March 7, 2019

TEA TIME WITH JULIAN | A Meditation On Martha

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Over the course of the past couple weeks, the BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanction) movement has been a particularly hot topic on campus. From initial communications between SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) and Martha Pollack to an uneasy session of the Student Assembly, the issue has taken center stage for many campus organizers and members of student government.

The Cornell BDS movement primarily calls for Cornell University to divest from Israel, which would require a complete cessation of funding to the state. In a letter released on February 28, Martha Pollack responded to the request for divestment with a firm ‘No’.

To be clear, this article is not meant to take a stance on the BDS movement or Pollack’s refusal to divest from the State of Israel. However, I would like to contest some of the explicit and implicit claims in President Pollack’s letter. Considering the emotional weight of this issue on all parties involved, it would seem that a higher caliber of reasoning would be warranted.

One of the first claims that President Pollack made in her letter was that “Cornell is not primarily an agent to direct social or political action, but rather a neutral forum for analysis, debate and the search for truth. Similarly, the principal purpose of our endowment is to provide income for advancing our mission-related objectives and must not be viewed as a means of exercising political or social power.”

While it’d be nice to think that the use of our endowment could be apolitical, that’s simply not the case. At the end of 2018, our total investments were valued at $7.2 billion. To suggest that the spending of a sum of money commensurate to the GDP of a small nation does not exercise “political or social power” is absurd. Even if the spending of our endowment is devoid of political bias or agenda, it will nonetheless have political implications. Pro-BDS or Anti-BDS, The endowment is a political tool and refusal to implement BDS is a political decision. To pretend otherwise is just silly.

Shortly after, President Pollack hits us with an argument that harkens back to the iconic “some people have war in their countries” moment on America’s Next Top Model.

President Pollack contended that “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.”

I was shocked when I read that line for the first time. Should a court refrain from prosecuting a bank robber because there are plenty of other people who “may be viewed as” robbing banks too? To reiterate, this article is not meant to explicitly or implicitly align with any stakeholder in the BDS movement. That said, if a country had hypothetically violated human rights laws, I would hope that President Pollack would not justify inaction by vaguely referencing “many countries around the world whose governments’ policies may be viewed as controversial”.

I’d also like to draw some attention to a broader contradiction. Throughout the letter, academic freedom and the apolitical nature of the University are stressed heavily. In light of these lofty claims, the tone with which President Pollack talks about divestment in the final paragraph is kind of ironic.

In writing, “I hope that instead of polarizing calls for divestment, the community can engage in productive discourse around paths forward in the Middle East, drawing on the kind of thoughtful analysis that defines us as a university”, President Pollack implies that consideration of BDS is “polarizing” and precludes productive discourse. Whether or not you’re in favor of BDS, neither academic freedom nor intellectual diversity are enhanced when the president of an institution carves out which areas of debate are “productive” or “polarizing.”

This brings me to my final point. It’s still valuable to debate BDS. It’s likely that the matter will undergo more consideration in the Student Assembly and other student organizations. While President Pollack has made clear that the results of student discussions won’t impact university spending, that doesn’t mean that those discussions aren’t important.

Ultimately, Cornell is an academic space in which polarizing and controversial ideas should be discussed. Not with weird logical fallacies or implicit dismissal, but with honest discourse. I’d encourage everybody to tune in as this issue unfolds over the next couple weeks.