Eric Reilly/Sun News Editor

The Einaudi Center held a panel on settler-colonialism in North America and Palestine on Tuesday.

March 8, 2023

Panel Discusses Settler-Colonialism, Indigeneity in Palestine Despite Pushback

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The Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies hosted a panel on Tuesday on settler-colonialism and indigeneity in the contexts of North America and Palestine. The event, which was held on the Jewish holiday of Purim and centered on settler-colonialism — a concept that has been used in criticisms of the Israeli government — faced pushback from Jewish community members. 

The panel featured Syracuse University Prof. Dana Olwan and Patty Krawec, author and co-founder of the Nii’kinaaganaa Foundation, a non-profit that collects money and distributes it to Indigenous-led groups. Mohamed Abdou, global racial justice postdoctoral fellow at the Einaudi Center, served as moderator for the event. 

Olwan and Krawec traversed themes of settler-colonialism, indigeneity, religion and solidarity through a series of questions posed by Adbou. The panelists addressed how these concepts apply to both Turtle Island — an indigenous term for North America — and Palestine.

Krawec, a member of the Ojibwe people — an indigenous tribe native to the northeastern U.S. and Canada — focused her contributions on building community. She expressed frustration with her fellow Ojibwe people, urging them to be more welcoming to settlers, arrivants and newcomers who she thinks often align with the nation-state that gives them a home.

“We need to build worlds where other people will be safe within them, where our Ojibwe world exists, but you will be safe in that world if you need to be there,” Krawec said. “We can exist together without needing to impose on each other.”

Olwan similarly grappled with the role of the nation-state when considering the context of Palestine.

“Within Palestinian struggle, for us the violence of nationalism and the violence of the nation-state is super clear, and we understand its harm.” Olwan said. “For many of us, we actively refuse to tie our sense of liberation within the boundaries of a so-called ‘Palestinian nation-state’ that the Israeli state will agree one day to quote-unquote ‘cede.’”

Rather than aim for a nation-state, Olwan believes that liberation can be achieved through other means.

“I think for many of us — for many Palestinians — we have enough evidence and we have enough history that it’s really important for us to imagine our liberation, to imagine Palestinian decolonial futures beyond Palestinian national independence within the context of the nation-state,” Olwan said.

Krawec emphasized a similar need for liberation in the futures of Ojibwe people.

“We’re not imagining an Ojibwe state — we’re imagining that we get to live in our place as our own people,” Krawec said. “That’s the world that we’re imagining: a world without borders.”

In a Guest Room column published in The Sun on Monday, 34 members and allies of Cornell’s Jewish community expressed their disapproval that the event was held on Purim, a joyous Jewish holiday that commemorates the events told in the Book of Esther. The column detailed what they believe to be a pattern of anti-Israel events held on Jewish holidays. 

“This pattern of scheduling during Jewish religious events is at best a troubling oversight and at worst a deliberate attempt to silence dissenting voices. Jewish students should not have to choose between practicing their religion and defending the existence of their historic homeland,” the column read. “To hold an event where the humanity of Jews and their right to exist in their historic homeland is called into question without any chance for them to defend themselves is malicious.”  

Cornellians for Israel Vice President Zoe Bernstein was one of the co-signers of the column and expressed her concern over the scheduling.

“As engaged members of the Cornell Community at large, who dedicate countless hours each week to various campus initiatives and involvements, it is deeply upsetting and frustrating to see a pattern developing of excluding our voices from anti-Israel events hosted by various student groups and University-sponsored speakers,” Bernstein wrote in a statement to The Sun.

Bernstein pointed to last year’s Muhammad el-Kurd talk that occurred on Shabbat and last semester’s settler-colonialism event that occurred on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism.

“Jewish students are beginning to feel as though their voices are being intentionally excluded from important dialogues, leaving the narratives they perpetuate to be one-sided and lacking the nuance these sensitive and complicated topics demand and deserve,” Bernstein wrote.

Einaudi Center director Rachel Riedl denied claims that the event had been deliberately scheduled on Purim in a statement to The Sun.

“The Settler-Colonialism and Indigeneity event on March 7, organized by an Einaudi Center postdoctoral fellow, was not purposely planned to coincide with a Jewish holiday but instead scheduled based on the speakers’ availability and space considerations on campus,” Riedl wrote. “We regret excluding any Cornell community members who may have wished to attend, and we encourage students to take advantage of our range of events.”

According to Prof. Eric Cheyfitz, American studies, who himself is Jewish, the Einaudi Center contacted him weeks before the event, informing him that it would be held on Purim due to scheduling. Cheyfitz acknowledged that he did not represent all Jews when he told the Einaudi Center the date was acceptable, as celebrations of the holiday were unlikely to conflict with the panel.

“My understanding of Purim is that it is not a High Holy Day. I mean nobody is going to tell you it is,” Cheyfitz said. “The really important days on the Jewish calendar — I can name them for you, everybody knows them — Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”

When asked about the complaints featured in the Guest Room column, Cheyfitz again pointed to Purim’s lesser importance as a Jewish holiday to explain why he believed the complaints were unwarranted. However, he did apologize for the panel that was held on Yom Kippur — one that featured Cheyfitz and similarly could not be rescheduled.

Despite continued debate surrounding the Einaudi Center’s intentionality in scheduling Tuesday’s panel on Purim, the event was attended by about 20 Cornell students and faculty.

Nic Oke ’26 heard about the event through History 3590: The Black Radical Tradition in the United States after his professor announced the event on Canvas. Oke decided to attend the event to expand, in an extracurricular setting, his understanding of indigeneity, inequity and other concepts he has been studying in class.

“There were some really good conversations that I feel need to be had more in our society that were brought up — and not even just in our society but within our Cornell community,” Oke said.

While Oke enjoyed the panel, he wished that more time had been reserved for questions and answers, which he felt was the most interesting part of the event.

“While it is important that Cornell be a space where we foster certain voices and have academics be able to come and share their scholarship with the population, I also think there’s a certain problematic nature of making people be an audience to someone’s work … rather than having us be conversationalists within their work,” Oke said.

Yemisi Mustapha ’25 attended the event with an interest in settler-colonialism discourse as she reconciles with Cornell’s history, including a founding enabled in the course of a national genocide by the sale of stolen land. With hopes of a career in social justice, Mustapha reflected upon her role in shaping social systems in response to the event.

“Just because we all are part of a system doesn’t mean you have to be such a heavy participant in it,” Mustapha said. “We all are entangled, so it’s not as simple as completely disconnecting yourself.”

Sofia Rubinson ’24 contributed reporting.