

Sara Stober ’22 is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester. Comments can be sent to [email protected].