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Cornell student government puts the kibosh on divestment debate

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Cornell’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) wanted to spark a debate and eventual vote over the university’s investment in companies profiting from the Israeli occupation. Instead, the student government voted to table the resolution, a surefire way to prevent campus-wide debate on Israel.

Last week, the student assembly at Cornell University voted 15-8 to table a resolution calling for the Ivy League school to “end its complicity with the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and divest its holdings” from companies like Raytheon and Hewlett Packard, both of which have contracts with the Israeli military.  The resolution also called out G4S, a multi-national private prison contractor that is the target of a number of campaigns over its involvement with prisons domestically and abroad.

In the run-up to the vote, Hillel and J Street chapters on campus voiced opposition to the resolution.  In an e-mail to the Cornell Sun’s Sofia Hu and Alisha Foster, two members of the Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee called for “dialogue,” but not debate. “We aim to engage in a constructive dialogue to foster cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian student groups on campus, and hope that through dialogue, rather than public debate, we can seek outcomes to encourage peace both on campus and in the Middle East,” said Claire Blumenthal and Rachel Medin. 

Students in favor of divestment reacted in anger at the decision to table the vote, a tactic also used by the University of Michigan student government before their hand was forced by a student sit-in. William Jacobson, a pro-Israel professor at Cornell, captured the angry reaction on video:

In response to the vote, Cornell SJP issued a statement blasting the “extensive efforts to lobby individual Assembly members” in order to “intimidate student representatives and prevent them from voting with their consciences.”  The statement added: “There are forces on campus and outside of it who are greatly concerned about public awareness of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and American support for that occupation, and the broader militarism within which that support is nested.”

The Cornell divestment vote attracted attention in the Jewish press, which uncritically reprinted Jacobson’s claim that the resolution was introduced the week before Passover in order to force a vote the next week when Jewish students weren’t around.  Jacobson, a law professor at the school, called the move a “sneak Passover…attack” “reminiscent of the exploitation of the Yom Kippur Jewish holiday in 1973 to launch an attack on Israel.” The Jewish Telegraphic Agencythe Jewish Daily Forward (via a JTA report), the Jewish News Service and others took the claim at face value.

But Cornell SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace member Dan Sinyikin told me that accusation had no basis in fact. In an e-mail, he said the group advanced “the resolution when we did because these resolutions can take several weeks to work through the Student Assembly and the Assembly only had four meetings left this semester.” He added that they submitted it last week on the advice of a student government assembly member, who said they had a lot business to take care of in the remaining weeks.

“If anything, Passover is an occasion for Jews — and I speak as one — to remember injustice everywhere, and to work to end it, which is exactly what we hoped to pursue with the resolution,” said Sinykin.

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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3 Responses

  1. Krauss on April 16, 2014, 3:35 pm

    Tabling the resolution is the perfect analogy for what Israel advocacy has become: avoid all discussion at all costs because you know you have no moral grund to stand on.

  2. ritzl on April 16, 2014, 4:39 pm

    It’s just as likely, probably more likely, that the Assembly was pressured to hold the vote right before Passover in order for Jacobson to make his condemnation.

    That’s CT, but this “outrage” (as with Max B’s situation) is so quick and shrill and weak that it has the strong smell of coordination to it for greatest possible effect.

    • LeaNder on April 17, 2014, 8:03 am

      ritzl, I never looked at your profile before, but I like it:

      It also suggests that just one little glimmer of reality that gets through can make a difference, one person at a time. One never knows which glimmer that might be

      Definitively it may not have been good to surrender pressure. Much less under these conditions:

      He added that they submitted it last week on the advice of a student government assembly member, who said they had a lot business to take care of in the remaining weeks.

      It seems the vast majority of the audience has no problem it is tabled. Why exactly? Where they informed about the issues decided on, and how? What percentages of the audience were present for one or the other of the business decided on that day that mattered to them?

      Is there an article anywhere that tells me something about the process leading up to last time the issue was tabled resulting in protest?

      I guess I would have preferred to use the anger for focused activity. Anger gives power. While I can understand it, I doubt had I been in the audience it would have pulled me over even at that age, hadn’t I already been convinced of the issue and at least a semi-open to BDS. Quite possibly the opposite. But that may be a personal matter. I would never show it, let it control me, I would have carefully guarded it as an inner flame. Why give the other side the benefit of enjoying my rage?

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