Palestine & Academic Censorship: An Open-Letter to the Dean of Cornell Architecture by Jonathan Ochshorn


On October 6, we published a statement denouncing the unacceptable interruption of Professor Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s lecture “Palestine is There, Where it Has Always Been” (as part of a lecture series about colonialism and the desert curated by Samia Henni) by the Chair of the architecture department at Cornell University. In a few days, no less than 1,001 people signed the statement in solidarity with Professor Azoulay and in an explicit positioning against any form of intimidation of discourses examining the settler condition experienced by Palestine and Palestinians living at home and in exile. In this statement, we had clearly indicated that we were not demanding or expecting anything from Cornell, as we don’t expect for those responsible for this kind of erasure to be contributing to the struggle against colonialism and racism — especially when they are themselves settlers in the large colony commonly known as the United States.

On October 9 however, Professor Jonathan Ochshorn, who teaches in the architecture department at Cornell, shared with us the following open-letter that he wrote to the Dean of the department, Meejin Yoon, where he exposed the pressures received by the administration, the role of Cornell in the industrial military complex of the U.S. and Israeli militaries, and where he asks Dean Yoon to firmly position herself against efforts ” to silence, marginalize, intimidate, or penalize [their] faculty, [their] invited lecturers, or [their] students on the basis of their critical scholarship.” Given that Dean Yoon has not issued any public statement about this censorship until now, and given that forms of intimidation have been enacted by one student against another guest speaker in the lecture series, we have decided to publish Professor Ochshorn’s letter here.

We know all too well that Dean Yoon and Chair Simitch are no worse nor better than any other of the many heads of academic institutions who are cowardly giving way and credit to the Hasbara tactic of equating anti-zionism and antisemitism — an equation that appears to us as remarkably dangerous for the blind spot it creates with regard to actual racism against Jewish people in Western societies, where antisemitism is born and where it continues to thrive today as a full component of white supremacy. Such a tactic has been elaborated for, and is partially successful at deterring Palestinian and non-Palestinian activists, researchers (student or faculty alike), and lecturers from working on or talking about Palestine and the Palestinian struggle for liberation. We have, of course, no interest in addressing the cynical manufacturers of such a odious equation, but we’d like at the very least to show those who implicitly or explicitly adhere to it, opportunistically, cowardly, and/or by intellectual laziness that their spinelessness does not go unnoticed. 

Léopold Lambert, Paris, October 15, 2020.
(Image above shows the common campus of Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in New York City. / Photo by Sperli)

An Open Letter to Meejin Yoon, the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning
By Jonathan Ochshorn
October 9, 2020

Dear Dean Yoon,

First, I want to thank you for convening a meeting of architecture faculty to discuss the chat message that appeared during Prof. Azoulay’s “Zoom” lecture on October 5, 2020. I also want to acknowledge your courageous and forthright behavior in taking responsibility for that message and apologizing to Prof. Henni, the conference organizer; Prof. Azoulay, the speaker; and Prof. Simitch, who seems to have been caught in the middle of this unfortunate episode.

The chat message, which had the effect, if not the intention, of marginalizing and discrediting both the lecture and the entire lecture series, contained this single sentence: “We are aware that these topics are sensitive and have multiple view points and would like to assure all participants that the department is looking forward to organizing a future lecture that presents other view points than those that are offered here today and in subsequent talks.”

After an initial statement of support for Profs. Henni and Azoulay was distributed to departmental faculty (I was one of the authors), Prof. Akcan along with PhD students and other HAUD faculty distributed a second statement that is better able to galvanize support for Profs. Henni and Azoulay and to demonstrate our college’s solidarity with the principles of free speech and academic freedom. I urge you to sign that statement.

