Ongoing Gaza war prompts array of activist events Sunday

ITHACA, N.Y. — Ithaca played host to at least five separate events Sunday related to the war in Gaza. Hundreds of people in total attended the various events — seemingly unfazed by hail, rain and tour groups of prospective Cornellians, all of which had also descended on the city over the weekend.

The events included a rally calling for Cornell University to crack down on alleged antisemitic and anti-Israel rhetoric, a 5K run calling for the return of Israeli hostages, a vigil for people killed during Israel’s raids on Gaza’s Al Shifa Hospital, a set of converging marches calling for Cornell and Ithaca College to divest from Israeli holdings and the screening of a documentary about changing Jewish American attitudes towards Israel.

Some of the events occurred within yards — and minutes — of each other. Some organizers advised their respective attendees to give the other events a wide berth in order to avoid conflict.

Though there were no direct clashes between attendees of individual events, there was a clear air of tension throughout the afternoon.

Cornell University officials said they hired private security guards and recruited staff observers to assist Cornell police in providing security to a rally organized by pro-Israel groups. 

Midway through that rally, university officials removed a banner that had previously hung on a building immediately behind the event’s stage. The banner read “Jews for Divestment: No Genocide in Our Names.” 

A speaker at an event in support of Palestine criticized attendees of the pro-Israel rally as “not representative of Ithaca” and advised attendees to avoid any “hecklers.” Downtown, the driver of a large pickup truck appeared to swerve at marchers carrying Palestinian flags as they crossed Seneca Street, though it did not disrupt the procession.

Fliers for the largest of Sunday’s events, dubbed the “Jewish Unity Rally,” included calls to “#EndJewHatred on campus, demand safety for Jewish students nationwide and stop antisemitism at Cornell University.”

Several hundred attendees crowded around a mobile stage and sound system to hear from an array of speakers flown in for the event. Several politicians also made an appearance: Republican congressman Marc Molinaro, County Legislator and Republican candidate for State Senate Mike Sigler and Ithaca Common Council member David Shapiro, among them.

The crowd waved Israeli flags, danced to Israeli pop songs, recited Jewish religious songs and prayers and sang the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah.

Fliers for the rally list a bevy of pro-Israel groups as co-sponsors, nearly all of which are based outside of Ithaca. Several of the organizations named told The Ithaca Voice they had provided financial or in-kind support to the event.

Michele Ahdoot, who works with the non-profit Lawfare Project as part of it’s #EndJewHatred initiative, said her organization has been helping to organize similar events on college campuses across the country.

Ahdoot said the organizers would like to see Cornell crack down on protestors who violate the university’s code of conduct, citing a recent incident at Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University where pro-Palestinian protestors were arrested and later expelled.

“There were students [at Vanderbilt] that staged some sort of sit-in, some sort of protest that did not follow guidelines,” Ahdoot said. “And the students, I believe, were either arrested and or expelled or suspended. That’s the example that Cornell should be following.”

Last month, Cornell Police arrested 24 students and staff members who participated in a sit-in calling for the university to divest from holdings in Israel. The university also adopted a controversial temporary policy governing protests and other forms of “expressive activity.” Several students and staff have already faced disciplinary hearings under the interim policy after participating in pro-Palestinian protests.

Ahdoot said she feels the university’s actions do not go far enough to prevent what she called a “corrupted campus culture” that has impacted the educational experience of some Jewish students.

“Students are regularly allowed to run rampant with bullhorns, anti semitic signs, screaming genocidal chants and terrorizing [Jewish] students,” Ahdoot said. “If that’s free expression, then free expression has to be reframed.”

Ahdoot said her organization and its donors have provided financial and in-kind support to Sunday’s Jewish Unity Rally and others like it across the country. She was unable to provide the exact dollar amount of financial contributions to the Cornell event during an interview on Friday. A follow up email went unanswered.

Cornell M.B.A. student Yosef Israel, one of three students who worked with Ahdoot’s organization to plan the rally, said he began to plan the event about a month ago in response to a protest led by students critical of Israel’s counterattack on Gaza, which he said was disruptive and intimidating.

“What really first made us kickstart this whole thing was there was a group of pro-Palestinians who were marching through Sage [Hall], which is the business school building,” Israel said.“They called for [an] Intifada, and they were handing out fliers.”

‘Intifada’ colloquially refers to a series of uprisings by Palestinians in the 1980s and early 2000s in opposition to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip. 

Israel said he would like to see the university set clear guidelines on what students and staff can and cannot say in regards to the current conflict.

Israel shared an anecdote about a Jewish Ph.D. student who said he felt uncomfortable going to his office after seeing department cubicles “blasted with Palestinian flags” and fliers alleging Israel’s counterattack amounted to ethnic cleansing, among other messages. 

