Jason Wu/Sun Senior Editor

Prof. Rosensaft speaks about the proliferation of antisemitism at Cornell.

February 18, 2024

Prof. Rosensaft Speaks About Antisemitism, Political Polarization at Lecture

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Prof. Menachem Rosensaft, law, gave a lecture on Feb. 12 about antisemitism in light of the Israel-Hamas war. The talk, entitled “Antisemitism, the Israel-Hamas War and Distorting the Law of Genocide: A Perfect Storm,” was the first of four events part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Spring 2024 lecture series, planned in partnership with the Office of the Provost and various academic departments. 

The series, entitled “Antisemitism and Islamophobia Examined,” aims to encourage dialogue rather than hostility, following the rise of controversial acts on Cornell’s campus, including Prof. Rickford’s, history, labeling Hamas’ invasion into Israel as “exhilarating” and “energizing;” the spread of anti-Israel graffiti messages around Central Campus and Patrick Dai’s ’24 posting antisemitic threats. 

Students who support Palestine have held several protests and “die-ins” to promote the adoption of anti-doxxing policies and demand the University’s divestment from companies supportive of Israel’s military, including the occupation of Day Hall to stage a “mock trial” of President Martha Pollack and Cornell as a whole, claiming that the University is complicit in the genocide and apartheid of Palestinians. 

Rosensaft, who is the son of two Holocaust survivors, serves as General Counsel Emeritus of the World Jewish Congress and is a former member of the US Holocaust Memorial Council under presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. In 1988, Rosensaft was one of five Americans to meet with the Palestine Liberation Organization when the Palestinian Parliament first recognized the existence of Israel as a state.

During his lecture, Rosensaft stressed the history and complexity of the conflict between Israel and Palestine and how related forms of hate have threatened Cornell’s campus. He said that in order to put an end to antisemitism, all forms of hate — including Islamophobia and racism — must be combatted simultaneously. 

“My point is that we have to appreciate that one can mourn the Israeli victims of the terrorist attack on Oct. 7 and be distressed by the subsequent intense suffering of Palestinian civilians in Gaza,” Rosensaft said. “One can vehemently oppose Hamas and just as forcefully support Palestinian rights. Indeed, one can simultaneously condemn Hamas’ terrorism and condemn the Israeli Jewish settlers who terrorize Palestinian civilians in the West Bank.”

Rosensaft connected people’s tendency for people to resort to forms of hate during times of polarization to how social media and sound bites oversimplify complicated issues and further divide people.

“We live in an era of absolutes and absolutism — [social media] has effectively dumbed down much of the debate on complex issues to competing sound bites,” Rosensaft said. “Politicians on the whole have followed suit, far too often afraid to venture rhetorically or even intellectually outside the comfort zone of focus-group-tested one-liners.”

Emma Gofnung grad attended the lecture and echoed Rosensaft’s point regarding the tendency to oversimplify the conflict in an email to The Sun. 

“Professor Rosensaft dispelled one of the biggest myths that fuels antisemitism in times of war,”  Gofnung wrote. “What is often misunderstood is that one can both be vehemently against antisemitism [and] terrorism and in support of Israel’s right to exist, while at the same time feeling deep compassion for the suffering of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.”

Rosensaft has taught at Cornell and Columbia University law schools for over a decade, focusing his classes on the laws regarding genocide. He currently teaches Law 4013: Antisemitism in the Courts and in Jurisprudence, a class organized in response to the war and subsequent unrest on campus. The course engages students in the legal study of the current conflict as well as past instances of antisemitism.

Rosensaft recounted instances of antisemitism in recent years at Cornell, prior to the Israel-Hamas war. In 2017, fliers that depicted both the Star of David and antisemitic imagery, like swastikas, were posted on and off campus. Between 2018 and 2022, several swastikas were found around the school, sparking concern among the Jewish community. 

In his lecture, Rosensaft commended President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff — along with the Dean of the Law School Jens Ohlin — for their handling of these hateful demonstrations. 

“President Pollack’s reaction to the appearance of these universally recognized symbols of evil — for that is what the swastika has been since at least 1933 — has been unequivocal and exemplary,” Rosensaft said. 

Rosensaft also discussed the term ‘genocide’ and its application to both Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel’s ongoing retaliation. While he classifies Hamas as a genocidal organization, he found fault in South Africa’s Dec. 29 case against Israel for genocide.

“Israel had not only the right but arguably the obligation to go to war against Hamas after Oct. 7 in order to defend itself and its citizens against any similar future acts of terrorism,” Rosensaft said. “The genocide charge as brought against Israel was flawed in its inception because Israel did not wage war in Gaza to destroy Palestinian presence there but to eliminate Hamas as an existential threat.”

In December of last year, South Africa formally accused Israel of violating its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, stating that Israel’s retaliation against Hamas was intended to destroy Palestinians. 

In an email to The Sun regarding the lecture, Kotlikoff highlighted the importance of dialogue during these events. 

“I was pleased that students who don’t necessarily agree with Prof. Rosensaft asked questions that fostered a genuine exchange of views,” Kotlikoff wrote. “I believe these lectures are most effective when they draw students with multiple perspectives and foster civil discourse.”

Ohlin expressed a similar sentiment while reflecting on the event, emphasizing the importance of civil discourse during these times. 

“Prof. Rosensaft offered a subtle analysis of the current situation that was both nuanced and insightful,” Ohlin wrote to The Sun. “I was particularly impressed by the quality of the Q&A session after the talk. Members of the audience asked important and tough questions, motivated by good-faith concerns, and Prof. Rosensaft responded in the same spirit.”

Rosensaft gave his talk shortly after his visit to Bosnia, where he, along with the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, issued a set of principles for Muslim-Jewish dialogue. These principles include the rejection of all forms of antisemitism, Islamophobia and other types of bigotry, as well as the commitment to protecting life and freedom of expression within a framework of respect. In an interview with The Sun, Rosensaft discussed how he hopes these guidelines are applied to conversations at Cornell. 

“We have to commit ourselves to make sure — at Cornell and elsewhere — that we do not allow the hatred to take over,” Rosensaft said. “If we don’t join forces to make sure that [hateful] sentiment has no place in our political and social discourse, we are allowing for the possibility that an ideology of hatred will turn into a mainstream ideology with catastrophic consequences, which we’ve seen in the past.”

Rosensaft said that he expected attendees of the lecture to walk away with an understanding of the complexity of the conflict at hand. 

“What we desperately need to do is get beyond the sound bites, beyond the shrill hate-filled slogans,” Rosensaft said. “Our task going forward is to work together to stem the tides of antisemitism, Islamophobia and racism before they turn into a tsunami beyond our control.”

Olivia Holloway ’25 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].