Second, I want to emphasize one of the key points raised in the “HAUD” statement: that there was “outside pressure to interfere in this academic event.” In the recent faculty meeting that you initiated, you also acknowledged that there was external pressure, including by Rabbi Weiss, Executive Director of Cornell Hillel, to marginalize and discredit (my words, not yours) the lecture and the speaker—although you didn’t characterize it as “pressure.” Instead, you spoke of “community” members who felt at risk because of the “hate” and “anti-Semitism” presumed to underlie the lecture, if not the entire lecture series. You portrayed your actions as an attempt to protect vulnerable (Jewish) members of “our” “community.” In my view, this amounts to an Orwellian inversion, where victims are portrayed as aggressors, critical analysis is reframed as “hate speech,” and—most pervasively and insidiously—criticism of Israeli policy and practice is conflated with “anti-Semitism.” An argument that you did not invoke, but which is another  common talking point used against critics of Israeli policy, is that it is actually the defenders of the Israeli state who are being censored.

During the department meeting, I tried to rebut this “logic” by situating this intervention in a larger political context. I also pointed out that Rabbi Weiss worked for the “Birthright” organization—funded in part by the pro-Israeli and right-wing Las Vegas casino magnate and GOP funder Sheldon Adelson—before coming to Cornell. While I can’t know with certainty the rabbi’s motivation, I surmise from all available evidence that his intervention was not an innocent act. Rather it appears to be part of a much larger, well-funded, and systematic attempt to silence, intimidate, discredit, and even criminalize scholarship critical of Israel, and to penalize scholars who critically examine the history, policies, and practices of the self-defined Jewish state. As such, it is a clear and present danger to academic freedom.

Your actions that led to the chat message, however they were intended, nevertheless reinforce the chilling effect on free speech already apparent in U.S. culture and in other countries. Try to imagine how professors, under these circumstances, might reconsider embarking on scholarship that explicitly and critically examines Israeli policy and practice, knowing the manufactured rage that would ensue during a tenure application, for example. And the same goes for graduate students considering a related topic for their dissertations, knowing the impact of such research on their ability to find work after graduation.

Third, I am well aware of the hypocrisy implicit in the statements being distributed and the actions being recommended. This is not because I agree with the right-wing talking point that “we” are just like “them” in censoring opposing points of view. Rather, our hypocrisy arises from an explicit condemnation of racism, sexism, and inequality—along with an implicit condemnation of Israeli policy and practice—while largely ignoring the much larger and more dangerous elephant in this global room: i.e., the unprecedented economic and military power of the U.S. state. It is U.S. state power that creates and enforces a capitalist world order which, among many other destructive outcomes closer to home, enables and supports Israeli policy and practice.

The Funambulist blog predicted that any conciliatory statement from [Cornell] would be disingenuous.” Such confidence—that you would take the intellectually innocuous path of least resistance—is certainly understandable, given the onslaught of propaganda which normalizes such behavior and threatens radical or even progressive voices. Cornell University itself is hopelessly intertwined within this nefarious web in myriad ways (just examine how Cornell promotes research funding opportunities from the CIA, Army, Air Force, and Defense Security Services, to name a few). And Cornell, of course, is already literally intertwined with the Israeli state, having engaged in a joint venture to establish its New York Tech campus with The Technion, a public research university in Haifa, Israel. Not only that, numerous supporters of the Israeli state are alumni of, and donors to Cornell, including Ira Drukier, the hotel entrepreneur whose name prefaces your academic title and who was accused recently by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation of harassing tenants in the landmark Chelsea hotel; and Stephen H. Weiss, the late investment banker whose name adorns the title of our department chair.

Fourth, you asked during the faculty meeting what you might do in response to this fiasco. In my view, there is one principled action that might make a difference, aside from signing the statement posted by Prof. Akcan, PhD students, and faculty in HAUD. This action refers back to the problem of external pressure mentioned in the HAUD statement. Specifically, I would urge you to publicly and explicitly rebuke the odious attempt by Rabbi Weiss (and any others) to silence, marginalize, intimidate, or penalize our faculty, our invited lecturers, or our students on the basis of their critical scholarship.

I’m aware that any truly forthright and courageous statement that you might issue would likely be met with a furious backlash, and could have negative consequences for your own academic and professional career. In the face of these implicit and explicit challenges, I can only hope that you will find a way to navigate through these difficult waters and take a strong and principled stand in defense of our faculty and academic freedom in general.

Jonathan Ochshorn
Professor, Department of Architecture, Cornell University

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Screenshot of the message sent by the Cornell Chair of the Architecture Dept via IT on Oct 5.