A campus-wide email sent Friday by Vice President of Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi summed up the sentiments from this week’s campus Israel-Palestine demonstrations: “We are all Cornellians and deserve the opportunity to fully engage in our educational experience,” Lombardi wrote.
As the Cornell community grapples with the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, tensions remain heightened throughout campus, exemplified last week by the outpour of support and condemnation for Prof. Russell Rickford, history, and his controversial speech referring to Hamas’s initial invasion into Israel as “exhilarating.” Rickford told The Sun he was referring to “those first few hours, when they broke through the apartheid wall, that it seemed to be a symbol of resistance, and indeed a new phase of resistance in the Palestinian struggle.” He later apologized for his choice of words, and has since requested a leave of absence, which was granted by the University. This incident and various campus demonstrations led to questions about Cornell’s commitment to free expression.
“Free expression is a core value for Cornell. Equally important is our commitment to belonging and inclusion. While these values can come into tension, we must remain mutually committed to them, particularly in the most difficult times,” the email read. “No matter how strongly you may disagree with someone, they have the right to hold and express their beliefs and opinions.”
Campus awoke on Wednesday to anti-Israel graffiti spray painted and chalked across Central Campus. That same day, Students for Justice in Palestine held a second rally in support of the civilians in Palestine and students at Cornell who did not feel safe and Cornell Hillel hosted a community gathering for Israelis still held hostage in Gaza. While both demonstrations occurred peacefully, the anti-Israel vandalism went viral on social media and sparked allegations of antisemitism on campus.
“We must also remember that behaviors such as doxxing, vandalism or harassment are counter to these values [free expression and belonging and inclusion], as are racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia,” Lombardi wrote.
Anti-Israel Graffiti Sprayed Across Central Campus
On Wednesday, Oct. 25, Cornell’s campus was tagged with multiple graffiti incidents displaying anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric, including “Israel is fascist,” “Zionism = genocide” and “F*** Israel.” Across campus, Jewish students were struck by these words, many saying that they were shocked, upset and scared for their safety.
Cornell Hillel Vice President Simone Shteingart ’24 was one of the students rattled by this incident.
“It’s terrifying because whoever did this kind of thing knows that they are doing something that is not legal,” Shteingart said. “So it’s like what else? What else is someone willing to do?”
Shteingart interpreted the vandalism as an act of hate against Jewish people, and stressed that it is not an isolated incident to Cornell, but is happening at college campuses across the country. Several Tulane University students were involved in a brawl at an off-campus pro-Palestinian protest Thursday when protestors attempted to burn an Israeli flag. Jewish students were barricaded inside a library at Cooper Union as pro-Palestinian protestors pounded on doors and windows on Wednesday. The New York Police Department later clarified that there was no direct threat or danger to the students in the library. Shteingart cited these incidents to emphasize the fear that some Jewish students are currently feeling.
“It’s terrifying to be Jewish on our campus right now,” Shteingart said. “I think that Jewish students feel alone. They feel isolated. They don’t feel supported.”
Noah Bodner ’27 echoed these thoughts, explaining how an incident this early into his time at Cornell has left him feeling unwelcome.
“It’s not a pleasant thing to walk around campus, especially when you’re new here and you’re still meeting all these people, and then see aggressive, violent and vulgar language used about your homeland, your country, where your people or where your family is,” Bodner said. “It does not create a welcoming environment or feeling for me.”
Cornell Hillel released a statement on Instagram Wednesday condemning the acts which “create[d] a hostile environment for Jewish students at Cornell” and continued “to deteriorate campus culture.”
Students for Justice in Palestine Host Second Rally
SJP organized a rally outside of Day Hall on Wednesday, Oct 25, protesting the Administration’s “dismissal and contribution to Palestinian suffering,” according to the flier. Over 50 students and faculty members gathered, holding posters with phrases such as “FREE ALL PALESTINIAN PRISONERS” and “END ALL U.S. AID TO ISRAEL!,” with others waving the Palestinian flag.
After demonstrating in front of Day Hall, the ralliers marched across the Arts Quad chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, the occupation has got to go,” “Viva, viva, Palestina” and “No justice, no peace,” among other pro-Palestinian sayings.
In front of Sibley Hall, speakers continued to address the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict and espoused that the Cornell administration failed to give support to Palestine or Palestinian students and was actively supporting Israel and their “unjust occupation” of Palestine.
Hasham Khan ’26 was a supporter at the event.
“The speeches being made at the initial rally at Day Hall were mostly about the frustrations and grievances of Palestinian students. Our allies were talking about how the silence of Cornell speaks volumes in the sense that this school has a lot of ties with Israel and how it directly funds the current bombardment of and destruction of Gaza and, subsequently, the Palestinian state as a whole,” Khan said.
Khan stated his dismay at President Martha Pollack’s statements on the Israel-Hamas war, which did not contain the word “Palestine” until the third statement.
“Receiving the first email, we understood that [President Pollack] had a very nuanced and neutral take, but when the emails kept coming, we realized that Cornell was clearly taking a side here, and it was very unfortunate that Palestinian students are being not represented at all, that the atrocities of Palestine aren’t being heard or being highlighted on campus,” Khan said.
