Ralliers bring signs to support encampment on April 28, 2024. Nina Davis/Sun Photography Editor

May 12, 2024

SCHWARZ | Reflections on the Cornell Encampment

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My Encampment Visits

I have been to the Cornell pro-Palestinian encampment a handful of times, and I have seen nothing that demands dismantling it, especially with end of term approaching. The students are a mix of graduates and undergraduates with a few faculty and staff intermittently in the mix. On Monday, April 29 at 4:30 p.m. I observed the encampment for the first time.I counted about 30 to 35 people within and 55 people  sitting nearby, many of whom were showing solidarity according to one student to whom I spoke. On Tuesday, April 30 at noon, I counted about 15 people within the encampment and 14 sitting nearby; some of those 14 to whom I spoke seemed to have only a vague idea of the issues. On Wednesday evening, May 1 at 7 p.m. the numbers were not so different from Tuesday, with maybe a few more inside and a few less outside.  

On Wednesday evening, many of those inside were having fun, kicking a ball around. My final visit before writing this article was Friday, May 3 from 4:00 to 4:40 p.m. where the number of tents within the camp had increased. But inside and nearby, I saw no more than 50 people, and the focus seemed be to shifting to the inclusion of other topics.  I was told a teach-in on Sudan was scheduled with one on Uganda to follow.

We need to remember that Cornell has 26,000 students — plus faculty and staff on the Ithaca campus — and that I never saw more than about one-third of one percent of the Cornell population at the encampment.

Along with larger posters with messages like “Free Palestine” and “Defund Genocide in Gaza,” political messages on the encampment walls argued for Cornell’s divesting from investments in companies making arms for Israel; transparency in revealing Cornell investments;  ending the relationship with Technicon, the Israeli tech university with whom Cornell partners on Roosevelt Island in NYC; returning land to the indigenous Lenapes;  abolishing the Cornell police; introducing a Palestinian studies program in the curriculum and claiming that anti-Zionism was not always anti-Semitism.  While I don’t agree with all of the messages and posters and parts of other, they are harmless. They are not hate speech, but rather left-wing perspectives on multiple issues.

If I may borrow a quote from a Cornell student that appeared in the New York Times: “[A] 27-year-old Ph.D. candidate in cell and molecular biology at Cornell, pointed to the name of the student group she is affiliated with: the Coalition for Mutual Liberation. It’s in our name: mutual liberation. . . . that means we’re [an] antiracist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist organization. We believe that none of us can be free and have the respect and dignity we deserve unless all of us are free.’” A cynical observer might notice a resonance of the far-right  Q-Anon slogan “Where we go one, we go all.”

On each of my visits I spoke to a few students outside the encampment circle. On Wednesday evening,  May 1st, I had a civil and meaningful conversation about some of the issues — notably the history of Jews in the Middle East, the October 7th Hamas attack and Israel’s response in Gaza — with a well-informed Egyptian graduate student in Near Eastern Studies.  At first, he was a tad resistant to speaking in depth, but gradually I convinced him that we could build what I call a ”rhetorical house” based on a foundation of what we agreed upon. On Friday, May 3, I had an even more substantive conversation with an American law student who was born in Yemen and had served in the United States Army Special Forces. While he was sitting outside the encampment to show his support, he had an impressive and nuanced knowledge of the Middle East tensions.

Dialogue is Possible with Informed People

Based on the foregoing conversations and others I have had, I believe that when we put down our bull horns and listen to one another, we can have discussions at Cornell that bridge gaps between us even if we cannot change the realities that inform our thoughts.

To understand the current divide within campus communities including ours, we need to try to imagine the feelings ofboth Israeli  or American student with Israeli relatives who were attacked by Hamas and a Palestinian student raised in Gaza or the West Bank. We also to need think about the feelings of a young American Jewish student who was raised to understand why Israel exists and how it has had to defend itself.  Perhaps a few generations ago the student lost family in the Holocaust. Finally, we need to imagine the feelings of a student whose family comes from the Middle East and perhaps still lives there. The student may have been raised to believe family land was stolen by Israel and that Israel is a powerful country depriving Palestinians of a place to have their own country.

Ever the optimist, I believe that if we can listen to other points of view and imagine the world as others see it, we can find some common ground. Part of the process is to avoid incendiary terms to describe the other side’s behavior. A neutral term like “conflict” is far less toxic for a dialogue than “genocide,” defined in 1945 by the UN as “a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part.” It has not been established by International Courts that Israel has committed genocide, although Israel has not been exonerated from that charge.

One can regret some of what has happened in Gaza due to Israeli military force without embracing the term genocide. Surely, Hamas is a terrorist organization that has tried to commit genocide against Jews and Israel’s response is a military one to a group that wants to obliterate Israel.  For all its shortcomings, including at times turning a blind eye to illegal settlements in the West Bank, the Israeli government is not threatening the nearly two million Palestinians who live in Israel.

Some of those I have spoken to this past week in the area outside the encampment have only a vague idea of what they are supporting. As noted, the statements posted on the encampment walls cover a wide variety of issues. Few of the students seem fully aware the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas October 7, including murdering over 1,200 people, taking 250 hostages and committing barbaric sexual  crimes.

I have had many conversations about the Israel-Hamas conflict and related issues with students since October 7. Some weeks ago, I was told by one misinformed student that Israel had killed “hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions” of Palestinians in the past few months. I spoke to a well-meaning Indonesian woman who not only knew almost nothing about Gaza and the posted issues but also seemed to know less about her own country’s post-World-War-II history than I did because of government censorship. She was not the only student who was aware that in their own country participation in such encampments would have been treated more harshly than here.

