Some thoughts on the Cornell-Technion partnership in light of the 2014 Israeli invasion of Gaza

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

The ‘Iron Wall’ in Gaza

Contrary to popular media coverage, which takes its narrative line from official Israeli and US sources, the Israeli invasion of Gaza was not a matter of self-defense but a calculated offensive.  According to Gideon Levy, writing in Haaretz on July 13, 2014, the Israeli objective was simply to kill Arabs in order “to restore the calm….The slogan of the Mafia has become official Israeli policy. Israel sincerely believes that if it kills hundreds of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, quiet will reign.” Levy does not explain what Israel means by “quiet” or “calm” or how and by whom that “calm” was disrupted, questions to which I will return.  But by the time of an agreement to an open-ended cease  on August 26th,  those “hundreds” of dead Palestinians, according to UN statistics from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), had turned into 2131, 70% of whom by UN estimates are civilians, including 501 children. In addition, OCHA figures calculate that approximately 10,224 Gazans have been injured (citing the Palestinian Ministry of Health) and 475,000 were  internally displaced, while Israeli land and air weaponry has destroyed the infrastructure of Gaza. This leaves Gaza, already impoverished by a years-long Israeli and Egyptian blockade, more deeply in poverty, with, B’Tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories ) reports, as of February 2014, “90 to 95 percent of Gaza’s main water supply unfit for drinking and problematic even in terms of agricultural use.” This ongoing water crisis can only have been intensified by the Gaza invasion’s destruction of infrastructure.

At the same time,  OCHA estimates calculate the Israel death toll at 71, 66 of whom are soldiers killed in the invasion of Gaza. My daughter, who is an Israeli citizen, living in Modi’in, tells me that the only consistent disruption to the daily lives of her and my three grandchildren are that they can’t go to the beach in Tel Aviv because of security issues. In a letter published by Jewish Voice for Peace, a Dutch-Israeli family summering in Tel Aviv during the Gaza invasion, remark: “we take the kids on evening strolls on Rothschild Boulevard; hang out at Habima square, go to the beach and the pool, occasionally dine out….It took us few rather disorienting days here to slowly come to the conclusion that the palpable collective fear is disproportionate to the actual threat.” On the basis of the Israeli civilian casualty figures , the threat appears to be almost non-existent.

The  gross discrepancy  in casualty numbers stands as a clear figure of the asymmetry of this so-called “war” or  “conflict,” which in actuality is neither. Rather, in violation of international law, which interdicts an occupying power from making war on the people whose land it is occupying, this  “conflict” is a massive colonial police action, an act of state terror meant to “quiet” a population resisting the illegal occupation of its land.

Israeli Historian Ilan Pappé has called the repeated invasions of Gaza “incremental genocide.”  And Gaza has been called “the world’s largest open-air prison,” which it is effectively, with movement in and out of the territory strictly controlled by Israel. In one of the most densely populated areas on the globe, the Gazans literally have no place to flee from Israeli violence. If one recognizes these observations, then we are faced with one of the terrible ironies of history: Gaza has become an extermination camp, run by Jews.

However, it is important not to collapse critical distinctions, where they exist, between Jews and Israelis, between Jews and Zionists, and between Israelis and Israeli state policy. That is to say, it is crucial to recognize, both in the US and Israel, Jewish and Israeli opposition to Israeli colonialism in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Such opposition is, for example, represented in Jewish Voice for Peace and B’Tselem. While such opposition to Israeli state terror does not mitigate that terror, it points to an active critical consciousness within the Israeli and global Jewish communities that cannot be coopted by state ideology and so poses a threat to that ideology and its material force.

What it is crucial to emphasize at this juncture, in relation to Israeli force, is that it was not Hamas rockets that provoked it. In an article published in The Jewish Daily Forward on July 10, 2014, two days after the Israeli invasion of Gaza began, J.J. Goldberg, an editor at large and former editor-in-chief of The Forward, wrote a column tracing the “conflict” in Gaza from the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers on the West Bank on June 12, 2014. Goldberg reports the government knew from day one that the teenagers had been murdered and that Hamas was not responsible. Nevertheless, it promulgated the fiction that the boys might still be alive and that Hamas was responsible for the kidnapping: “Once the boys’ disappearance was known,” Goldberg notes, “troops began a massive, 18-day search-and-rescue operation, entering thousands of homes, arresting and interrogating hundreds of individuals, racing against the clock. Only on July 1, after the boys’ bodies were found, did the truth come out: The government had known almost from the beginning that the boys were dead. It maintained the fiction that it hoped to find them alive as a pretext to dismantle Hamas’ West Bank operations.” Although, Goldberg explains, “[i]t was clear from the beginning that the kidnappers weren’t acting on orders from Hamas leadership in Gaza or Damascus….[Benjamin]Netanyahu [the Israeli prime minister] repeatedly insisted Hamas was responsible for the crime and would pay for it.”

