Al Drago / The New York Times

March 28, 2024

EDITORIAL | Chair Smith’s Letter to Pollack Is Rife with Hypocrisy

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Last week, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Jason Smith (R-M.O.) sent President Martha Pollack a second letter challenging Cornell’s “generous tax-exempt status” over the University’s response to antisemitism. There are a slew of reasons why Cornell should pay a higher share to support the Ithaca community, but behind Smith’s threat lie dangerous and deceptive ulterior motives.

Smith is attempting to politicize higher learning, which should always be free from the push and pull of partisan influence. In his letter, the Chair writes that a culture of antisemitism at Cornell “grew beneath the surface for decades” but fails to acknowledge other manifestations of bigotry on campus. 

And are Republican politicians only concerned when antisemitism strikes left-leaning colleges? If Smith and his GOP allies really are disturbed by the problem of Jew-hatred, they must condemn it in their own party and rethink their support for former President Donald Trump, who infamously hosted antisemites Ye and Nick Fuentes at his Mar-a-Lago home and said of a violent confrontation between white supremacists and counterprotesters that there were “very fine people on both sides.” 

Smith’s thinly veiled political motivations for “serious institutional change” at Cornell also set a dangerous precedent for congressional overreach. Smith urges Cornell “to do more to help Jewish students feel safe, secure, and free from discrimination and harassment on campus.” But at a time of rising hate against both Jewish and Arab students, the Chair’s selective focus misses the point that college should be a place where everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves and voicing their pain.

Antisemitism and Islamophobia are dire issues at Cornell, and the University needs to more firmly combat rampant hatred. But Smith isn’t offering any lasting solutions. His letter goes beyond concerns surrounding on-campus antisemitism: The Chair clearly wants to indiscriminately police all pro-Palestinian speech. No, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is not an inherently antisemitic phrase, as Smith claims. Those who speak out in support of the Palestinian people’s legitimate aspiration to statehood should not be blacklisted. 

Treating the University’s tax exemption as a privilege that can be switched on and off at any time would torch Cornell’s independence and permanently force it to bend to whichever party controls Congress. 

Chair Smith, keep your nose out of our business and your deceptive politics off of our campus. And President Pollack, you shouldn’t take Smith’s bait, though your recent letter to the editor doubling down on the University’s undemocratic Interim Expressive Activity Policy, which has chilled speech across campus, suggests that you’re starting to.

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