Cornell University President Shares ‘Strong Opposition to BDS’ for ‘Unfairly’ Singling Out Israel, Questioning Jewish State’s Right to Exist
The head of Cornell University in New York has responded to demands by anti-Zionist student activists that she embrace the Palestinian-led boycott of Israel, saying the campaign was antithetical to academic freedom and unduly targeted Israel for sanction while ignoring other countries.
President Martha Pollack’s comments came in response to a letter delivered to her on February 18 by members of the Cornell chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which urged the university to divest its endowment from companies “complicit in the morally reprehensible human rights violations in Palestine.” The letter also accused Israel of sharing a “common history” with the United States as a “settler-colonial project rooted in genocide,” and claimed that the BDS campaign was working to isolate Israel “until it meets its obligations under international law.”
Critics of the effort — including major Jewish groups in the US and globally — say it fails to recognize Arab and Palestinian culpability in the conflict with Israel, aims to undermine the Jewish state’s very existence, and rejects the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination.
SJP also plans to bring forward a Student Assembly resolution in support of BDS, which has already been endorsed by more than 20 student groups, including the Queer Political Action Committee, Black Students United, Climate Justice Cornell, South Asian Council, Islamic Alliance for Justice, and Cornell Young Democratic Socialists.
In her response to SJP’s letter, shared online by the Jewish campus group Cornell Hillel, Pollack expressed a “strong opposition to BDS,” and rejected the idea of using the school’s endowment as a tool of “political or social power.”
“BDS unfairly singles out one country in the world for sanction when there are many countries around the world whose governments’ policies may be viewed as controversial,” Pollack wrote. “Moreover, it places all of the responsibility for an extraordinarily complex geopolitical situation on just one country and frequently conflates the policies of the Israeli government with the very right of Israel to exist as a nation, which I find particularly troublesome.”
She also pointed out that the BDS campaign calls for an academic boycott, “which is at odds with Cornell’s core commitment to academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas.”
The divestment campaign — which was last rejected in 2014 after SJP tried to schedule a vote during the Jewish holiday of Passover — has already sparked a debate on campus. In a Student Assembly meeting on Thursday, SJP expressed concern after 15 student government members attended an unofficial, closed-door gathering on BDS organized by an executive board member of Roitman Chabad Center at Cornell, the student-run Cornell Daily Sun reported.
“If they want to bring something to the Student Assembly, they come in front of all of us, we don’t just reach out to 15 members and include just those 15 members with those concerns,” Colin Benedict, minority student liaison, told the Sun.
In a statement on social media on Friday, Cornell SJP said the reported meeting with the 15 Student Assembly members represented “shady politics.”
“We sincerely hope that this entire process is kept civil and call on Chabad Center to do the same!”
Yet when contacted by The Algemeiner, Cornell Chabad director Rabbi Eli Silberstein said the reports surrounding the meeting were “bizarre.”
“Chabad doesn’t involve itself in politics. This was a mistake,” he said. “Chabad had nothing to do with this. It’s the first I hear about it.”
SJP’s campaign is expected to continue at the next Student Assembly meeting, when the group and members of Cornell Hillel will each hold teach-ins on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.