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Two students wearing keffiyehs outside of Morrison Dining Hall hand out pamphlets for the divestment referendum.

April 18, 2024

Divestment Referendum Opponents Argue Second Question Not Phrased Neutrally, S.A. Stands by Validity of Referendum

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On the first day of voting, students in opposition to the divestment referendum spoke out at a Student Assembly meeting about what they perceived as a lack of neutrality in the wording of the second question, which they argued violated the S.A. Charter.

However, the Assembly affirmed that no members had called into question the validity of the referendum or its results.

The Student Assembly voted to hold the referendum with a 15 to 10 vote on March 21. On Thursday morning, Cornell students received an email inviting them to vote “yes” or “no” on two referendum questions:

  1. Should Cornell University call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza?
  2. Cornell has investments in companies supporting the ongoing war in Gaza, which has been deemed as a “plausible genocide” by the International Court of Justice in South Africa v. Israel. Should Cornell University follow their 2016 Guidelines for Divestment and divest from the following weapons manufacturers: BAE Systems, Boeing, Elbit Systems, General Dynamics, L3Harris Technologies, Leonardo, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, RTX and ThyssenKrupp.

A collection of student-submitted pro and con statements was also released by the Assembly ahead of the referendum.

Both pro-Palestine organizations including the Coalition for Mutual Liberation and pro-Israel organizations including the Cornellians for Israel published statements on social media and tabled in efforts to persuade students to vote “yes” and “no” respectively on the referendum questions. 

Approximately 85 students gathered in Willard Straight Hall during the Thursday Student Assembly meeting. Though the Assembly did not indicate any consideration to recall the referendum or nullify its results, students rose during the open microphone section of the meeting to argue for or against the referendum’s validity.

One speaker argued that the second referendum question violated the line of the Student Assembly charter which states that “the referendum must contain a single or a series of referendum questions that are neutrally worded and call for a yes [or] no response.” 

“By being phrased [as] ‘Should Cornell follow their 2016 Guidelines for Divestment,’ this question presupposes the idea that Cornell’s partnership with the main weapons manufacturers [has] already violated Cornell’s guidelines and therefore should be divested from,” the first speaker said. “This is meant to lead the students to a specific answer.”

According to the guidelines for divestment, the Board of Trustees “will consider divesting its endowment assets from a company only when the company’s actions or inactions are ‘morally reprehensible,’ constituting apartheid, genocide, human trafficking, slavery or systemic cruelty to children, including violation of child labor laws.”

The speaker also found issue with the first sentence of the second question that outlined the ICJ’s assessment of the war in Gaza as a “plausible genocide” as a “statement of context” that they believe would lead the reader to believe that divestment is the right action. They argued that students’ decisions on how to vote should come from individual research rather than the information outlined in the question.

However, Sara Almosawi ’25, an organizer for CML, a pro-Palestine coalition of over 40 organizations, argued that the referendum was phrased neutrally. Almosawi, who co-wrote the referendum with members of [Jewish Voice for Peace], said that she examined the charter to make sure that this referendum would pass through the Assembly. Almosawi also defended the referendum’s mention of the war in Gaza as a “plausible genocide” as important context to the basis for divestment.

“For these questions, you are allowed to give context. This second question goes directly to the 2016 divestment guidelines, which state that if there is a plausible genocide, then the [University] has to consider divestment,” Almosawi said. “The first line is just [meant] to state the fact that there is plausible genocide [according to the ICJ]. It’s not [meant] to lead people [toward] voting yes or no.”

Almosawi also criticized opponents of the referendum for not raising concerns over the neutrality of the referendum’s language sooner than the first day of voting.

“If the language of the referendum was not neutral to the Student Assembly or members of the opposition, there were several [prior] weeks when this could have been brought up,” Almosawi said.

S.A. President Patrick Kuehl ’24 clarified that no member of the Assembly had called the validity of the referendum into question. 

Melanie Schwartz ’25, the president of Cornell Hillel, said that if she and other opponents of the referendum knew about the Assembly stipulations for referendums before the vote, then they would have spoken out sooner to express their disappointment. 

Karys Everett ’25, LGBTQIA+ liaison-at-large and current executive vice president candidate, confirmed Almosawi’s claim that it is permissible to include context to questions asked in referendums. 

“[The claim that] students are being led to believe that the referendum should be voted in ‘pro’ is simply not true because the referendum is set up so that students who have no idea what’s going on have periods when they can educate themselves,” Everett said. “That’s why the pro and con statement collection happened, and that was why [the questions] were put out in advance of the referendum.”

Everett also said that the Student Assembly already debated about whether the questions were neutrally worded and decided that they were.

Everett called for the audience to speak out in advance if they are upset by the way their student government is led. 

“Follow your student representatives, because you can’t come after the fact [and say] that you’re upset if you won’t do your due diligence and interact with the people you elect into these positions,” Everett said.

The Student Assembly ended the open microphone section with no change in the referendum procedure. Referendum voting closes at 8 p.m. on April 19.