Most of these students know almost nothing about the history of Israel and Palestine or have a skewed, uninformed view of that history. Few know that Zionism began in part as rural, socialist movement in the later nineteenth century when the Jews were victims of violent racism  in the form of pogroms. They do not know that the Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel and that the immigrating Jews believed that they were returning to their homeland. Nor do many Cornell students know much about the Holocaust in which 6 million or so European Jews were murdered, and which created an urgent need for a state where Jews could be safe. In that regard I see similarities to the 2011 Occupy Wall Street Protest and the Yellow Vest movement in France that began in November 2018 and has continued intermittently; in both cases many of the participants have an ingenuous and reductive idea of the economic and social issues that they are protesting.

Recently, I have advocated the necessity of a required freshman two-term history course at Cornell, the fall term on world history,not just Western history but history with a strong focus on Africa and Asia,  focusing on a few contentious areas of the world, the spring term which would vary from year to year. This year’s focus would have been the Middle East, especially Israel and its neighbors, and the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Such a required course would have been a great benefit to current dialogues. Another partial solution to uninformed and misinformed students would be if they spent more time reading and listening to trustworthy media and less time on their telephone and social media which are not reliable sources of news.

Student Protests

Because of the fraught political atmosphere on campus during the 2023-2024 academic year, I was hoping Cornell might avoid what is not only a pro-Palestine encampment but also an anti-Israel one. But once Cornell’s encampment began on Thursday, April 25, I understood that it was part of national movement and in the tradition of student protests. I hoped it would remain non-violent and so far, it has.

Student protests begin out of a combination of hopefulness, frustration and maybe even boredom with the same academic routines. They often find definition at the end of term when with exams and final papers approaching, students feel a combination of melancholy and ebullience in the air. In the Northeast and other cooler areas, the onset of spring weather and the promise of summer add to student restlessness.

I have taken part in protests, and retrospectively wondered if they were a waste of time even while knowing they also are part of who I became. I began my 56 years of teaching at Cornell during 1968-1969. I was here in the fall of 1969 when Black students took over the Straight with guns and during 1970 when Cornell was shut down due to protests against the Vietnam War. In both cases, a great many more students were involved at Cornell.

Supportive of Israel, But

With Tom Friedman of the New York Times, I still believe in a two-state solution and the need for new leadership for both Israel and the Palestinian Authority on West Bank. I favor a ceasefire accompanied by a full hostage release of those still alive and the return of the bodies of hostages who are now dead. I also favor an international force to police Gaza to ensure Hamas does not plot further terrorism. That force would probably include Egypt, Jordan, the Emirates,  Saudi Arabia and maybe the US and the UN, but not Qatar which has supported Hamas. Settlements not approved by the Israeli Supreme Courts should return to the Palestinian Authority, but it is a fantasy to think Israel will return to the 1967 borders or even the pre-1967 borders.

I am uncomfortable with Israeli bombings that do not seem to take  civilian safety — especially that of young children — into account. Even while knowing Hamas is embedded in civilian neighborhoods, schools and hospitals, I fear that the bombing campaign has been excessive. Yet I do not support a permanent cease fire until there are successful negotiations about policing Gaza in the future. I think Netanyahu needs to be replaced as Israel’s Prime Minister as do most Israelis. I hold Netanyahu somewhat responsible for both the major security lapses that led to the October 7 atrocities.

However, I  do not like Israel turned into a villainous entity or held to a higher standard than other nations at war, especially after what happened October  7 when women were raped and sadistically murdered. Any civilian deaths are regrettable, but do we really believe that the Hamas count after how they behaved October 7 is accurate?  Do we know how many of those in any count are Hamas fighters? Nor am I always sure where anti-Zionism ends and anti-Semitism begins, especially from those who have no idea about the 3,000-year-old history of Israel.

Conclusion

Yes, it is troubling that the permit for the Cornell encampment was obtained under false pretenses and that the encampment leaders will not move to a designated area. In the same place as the encampment  on the  Arts and Sciences Quad, the permit was requested by a supposed climate change group for an art show to run 36 hours from Wednesday, April 24 at 8 a.m. to Thursday, April 25 at 8 p.m.  

There is much I don’t know about the students who have been temporarily suspended, and I am not privy to the administration’s reasons. Yet, if nothing more occurs, I probably would lift the temporary suspensions and let the suspended students finish the term with the proviso that a full hearing with due process will take place later. Perhaps, too, the administration should appoint an ad hoc committee to investigate the entire encampment episode and  to consider whether punishment is deserved and necessary.

It needs to be stressed that notwithstanding the encampment which began Thursday, April 25th and prior campus tensions since October 7,  the overwhelming majority of Cornell faculty, students, and staff are doing exactly what they are expected to do in terms of studying, teaching, and fulfilling their responsibilities.

In my case: as we do every year, my wife and I hosted our annual student seder at our home Monday, April 22.  On Tuesday, April 23, I was on a panel with another faculty member on “What to do with an English Major?” On Wednesday April 24 I presided over the Phi Beta Kappa Spring Distinguished Faculty lecture by Dean Kavita Bala on Artificial Intelligence and the subsequent dinner with students at the Statler.

Had these events occurred after the encampment began, I am sure that they would have been the same.  I recount my own experience to emphasize that to date the university is fully functional.

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