Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip ended more than a month ago, but for two college campuses in the snow-flushed mountains of central New York, the aftershocks from the war with Hamas continue to reverberate.
In the latest tremors, the most recent edition of the Ithaca College alumni magazine ICView, featured ’08 grad Emily McNeill’s eyewitness account of Israeli settler violence in Palestinian land. It sparked a campus-wide battle among students, faculty and alumni.
Meanwhile, two miles north at Cornell, the formerly peaceful Muslim and pro-Israel organizations broke what had been an increasingly friendly dialogue with a series of antagonistic rallies and protests.
“Ithaca is a very liberal town — it’s sort of in its own little bubble,” said Shai Akabas, president of the Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee. “There are more people who lean to the far left side of the political spectrum, and some of those people tend to take more stances against Israel. That may to some extent spur the far-left student population to take action.”
Last month, a group of Cornell students decked the campus Arts Quad with signs condemning Israel’s war on Gaza and 1,300 black flags to represent the dead from both sides, The Cornell Daily Sun reported. Cornell’s Islamic Alliance for Justice did not organize the Feb. 9 protest, though some members participated in the display, its president, Tara Malik, told The Sun. But by that same afternoon, many of those same signs had been vandalized and stolen.
Later in the week, some students actually rearranged the flags into the shape of a Jewish star — rumored to be a fraternity pledge prank, according to Akabas. But the Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee said it was not involved in the vandalism, and the group expressed shock that the protest even took place to begin with.
“Before the past couple weeks there had been a lot of constructive dialogue between the Jewish and Muslim groups. We were planning on publishing a joint statement about the conflict with them. But then they put up the black signs without telling us,” Akabas said. “That brought down the level of trust to some extent.”
Last Monday, Israel Public Affairs Committee members responded with their own rally, and they erected a weeklong exhibit in the Arts Quad to convey what they felt was much more accurate information about the conflict.
“It’s not so much a tit-for-tat type of thing; it’s more just to show students that [the anti-Israel protesters] didn’t include the entire picture,” Akabas said. “A lot of people were very angered and very emotional and thought that the opposing viewpoint needed to be expressed.”
At Ithaca College, after an barrage of heated complaints, President Thomas Rochon wrote a letter to ICView readers, attesting that the publication had not presented the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an “unbiased manner” and addressing the need for improved editorial review. That same day, ICView editor Maura Stephens issued a public apology for running the story, even though the majority of online comments supported the article. In response, 40 current and former faculty members signed a letter printed in The Ithacan student newspaper, which charged Rochon with encouraging censorship. Some professors and students have posited that certain Jewish alumni may have threatened to withdraw donations as a result of this article, but the truth to this charge is unproven.
“I fear that the president’s intervention could have a chilling effect on the Ithaca College community discussing Israeli occupation policies in particular, and controversial topics generally. As a journalist and journalism associate professor, that’s not acceptable,” said Jeff Cohen, one of the faculty signers.
And while many pro-Israel students had no problem with the content of the article, they agreed with the president and felt that McNeill’s voice should have been presented in a different medium than the alumni magazine.
“We couldn’t really criticize anyone for voicing their opinions,” said Arielle Wernick, president of Ithaca College’s Student Alliance for Israel. “Our issue was with the forum in which this girl decided to present her opinion, not the article.”
“We have a campus newspaper, we have a Web site, we have an alternative magazine — she had four years to express her opinion,” added Wernick’s sister Molly, who is also an Ithaca student.
But McNeill contends that the alumni magazine was precisely the right place for her article and says she is surprised by the amount of controversy that has reverberated through the campus.
“The idea that what I wrote — which I don’t think was particularly inflammatory — would provoke that kind of response is puzzling to me and disturbing because that type of reaction is trying to shut down the conversation,” she said. “It is a personal reflection, which is what that space usually holds.”
The Wernick sisters say they are frustrated that the pro-Israel voice feels silenced on their campus.
“We’re put in the role of the enemy, but we are as far from that as possible,” Molly said, explaining that she and Arielle both did coexistence work in Israel for a year before college, and they were attracted to Ithaca because of its liberal reputation. “But because we are Israel supporters we are pushed to this right extreme.”
Though they have 135 members signed up to receive Israel Alliance e-mails, Molly said that only about 10 people regularly show up at meetings — in their campus of approximately 6,000.
“Those who stand up for Israel vocally are publicly scrutinized by the Ithaca College campus community. So why would the other members take a stand?” Molly asked.
Yet despite the hostility they face daily, the sisters have no regrets about attending Ithaca College.
“Maybe going to a large state school with a huge Jewish population would be better,” Molly said. “But then I realized that if we weren’t here to be pro-Israel, who else would be here?”
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