As Goldberg remarks “Hamas had not fired a single rocket” at Israel since the last Israeli attack on Gaza in 2012  “and had largely suppressed fire by smaller jihadi groups. Rocket firings, averaging 240 per month in 2007, dropped to five per month in 2013.”  Then “[o]n June 29, an Israeli air attack on a rocket squad killed a Hamas operative. Hamas protested. The next day it unleashed a rocket barrage, its first since 2012. The cease-fire was over.”

Set aside, if you will, the brutal apartheid state that Israel has imposed on the Occupied Territories since 1967, in violation of UN Resolution 242, a military state that necessarily generates resistance. Consider only the sequence of events, as reported by Goldberg and others and acknowledged by the Israeli government, leading to the latest Israeli pogrom in Gaza.  It is then abundantly clear that in this case at least Israel is the provocateur.  Moreover, the fiction the government used to justify the massive police action that led to the Gaza invasion is deeply cynical. In its holding out hope that the boys might be found alive, it shows from the start an absolute contempt for the feelings of the parents of the murdered teenagers, not to mention the manipulation of the Israeli public, which has been exhibiting in demonstrations an intensification of anti-Arab racism.

The “calm,” then, that Israel sought to restore with its invasion of Gaza is a calm that its police and military, not Hamas, have destroyed in the first place. Goldberg comments: “The crime [of kidnapping] set off a chain of events in which Israel gradually lost control of the situation, finally ending up on the brink of a war that nobody wanted — not the army, not the government, not even the enemy, Hamas.” However, this explanation appears as simply an alibi, and a very weak one, for Israel’s premeditated action. For once we place the invasion of Gaza within the history of Israeli imperialism and colonialism, going back to the beginnings of Zionism in the late nineteenth century, the 2014 invasion of Gaza is far from inadvertent. It is, indeed, quite the opposite, part of a strategy first elaborated by the early Zionist theoretician and activist Ze’ev Jabotinsky. As Israeli historian Avi Shlaim notes:  Jabotinsky’s “worldview translated into a geostrategic conception in which Zionism was to be permanently allied with European colonialism against all the Arabs in the eastern Mediterranean.”  In the face of “‘ indigenous’” resistance to Jewish colonialism, Jabotinsky proposed “to erect an iron wall of Jewish military force.”

It is the continual building of the iron wall, with particular force since 1967, that the world has witnessed. The 2014 invasion of Gaza is just another brick, or should I say piece of steel, in the wall. What the world can expect, however, until Israel dismantles the wall, is continued indigenous resistance. In this respect, as the former UN rapporteur to the Occupied Territories Richard Falk has pointed out, anticolonial history is on the side of the Palestinians.

The Cornell connection

It is no secret that Cornell’s institutional partner in the New York City tech campus is Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. It is also no secret that Technion is substantially involved in the development of systems used in the militarization of the Occupied Territories. On March 1, 2013, The Nation magazine published an article by Adam Hudson (in which I was quoted) titled “Cornell NYC Tech’s Alarming Ties to the Israeli Occupation.” The article noted: “Technion conducts research and development into military technology that Israel relies on to sustain its occupation of Palestinian land. For example, Technion developed an unmanned D-9 bulldozer for the Israeli military, which it used during Operation Cast Lead [in Gaza], a war that killed around 1400 Palestinians, mostly civilians…. Technion also has partnerships with Israeli arms companies, such as Elbit and Rafael. Elbit provides surveillance equipment for the [West Bank] separation wall, such as cameras and drones, while Rafael manufactures missiles that accompany drones and an armor protection system for the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) Mk4 battle tank…. Technion is also a leader in the development of drone technology, which Israel has deployed in the occupied territories.”

