Nina Davis/Sun Photography Editor

Jewish Cornell community members hold mixed views on the pro-Palestine encampment.

April 30, 2024

How Do Jewish Students, Faculty Feel About the Encampment?

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Five days since the staging of a pro-Palestine encampment on the Arts Quad, Cornell has seen minimal organized counter-protests from pro-Israel activists.

But many Jewish community members have expressed discomfort with the encampment in interviews with The Sun. Meanwhile, some encampment participants are Jewish themselves.

On Thursday morning, Talia Dror ’24, vice president of finance for Cornellians for Israel, said that she is connected with students at Columbia University and was concerned by antisemitic incidents associated with the University’s encampment

Incidents of antisemitic harassment at Columbia have surfaced on social media, including reports of Israeli flags being stolen and attempted to be burned as well as a masked protester appearing to chant “Go back to Poland!” at Jewish students. In another instance, a video showed a person with a sign reading “Al-Qasam’s Next Targets” — referring to Hamas’ armed wing — in front of several Jewish counter-protesters.

Columbia University Apartheid Divest, the coalition organizing the encampment, has attributed these hateful incidents to outsiders who do not represent demonstrators’ message and purpose.

But to Dror, Cornell students holding an encampment in solidarity with Columbia feels like an endorsement of the antisemitic incidents.

“At this point, all I’m wondering is whether or not it’s safe to be a Jew on Cornell’s campus,” Dror said.

Dror said that Jewish students were advised by community leaders to not interact with Cornell’s encampment due to the incidents at other colleges including Yale and Columbia.

Dror pointed out how Rabbi Elie Buechler — who is associated with Columbia University’s Orthodox Union Jewish Learning Initiative — sent a group message to about 300 predominantly Orthodox Jewish students recommending them to stay at home due to safety concerns.

Dror also noted how Yale sophomore Sahar Tartak — whom Dror is personally friends with — said demonstrators poked her in the eye with a Palestinian flag. Tartak told CBS News that she believed the alleged assault was targeted due to her wearing a Star of David necklace.  

“Jewish students at this campus are not accepted unless they renounce a key part of their identity — being Zionists,” Dror said.

According to Dror, Zionist Jews at Cornell are “shunned by the broader progressive or pro-Palestinian mob.”

Dror said her full name and address were circulated around Sidechat after she published an anti-divestment letter to the editor in The Sun. She emphasized that she believes in “open dialogue,” which “can’t exist unless there is no intimidation.”

Jewish student Davian Gekman ’27 said that he “appreciate[s] the passion” of encampment participants and respects their freedom of expression.

But Gekman said that while he has no opinion about the encampment itself, he thinks demonstrators are unintentionally using chants with antisemitic connotations.

Gekman said that the use of the rallying cry, “There is only one solution: Intifada revolution” — which was condemned by the University in a Saturday statement — does not align with protesters’ calls for a ceasefire or the end of Israel’s occupation. Instead, Gekman interprets calling for an intifada as calling for “the death of the Jewish people.”

The word “intifada” literally translates to “to shake off” in Arabic. The word intifada is often associated with two Palestinian uprisings.

The First Intifada took place in the late 1980s and consisted of mostly nonviolent protests such as boycotts and demonstrations. However, this period was also marked by less frequent armed attacks by Palestinians. Israel’s military response led to steep fatalities.

Following this, Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization accepted the Oslo Accords, which recognized Israel’s right to exist in exchange for Israel’s acceptance of the PLO as a Palestinian representative body. Hamas — a U.S.-designated terror organization — rose to power, rejecting and violently resisting the accords. 

This led to the Second Intifada, which took place in the early 2000s. This uprising was incredibly deadly and is remembered for the slew of suicide bombings by Palestinians against Israeli civilians including in buses and in restaurants. 4,300 died as a result of this uprising.

This led to Israel building a security fence around parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, effectively separating Israelis and Palestinians, to prevent future attacks.

As a Jewish student and a supporter of Israel, Gekman said that he altogether wants peace, including the return of hostages and an end to civilian killings in Gaza, but believes “peace cannot come with Hamas still in power.”

Gekman continued: “I hope that this group of people and groups of very passionate students who are cheering for the cause for ceasefire, and cheering for the cause of the Palestinian people who are dying, understand that Hamas is not the answer.”

Gekman said he hopes the administration provides participants the ability to negotiate with the Board of Trustees “because letting this expand and just turning a blind eye will not serve any purpose.”

Prof. Ross Brann, Near Eastern studies, said on Monday that the literal usage of the word intifada as advocating for the freedom of Palestinians is “not in any way antisemitic,” but that “in a historical frame, it can be used [with other words to expand its] semantic range than what the word itself actually means.”

Brann said that while he does not know the University’s specific reasoning for labeling the intifada chant as antisemitic, he said that for some, labeling an intifada revolution as the “only one solution” may be interpreted as being “suggestive of the final solution — the Holocaust.” Nazi Germany’s leaders utilized the phrase “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” as a euphemism for referring to the mass murder of Jewish people across Europe.

However, he does not know if the people chanting about an intifada are aware of this connotation. He also said that the University should have explicitly explained what was antisemitic about the phrase in its statement about the encampments.

Brann said that the situation goes beyond investigating the specific interpretations of phrases but is instead indicative of a “battle over what language on campus can be used, should be used [and] is proper to be used.”

