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Cornell students protest war in Gaza

Students called for Cornell to divest from military technology companies during a "die-in" protest
Aurora Berry
Students called for Cornell to divest from military technology companies during a "die-in" protest.

“Cornell is complicit in genocide!”

That’s what students in Cornell University’s Mann Library heard Thursday afternoon as a group of student demonstrators staged a “die-in” protest.

Demonstrators laid down in public spaces as if dead, while another student read the names of Palestinians killed in the war between Israel and Hamas.

They said their school has failed to adequately respond to the conflict in the Middle East and called for Cornell to divest from military technology companies.

The Cornell Coalition for Mutual Liberation led the protest. Malek Abuhashim, president of Students for Justice in Palestine, said the collective wanted to raise awareness for the people who have died in Gaza since Israel began its military campaign.

“There are a lot of names that are missing,” she said. “But I feel like this is a way to kind of make people acknowledge the humanity behind these numbers.”

Participants in the "die-in" occupied Cornell's Mann Library while another demonstrator read the names of people who have been killed in Gaza
Aurora Berry
Participants in the "die-in" occupied Cornell's Mann Library while another demonstrator read the names of people who have been killed in Gaza.

More than 27,000 people in Gaza and a thousand people in Israel have died since Hamas militants attacked Israel on October 7.

Since then, college campuses across the United States have grappled with how to respond to the violence in the Middle East and protect students from antisemitism and Islamophobia. In November, Cornell student Patrick Dai was charged with making antisemitic death threats against Cornell’s Jewish community.

Abuhashim argued the divestment would be in line with previous action taken by the university.

“Cornell divested from the genocide that was happening in Darfur, Sudan, and it was done because of students.”

She said it is important for students to push back against their universities.

“We have the ability to break this war machine at the legs, essentially, and stop this funding and support for this,” Abuhashim said.

‘Unwelcome and unrecognized’

Abuhashim feels Palestinian students like her have been left behind by the university.

“I've been Palestinian, my entire life,” she said. “And I have never been in the area where I am as unwelcomed and unrecognized as we are here.”

Alaa Farghli is a grad student at Cornell and president of the Arab Graduate Students Association.

He feels the suffering of Arab people isn’t prioritized at Cornell.

“I think it helps at the highest branches of the federal government to continue to demonize Arabs and Muslims,” he said. “And that trickles down to the institutions that we attend.”

Farghli said he’s been the target of that demonization.

“People will tell me, bluntly, that I should go back to my country, even though I was born in Brooklyn.”

Alaa Farghli speaking in front of demonstrators
Aurora Berry
Alaa Farghli speaking in front of demonstrators.

A few counterprotesters arrived during the demonstration.

“As for the counterdemonstrators, I understand that they feel attacked, and our wish is not to make them feel and definitely not to put them in any physical harm,” Farghli said “That's not the point of our movement.”

During the protest, demonstrators chanted the phrase, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free." The political rallying cry has been asource of contention, with various organizations interpreting it in different ways. The Anti-Defamation League said the saying was an “antisemitic slogan.”

Farghli interprets it differently.

“What we are saying is that we want Palestinians to have free mobility from the river to the sea, in addition to their Jewish counterparts, that's what that phrase means to us,” he said. “It is not a call for violence.”

He feels protests like this one are wrongly perceived as antisemitic.

“I think a lot of individuals have been told that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. We tried to be very clear and explicit, that we are against a political movement and not a people.”

Malek Abuhashim said it’s important to address antisemitism on campus.

“As a Muslim, I’ve suffered from Islamophobia,” she said. “So I can very much relate to the feeling of not being, except for your religion or your identity.”

She said opponents wrongly tie their political beliefs to antisemitism.

“There are people that do attempt to use these words or these sentiments as a way to shut us down or to silence us or to scare people from listening to us.”

‘Disrupted university business’

In a statement, Joel Malina, vice president for university relations, said the students, “disrupted university business by holding a demonstration inside library and academic spaces.”

Cornell University police collected identification from some demonstrators. Those students were referred to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards for disciplinary action, according to Malina.

Malina said although the university values students’ rights to protest, “those protests must comply with our time, place, and manner guidelines to ensure the ability of our faculty and students to teach and learn without disruption.”

Cornell updated its policies onexpressive activities like protests in January.