Why I Walked Out
By Anna-Lisa Castle
On Thursday, I was one of the hundreds of people who showed up to the Student Assembly meeting to talk about the possibility of talking about Resolution 72, which calls for divestment from six companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. A point of clarification that I don’t think has been publicly made: This is not consistent with the Boycott Divest Sanction movement, which calls for boycotting all Israeli companies until the state complies with international law, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, hundreds of United Nations resolutions that have gone ignored and near-unanimous internationally agreed upon pre-1967 borders. Again, I repeat, Resolution 72 does not call to boycott Israeli companies, it simply names six companies that benefit from the occupation, only one of which is Israeli. This point might have been made if the resolution had been allowed to be presented, but it wasn’t.
In an unprecedented move, the SA voted to overturn its president to deny the resolution from even being introduced and tabled it indefinitely without hearing what its sponsors had to say or allowing for public discussion. As far as I’m concerned, in doing so, the SA ceded its legitimacy as a democratic body.
The only opportunity for the public to address the assembly before voting was during an open-mic, so I signed up to speak. I followed a woman who stated quite seriously that the student government should not take positions on political issues, or at least certain political issues. This argument astounds me. We have already taken a position through our investment choices and through our silence. There is no such thing as neutrality in conflict, and to do nothing is to side with the stronger force. In this case, Israel is undoubtedly superior to Palestine in arms, funds, powerful allies and clearly, student representation on Cornell’s campus. While neutrality does not exist, not being invested in the conflict at all would be the closest approximation — even still, we support Israel through other investments, billions of tax dollars and countless public and private partnerships. Not only have we as an institution already chosen our side, but Cornell has failed its students if they can uncritically accept that, or believe that it is possible to exist in a vacuum — we are all part of this world.
When I walked from the back of the packed room up to the microphone — past t-shirts that read “Israel is Gorges,” friends and strangers staring at me from both sides of the aisle — my voice shook. I don’t usually get nervous, but I know what this issue means to people and I had never before stood in front of such a large crowd who might truly hate what I have to say, and possibly hate me for saying it. I was cut off before I got my bearing; apparently we were not allowed to reference the resolution, even in concept, before it was presented. Of course, it never was presented. In a patronizing and futile move, speakers were allowed to address the resolution after the fact, after it had already been barred from introduction and simultaneously tabled indefinitely.
The next day, The Sun reached out to the presidents of CIPAC, Cornell’s branch of the pro-Israel lobby, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, who organized opposition to the resolution and lobbied the SA before the vote. They are quoted saying that peace on campus and in the Middle East is best reached through dialogue, rather than public debate. Dialogue is good, but as we have seen in past peace talks and on campus, rarely is anything settled and, more often than not, extending “dialogue” serves as a smokescreen for maintaining the status quo, which on campus means the continued dominance of the Zionist perspective and in Israel-Palestine means continued violence. As for peace in the Middle East, there can be no peace without justice, and there can be no justice in an illegal occupation. When it comes to Israel-Palestine, there is not a level playing field for debate, not in numbers or volume, but at least there is a chance to make an argument that leads to action — an argument founded not on strength but on moral authority. When it became clear that we would not be given that chance, we walked out.
I wasn’t allowed to speak on Thursday, but here’s what I would have said:
It is truly unfortunate that in the American court of public opinion, criticizing Israel is not allowed. It is seen as tantamount to anti-Semitism. When Israel was in its infancy, a similar jingoism existed regarding public dissent in America; sociocultural and ideological identity was conflated with state loyalty and it was rigidly policed. We now call this era the Red Scare, and it is known as a time when democracy took a back seat to fear. Just as nationalism here reduces and conflates American identity with the values of the state, Zionism conflates the globalized Jewish identity with Israel. Of course, the relationship of people to a state is far more complicated than this. But certainly this mechanism of Zionism has proved extremely limiting to productive discourse because according to this logic, to be Jewish is to support Israel; therefore, to criticize Israel is to be anti-Semitic and the Jewish state is placed beyond reproach. Though many Jewish and Israeli people oppose the occupation — there are Jewish activists all over the world and conscientious objectors in Israel — their dissent is often shamed or silenced in the United States, because to question occupation in Palestine is to implicate ourselves and the American history of settler colonialism.
I am an American woman. I am descended from occupied and conquered people; I am also descended from the occupiers. Whatever the complexities of interaction with European settlers, borders were undemocratically drawn and redrawn around people living in what is now Texas by others who felt they had a divine right to the land. In an effort to increase the power and number of slave states, it was annexed by the United States — displacing or suppressing, if not annihilating, an indigenous population to make room for an enslaved one. Texas got a new occupying force; with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, my ancestors became Americans. There was great violence before and after my mother’s home became a state, there still is. This is undisputed.
I do not mean to equate the history of America to that of Israel; these are unique and complex histories. I do, however, believe that depending on who you are and what you want this country to mean, it may very well be un-American to reject the logic of occupation, of settler colonialism. I understand how these critiques might not be accepted.
But, at this late date, to refuse to even hear them is shameful.
This was originally published by the Cornell Daily Sun.