Malak Abuhashim ’24, president of SJP, helped to organize the event.
“I think as a Palestinian, as an Arab, as a Muslim, as a human, it’s been very upsetting to see how the death and destruction in Israel has been empathized with, and it’s so easy for society and Pollack to empathize with that and call it out and stand with Israel, but then when there’s a genocide in Gaza, she can barely even say anything,” Abuhashim said.
Abuhashim feels that Cornell’s response to the conflict has been inadequate, saying, “I think the least [the Cornell Administration] can do is give a neutral statement where [they] put as much emphasis as to what’s happening in Israel as to in Gaza, and if [President Pollack] doesn’t, she’s a coward. Because what she’s saying is that funds and money mean more than human lives.”
Other universities, like Stanford, have expressed their neutrality. Others still, like Northwestern University, distance themselves from the conflict, stating they will not be “issuing further statements on political, geopolitical or social issues that do not directly impact the core mission of our University, the education and futures of our students, or higher education,” according to their Leadership Note.
Several students at the rally stated they do not feel safe or welcome on campus.
“I don’t feel safe as a Palestinian, there are certain people, certain Zionists, who follow us around,” Abuhashim said. “They’ll take pictures, write mean articles, say nasty things on the internet.”
Bianca Waked grad, who also helped to organize the rally, echoed the same sentiment.
“I’m scared. I’m scared to go to my office, I haven’t been to my dept in three weeks now,” Waked said. “I’m scared to talk to people, to be on campus longer than I have to be, except for a protest.”
A student was seen in the back recording the rally when organizers approached him and asked him to stop recording and leave. The student initially refused to do either, but the organizers blocked his view, and he left without incident.
Waked felt that the campus was currently an unsafe location for many students, in part, due to the Administration’s current response.
“Black and brown, Arab and Muslim bodies are dealing with [racism] on this campus and across the world, and [the Administration’s] silence is, in so many ways, a part of that racism, and they’re part of the problem here,” Waked said.
Waked also commented that she believed the treatment of Prof. Rickford was unfair, stating that he was off campus at the time and not necessarily representative of Cornell’s views.
“I think that, unfortunately, this Administration has failed on its announcement that it would be defending freedom of expression,” Waked said. “We’re at a university to learn new things and have complicated ideas to engage with, and I think that if we want to shut down complicated ideas that we don’t agree with, then we’re not very much of a university.”
Abuhashim further felt that the University not only failed to protect the year’s theme of freedom of expression, but also the safety and well-being of its students.
“If Cornell was truly a place of any person, any study, then [Pollack] would have spoken out against the non-discriminatory killing of civilians in Gaza,” Abuhashim said. “I feel like if something were to happen to me, Cornell wouldn’t try to be on my side. If I were to be attacked, harassed, I wouldn’t get the support that I would need and deserve. I think that all stems from Cornell not being neutral on the issue and having a very clear stance on whose suffering they will accept and whose they will ignore. Whose deaths they will speak on, and whose they will ignore.”
Some students, including Abulhashim, have been placed on websites and lists that intend to dox and “blacklist them.”
Hillel Community Gathering for Israel
Wednesday night, Cornell Hillel held a community gathering on Ho Plaza in solidarity with Israeli hostages.
“It was really important to come together and be like, ‘Hey, there’s people thinking about you, we care about each other, and we are here for one another,’” Shteingart said.
Miranda Price ’24 was one student who spoke at the ceremony, reciting the English translation of a prayer for people in captivity.
“Prayer is not always my first instinct… but by saying things, by reading these words, I put out an energy into the world that I hope is positive and makes a difference, combined with all the other positive energies,” Price said.
This prayer was particularly meaningful for Price, as one of her former youth group mates was taken hostage by Hamas. Omer Neutra, a 22-year-old from Long Island, was serving in the Israeli army and has been missing since Oct. 7.
“I found out very early on in the conflict that he was missing and had been taken by Hamas. He spent his 22nd birthday in captivity with Hamas,” Price said. “So reading that on behalf of my community but also on behalf of my friends who are friends with him, and his family and on his behalf, I felt it was all very meaningful.”
Students who spoke to The Sun said this is an emotional and scary time for Jewish people across the country, and they are advocating for productive, supportive dialogue at Cornell.
“I really encourage people to find others who they can find support in, and also reach out,” Shteingart said. “If people are feeling like they need that support, and it’s not something that we are creating or putting out as a Hillel, I would encourage them to come up it me or other leaders on our board and say, ‘Here’s what I’m looking for, here’s what I really need right now.’”
Price told The Sun that it is important for the Jewish community to come together and feel proud of their culture.
“In light of what’s going on, this is the time more than ever, but also always, that we need to be proud of who we are. Wearing a Jewish star or holding an Israeli flag does not mean that we are complacent, or happy, God forbid, with what is going on in Gaza and the people throughout the region of varying backgrounds who are being hurt, displaced or killed,” Price said. “Other people’s rhetoric trying to scare us or anger us will not hurt us. It’s important to be proud and show who we are… We do not promote hatred towards other groups, but as a people we are strong.”