Israel said that while he personally doesn’t feel physically unsafe on campus, he often chooses not to mention his background in Israel because he feels it could lead to a verbal disagreement.

“The fact that Israel is in a war has nothing to do with me,” Israel said. “Obviously, as an Israeli, I support Israel, but as an individual, I feel like I’m being accused of everything that Israel is so called doing, and they’re putting me as a scapegoat. So you can’t even you can’t even say you’re Israeli or Jewish.”

Runners participating in a 5K run calling for the return of Israeli hostages pass by a group holding a vigil for the casualties of Israel’s operation in Gaza’s Al Shifa Hospital. Source: Megan Zerez/Ithaca Voice

Gilad Barshad, an Israeli post-doctoral researcher at Cornell, participated in a 5K run calling for the return of Israeli hostages as well as the Jewish Unity Rally. 

He said that he felt that restricting speech was a slippery slope, but that certain messages and images shared by pro-Palestinian protestors were, to him, clearly antisemitic.

“I saw [a protestor] walking with this shirt saying ‘Palestine’ on it that just showed the [outline] of the entire land [of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza] as one block, as if it’s all Palestine, as if there’s no room for us,” Barshad said.

Barshad said similar anti-Zionist rhetoric, like the popular slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” are antisemitic because they imply the destruction of the State of Israel. 

“[As an Israeli] you can call for peace, you can call for Palestinian rights — I’ve called my entire life for Palestinian rights, I’m what you call in Israel a ‘lefty’ — but it doesn’t come instead of being a very proud Zionist,” Barshad said.

First year students Aya Oulida and Lea Esipov, of Ithaca College and Cornell University, respectively, organized Sunday’s pro-Palestine “Ithaca Unite” marches. Two groups — roughly 80 people in total — set off from each of the campuses and converged downtown.

The event was intended as a call for peace and unity and to call attention to the climbing Palestinian death toll and mounting humanitarian crisis.

Oulida, who grew up as part of Ithaca’s Muslim community, said that while her own community had always been aware of the decades long conflict, the broader Ithaca community hadn’t shown much interest until Oct. 7. 

“I think this rally shows that Ithaca is a place where all these groups can come together, united for one cause — justice for Palestine,” Oulida said.

The students said they chose to hold the event on Sunday to coincide with a screening of a documentary, “Israelism,” but it had been a coincidence that the event coincided with the events sponsored by the pro-Israeli groups.

Fliers for the Ithaca Unite march and Israelism documentary screening show a number of Ithaca-based, non-student groups as sponsors. Esipov said the rally did not receive any financial or in-kind support from sponsors. Some sponsors did make a small financial contribution — each less than $100 — to offset costs related to the documentary screening, which was free to the public.

Esipov, who is a member of Cornell’s chapter of the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voices for Peace, said that while she doesn’t feel threatened by pro-Palestinian protests, she doesn’t think she’d feel welcome at events like the Jewish Unity Rally.

“It’s been definitely difficult being an anti-Zionist Jew, especially on this campus,” Esipov said. “[Jewish Voices for Peace] has not been very much welcomed. And the general atmosphere, especially in a lot of the Jewish spaces, we’ve received a lot of hate online, people sliding into our DMs with the typical ‘self-hating Jew’ stuff.”

Long time anti-Zionist activist Michael Margolin, who works at local synagogue Tikkun v’Or and part time at Cornell, attended events organized by both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups. 

Margolin spoke with the Voice on the condition that it be made clear that he is speaking in his capacity as an individual, not as a representative for Congregation Tikkun v’Or. 

Margolin said it felt important for him as a Jewish educator to attend the Jewish Unity Rally to support and connect with his colleagues and community members there, but said he felt dismayed at the celebratory mood, given the heavy death toll in Gaza.

Margolin said there have been clear instances of antisemitism at Cornell that must be condemned — like an incident in October involving a student threatening to open fire at a kosher dining hall — but he said he thinks criticism of Israel does not always constitute antisemitism.

“The majority of what has been called antisemitism is not antisemitism. What it is is Jewish students feeling uncomfortable,” Margolin said. “[If you are uncomfortable] because you hear a chant, or because you see a rally coming or people are very vocal or even engage you in conversation, that’s not antisemitic. That’s debate.”

Margolin was one of 24 people arrested last month during a sit-in calling on Cornell to divest from its holdings in Israel.

“They were saying this is about Jews, but yet, it’s really about Israel,” Margolin said. “I would like them to make a distinction, because here I am, a Jew that doesn’t agree with them fully. I don’t want them to be speaking in my mind. But at the same time, those are my people, those are my community members. So it’s a really hard moment in the Jewish community.”

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