Brann sees the University stepping in and condemning the intifada statements’ specific usage as a divergence from the University’s content-neutral free speech purpose. Since he believes that the phrase is not hate speech or a call for violence, he thinks that the University should have focused instead on protecting everybody’s right to speak.

“This is part of a much wider set of issues in which parts of Cornell object to virtually any kind of language that’s directed against Israel and its supporters,” Brann said. “And other parts of Cornell are finding language to demonstrate their solidarity with the Palestinian people. And so those two [positions] are clashing.”

Brann said that responding to neutral phrases or those said mistakenly or out of ignorance of others’ interpretations detracts attention from serious incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia in the world.

Patrick Dai’s ’24 posting of threats towards Jewish students on Greekrank was clearly antisemitism, Brann said. However, he said he believes Dai’s actions differ from the majority of actions and rhetoric on Cornell’s campus, which fall into political opinion and should be protected.

Abraham Kassin grad told The Sun that many Jewish students support pro-Palestine students’ rights to speak out for what they believe in and want to engage in conversation with those they disagree with.

While Kassin has no issue with protests overall, he found issue with Prof. Russell Rickford’s, history, presence at the encampment, and hoped Rickford was not representative of the overall demonstration.

Rickford took a voluntary leave of absence following criticism over labeling Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on Israel as “exhilarating” and “energizing” at an off-campus protest.

“If they’re [Rickford] the ones that are given platforms at events like this, that signals to the students here that there are other students that are not acting in good faith, and that, I think, scares a lot of the students here,” Kassin said.

Kassin said that the Zionist Jewish students are against Hamas, not the Palestinian people, and support for Israel and Palestine are not mutually exclusive.

“We would never use words that are positive to describe the deaths of anybody so to see somebody on one side saying that they are happy to see those deaths is just different in kind,” Kassin said, referring to Rickford.

Brann said that while he understands why Rickford’s words were found objectionable, he would also categorize them as political opinion, and said that “outside of class, [it is our job at Cornell] to allow the emotions and arguments to run free, short of calls for violence.”

“Advocacy is necessary for a healthy campus,” Brann said. “Even if we understand why some — particularly in this heightened environment — would respond with weary, with heartbreak. Emotion has gotten in the way of a lot of clear thinking — understandably so.”

On Sunday, Prof. Yuval Grossman, physics, who is originally from Israel and said he is a peace activist, described the climate at Cornell as upsetting.

Grossman recalled how he lost many friends in the Intifadas and lost his father in warfare with Syria during a supposed ceasefire just after the War of Attrition in 1970. He also said he lost a good friend from Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and that another good friend of his remains a hostage in Gaza.

“There’s so much hate instead of trying to work for peace,” Grossman said. “It’s very sad for me to see that the administration basically [has not done] almost anything to actually bring back some peace and quiet to campus.”

Grossman said that more action should be taken against demonstrators than the suspension of four students, considering that due to the encampment “people have been in a distressed mental health [state and] people are missing exams.”

Grossman also said that there has been “physical violence going against Israeli and Jewish students,” including the throwing of flyers in the face of Israeli students.

Sivan Gordon-Buxbaum grad is a Jewish student participating in the encampment. She is a member of Cornell’s chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish anti-Zionist organization that advocates for Palestinian liberation.

As a Jewish student, Gordon-Buxbaum told The Sun on Sunday that she feels it is important for her to stand as “a voice in support of divestment from weapons manufacturers in the face of genocide.”

Gordon-Buxbaum said that she has an Israeli sister, nephew and brother-in-law, and that the Israel-Hamas war threatens their lives in Israel. She also knows people who live in Gaza and have had to relocate several times due to bombardments and in anticipation of a ground invasion, which she said is “terrifying.”

Gordon-Buxbaum said that there is a lack of understanding of the wide spectrum of perspectives among Jewish people on Zionism and Israel’s actions. She emphasized that there is a community of Jewish people within the encampment, pointing to a Shabbat service held within the encampment on Friday.

Students within the encampment hold a Passover seder. (Nina Davis/Sun Photography Editor)

Gordon-Buxbaum said that while she does not inherently find an issue with Israel’s existence, she disagrees with the way the state of Israel was created and what it has done.

She said that wanting liberation and equal rights for the Palestinian people does not mean that Israel needs to be erased or that Jews need to leave the land. She said that instead “peace needs to be the focus,” which she believes is not possible when corporations like Cornell are investing in weapons manufacturers that contribute to civilian deaths in Gaza and elsewhere.

When asked about the phrase “There is only one solution: Intifada revolution,” Gordon-Buxbaum said she personally does not use the phrase and acknowledged that some phrases used by encampment participants may be perceived in different ways than the group intended.

Though she said the demonstrators’ focus is putting pressure on the administration, Gordon-Buxbaum personally wants to bridge gaps within the Jewish community, viewing Zionist students as ultimately sharing the same concern for innocent people dying.

To her, the Jewish and Arab communities are both victims of generational trauma and need to “come together as humans and see each other for the people we are.” 

Matthew Kiviat ’27 and Gabriel Muñoz ’26 contributed reporting.

Update, April 30, 1:37 p.m.: This article has been slightly modified to remove identifying information about one source due to security concerns.