The question might arise, then, at least in some minds, as to Cornell’s possible complicity in Israeli state policy in the Territories, including the latest invasion of Gaza and the ongoing blockade, which Hamas is asking, quite reasonably, be lifted as a condition for a permanent cease fire. While from one perspective, it might be said that Cornell is blameless in this matter because its involvement with Technion focuses on the development of peaceful technologies; from another perspective, one might see this as a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, that is, of complicity and denial.

Complicating this perspective is the fact that the partnership with Technion was formed without any consultation with the Cornell faculty as prescribed in the by-laws of the university, where in Article XIII, section 2, we find the following: “The functions of the University Faculty shall be to consider questions of educational policy which concern more than one college, school or separate academic unit, or are general in nature.”

I take it that what is intended by the term “University Faculty” is a representative body of the whole faculty i.e. the faculty senate. I also take it, indeed it seems quite obvious, that forming partnerships with other educational institutions in order to implement courses of study and research is a matter of “educational policy which concern[s] more than one college, school or separate academic unit, or are general in nature.” This is manifestly the case with the Technion partnership.

While the faculty senate’s relationship to the university administration is only advisory, the senate is or should be an important forum for debate of those issues that affect the governance of the university. By in effect suspending the section of Article XIII cited above in the Technion case, the administration not only apparently violated a by-law of the university having to do with shared governance but crucially stifled debate on a critical issue. This same pattern of stifling debate was followed in the spring of 2014 by the Student Assembly, which indefinitely tabled a resolution to divest from Israel put forward by Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine, thereby preventing any substantive discussion of and vote on the resolution.

These actions by the administration and the Student Assembly raise serious questions of academic freedom. What is the irony here, given the fact that the administration, speaking once again for Cornell University without faculty consultation, condemned the American Studies Association (ASA) for supporting the Palestinian-driven academic boycott of Israeli educational and cultural institutions because in the administration’s opinion such a boycott violated principles of academic freedom? What is the irony when in taking up the cause of academic freedom the administration has said nothing about Israel’s suspension of academic freedom in the Occupied Territories? Nor has the administration protested the suspension of academic freedom on US campuses where it has been denied to prominent, tenured scholars such as Norman Finkelstein and Steven Salaita, who have been critical of Israeli state policy in Palestine and suffered the loss of their jobs because of their views. Moreover, during the Gaza invasion, curbs on academic freedom, as it pertains to criticism of that invasion, have been implemented in Israeli universities without any criticism from Cornell and the other university administrations that carry the torch for academic freedom but only apparently when it does not threaten their corporate interests.

One can read on Cornell’s homepage the following: “For 150 years, Cornellians have taken on the world’s issues as their direct challenges. The results improve the ways we live.”   Given Cornell’s partnership with Technion, the way that partnership was formed, and Cornell’s silence on Gaza, we must also read this statement with a certain irony. For it is clear that Cornell in its public profile is avoiding taking on some of the world’s most pressing issues and that therefore the “we” whose lives are improved by Cornell has a limited referent, which does not seem to include the Palestinians  resisting Israeli colonialism.

Ithaca, NY
August 14, 2014

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Thank you, Professor Cheyfitz, for bravely speaking out at a time when it’s clearly risky for academics to do so. While most details in this essay will be familiar to regular Mondoweiss readers, you have crafted an unusually comprehensive and powerful argument against the Zionist Occupation and those institutions that would collaborate with it. ~~~ [Gideon] Levy does not explain what Israel means by “quiet” or “calm”… For the current, Jabotinsky inspired leaders — as… Read more »

Thank you Eric Cheyfitz for this article, and the careful parsing of the strains of Zionism – revealing the roots of Likud Party policy in Jabotinsky’s worldview, which is, I think, the key “idea” that must be overturned in the “war of ideas in the Middle East.” And thank you for documenting the somatic state some of us have been discussing here, with this quote from a Dutch family visiting Tel Aviv: “It took us… Read more »

“What do Israelis love? Perhaps others can better answer this than I, but I posit that they love Jewish and Israeli “exceptionalism,” the extraordinary capacity to succeed against long odds, through brilliance, hard work, perseverance, mutual tribal support, aided by a little clever indirection, where necessary, along the way (freyers beware).”

Oh, don’t stop there, David. Please tell us how Protective Edge exemplifies and makes use of all these wonderful “Israeli love” characteristics.