OPINION: Defeating BDS - The Cornell Experience

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Photo Credit: Cornell University Students / Students at Cornell University recently held a vote over whether the school should divest from companies that work with Israel

By John Dominguez ’20 - School of Industrial and Labor Relations Representative, Student Assembly, Cornell University

Cornell University students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have successfully defeated an attempt to bring BDS to our campus community. It’s my hope that students across the country will continue to carry the fight for a free, democratic, and Jewish state now more than ever before. 

There was a lot at stake in the lead up to the vote because students at Brown voted for BDS just weeks before. People’s Facebook timelines were flooded with content about the controversy. Every day, it seemed like a new Cornell Daily Sun (campus newspaper) story came out. Our team organized countless individual meetings with my Assembly colleagues to persuade them to reject BDS. I remember drafting various voting outcome scenarios in Excel. There was a solid bloc on the Assembly that was pushing BDS and then, there were our allies. Consequently, there was a limited pool of “swing votes” that accounted for endless voting outcomes in the race for 15 votes (the threshold for majority). 

Photo Credit: Cornell University Students / Students held up signs calling Israel an apartheid state during the vote on the BDS resolution.

Most people who I have met who are actively involved in pro-Israel advocacy are either Jewish, evangelical Christians, Israeli immigrants, or simply foreign policy wonks. None of these even come close to accurately describing my connection to this issue. 

On the floor of the Cornell Student Assembly, my mind raced to my Syrian-Lebanese grandfather, and the stories that he shared which fill my childhood memory. Moreso, I thought of my family of Greek Orthodox Christians in Syria praying as it’s their last hope to avoid being victims of another tragic war. Those supporting this resolution wanted to put my family and many others like them at risk not for respectful dialogue, but as a veil for anti-Semitism and a platform for the destruction of the Jewish state. 

Photo Credit: Cornell University Students / The BDS resolution called on Cornell to divest from Israel but not other countries listed in the resolution such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen

This was showcased in the disingenuous actions of BDS advocates at Cornell. At first, the BDS team was unapologetic about their naked support for Israel's destruction. Then, they suddenly changed their message to downplay their demands to “just divestment from the West Bank.” It became apparent that this was just a charade to woo votes for their BDS bill from my Student Assembly colleagues. We repeatedly exposed the inconsistencies in their message. These tensions peaked at the Assembly meeting when a picture depicting a Google Document titled “BDS” was brought to light on the laptop of one of the BDS resolution co-sponsors. This happened while they were pleading to the Assembly that this was not a BDS resolution, “just divestment.” It made for a glaring misstep on their part and exposed an authenticity issue in their campaign. 

These tactics were not unique to Cornell’s attempt at BDS. In the BDS handbook, students are encouraged to change their narrative to “divestment,” if the full BDS platform is too challenging for the student body. Prior to mid-April, the handbook also stated, “The ultimate goal of BDS is not to change Israeli policies, but to isolate and pressure Israel until it collapses as a Jewish and democratic state.” The parallels between the handbook instructions and the BDS advocates could not be closer.

Photo Credit: Cornell University Students / Some Cornell students hung banners highlighting their positions in the voting hall.

Meanwhile, the justification for BDS was rooted in a fallacy. They claimed that the West Bank is the source of conflict. Ironically, these student “experts” showed that they were unaware two wars (1948 and 1967) were fought long before the settlements in the West Bank were in the picture. These wars were fought to wipe Israel off the map. Although the settlements in the West Bank contribute to tension, merit criticism, and should be managed appropriately, to suggest the West Bank is the cause of the conflict is naïve and reductionist. Let’s be clear, the issue isn’t about the West Bank. The heart of the conflict is about Israel’s existence. 

The BDS advocates’ consistent impulsive and capricious actions did not make room for respectful and thoughtful engagement. Instead, everything was on their schedule, even up to the minute of voting day where they attempted to strip the community’s opportunity to participate and vote on the resolution. Throughout the process, it appalled me that many of my colleagues ignored opponents of their resolution. Cornell University President Martha Pollack wrote a letter explaining her opposition and why BDS is not a fit for Cornell’s campus. There was also a petition with nearly 700 signatures from students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, opposing the BDS measure. Both fell on deaf ears. 

Photo Credit: Cornell University Students / Students across the voting hall made their opinions known with banners and signs.

During the BDS campaign, BDS supporters repeatedly harassed and threatened my Assembly colleagues. Some of these threats included the desire for physical harm and one threat even warranted Cornell Police intervention. 

What also struck me was how BDS shaped the narrative of their campaign. They successfully distorted the issue into a “brown vs. white” issue – refusing to acknowledge that the Jewish community is a minority that has a history of marginalization. I know this because some of my Assembly colleagues fell victim to this false narrative and mentioned this as one of the reasons for their support for BDS. It is significant that BDS was successful at persuading multi-cultural groups to identify their struggles with BDS. Pro-BDS supporters even resorted to criticisms with anti-Semitic tropes. For example, they blamed the Jewish community for having “more money and influence” to out-organize them.

Eventually, the time for voting arrived. 

Photo Credit: Cornell University Students / Some students found humor in what was otherwise a groundbreaking vote with serious implications for the college world.

BDS had successfully intimidated my Assembly colleagues to not only pass the resolution (14-13-1 before the allocated community vote changed the outcome), but to nullify our bylaws and vote by secret ballot, something that had never been done in recent memory. Unsuccessful at stripping the community’s vote on this matter, Cornell community students voted overwhelmingly in opposition to the BDS measure by a vote of 248-330 in favor of rejecting BDS which made the difference in the final tally where we voted to reject BDS 14-15-1. Too close for comfort, but we are grateful for staving off this attempt to isolate Israel. 

Though a long fight, not all that came from this experience was negative.

Numerous friendships have been forged between myself and members of Cornell’s Jewish community. I’ve become a “regular” at Shabbat events on campus. My experiences at Hillel and Chabad have led me to develop a renewed knowledge of Judaism, its rich traditions and customs, and community. I’m proud to have to stood with students to reject BDS and invest in peace. 

Photo Credit: Justin Wu Photography / John Dominguez '20 is the School of Industrial and Labor Relations Representative on the Student Assembly at Cornell University