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April 12, 2019 5:08 pm

Cornell Students Vote Down Divestment Resolution Targeting Israel After Acrimonious Campus Debate

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Clock tower at Cornell University. Photo: Clarice Oliveira.

The Student Assembly at Cornell University in Ithaca voted on Thursday against adopting a divestment resolution targeting companies over their ties to Israel, following a campus debate that multiple students decried as acrimonious.

While a majority of SA members voted via secret ballot to adopt the measure — with 14 in favor, 13 against, and one abstention — two additional votes were allocated to community members, who came out against the resolution by a margin of 330-248, the Cornell Daily Sun reported.

A co-sponsor of the proposal, Rep. Mahfuza Shovik, opened the debate by condemning opponents for “inaccurately” portraying it as an extension of the controversial, Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel — even though the anti-Zionist group Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) explicitly endorsed BDS when announcing the resolution in February.

“It concerns me that there are people standing against this resolution without knowing the facts,” Shovik said.

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Others pointed out that divestment supporters had in part promoted their cause by invoking BDS, which has been denounced by major Jewish groups in the US and worldwide for rejecting Jewish rights and invoking antisemitic tropes. One student representative noted that the resolution’s authors copied BDS proposals from other campuses “almost word-for-word.”

At various times during the meeting, SA representatives called out the bitterness the divestment debate inspired on campus.

“I have been extremely disappointed by the way this resolution has been handled by everyone involved,” said SA vice president for external affairs Savanna Lim, according to the Sun. “You can’t expect a student government to solve a geopolitical crisis.”

She also alluded to allegations that SA vice president of diversity and inclusion Cat Huang was “harassed” by divestment supporters, while Rep. Mackenzie Smith said she and other SA colleagues had faced multiple “threats, insults, and attacks” by the same group.

SJP leader Adam Khatib rejected the accusations, insisting that divestment is “non-violent” and “never has been, and never will be, directed at individuals.”

Though the meeting concluded without the resolution passing, Cornell SJP claimed their campaign had nonetheless been successful, noting, “When we last brought divestment before the Student Assembly five years ago, the resolution died within minutes of it being introduced because the SA didn’t even consider it worthy of debate.”

SJP pointed to more than 20 groups who joined their coalition in support of divestment, among them the Cornell Asian Pacific Student Union, Black Students United at Cornell University, Arab Student Association at Cornell, Native American and Indigenous Students at Cornell, Islamic Alliance for Justice, Climate Justice Cornell, and the Women of Color Coalition.

In their own response, leaders of Cornell Hillel noted that the resolution had “caused hurt and division within our campus community,” but also applauded “the hundreds of members of our community” who showed up and voted.

“At tonight’s meeting pro-Israel students and allies presented a range of perspectives, sharing with their peers that BDS is not an effective way to reach a moral resolution of the complex conflict existing in the Middle East and that BDS causes deep polarization among the Cornell campus community,” the group wrote. “We made clear that supporting a lasting and secure Israeli-Palestinian peace can only be achieved through the lens of a two-state solution.”

Divestment was a major topic on campus in recent weeks, with students holding teach-ins and a public forum last month, as well as publishing op-eds in the Sun.

In one such op-ed opposing divestment, student Shir Kidron shared that her home in Israel was struck by a Palestinian rocket from the Gaza Strip in 2009. Her dog was killed in the attack.

The Cornell Collective for Justice in Palestine (CCJP), which supported divestment, reportedly commented in response, “Palestinians have a moral and legal right to use armed struggle to shake of the yoke of occupation. If you want the rockets to stop, end the occupation. Otherwise quit complaining about how it ruined your brunch plans in Ashdod.”

The Israel advocacy and education organization StandWithUs criticized CCJP for dismissing Kidron’s experience and “[justifying] the terrorism her family faced.”

“The failure of divestment also represents a rejection of this extremism,” they said.

The president of the university, Martha Pollack, also weighed in on the debate in March after SJP members urged her to divest from companies “complicit in the morally reprehensible human rights violations in Palestine.”

“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,” she cautioned in a written response. “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.”

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