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Students are protesting Cornell's response to the war in Gaza. Now they say they’re being disciplined

Since the war in Gaza began, the voices of a group of Cornell University students have echoed through their campus’ libraries and academic buildings.

Around 100-200 protesters occupy these buildings for a short period of time. They chant, hold signs, drop banners and listen to speakers who project their message through a megaphone.

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

“Any person, any study, Cornell trustees’ hands are bloody.”

“Cornell is complicit in genocide.”

These students are part of the Cornell Coalition for Mutual Liberation, more commonly known as the CML. It’s an umbrella group that facilitates collaboration and mobilization between student groups that share policy goals.

Right now, that goal is for Cornell to cut off its academic and financial ties to companies that make weapons of war. Specifically, the companies making weapons for the Israeli military.

The organization’s official list includes BAE Systems, Boeing, Elbit Systems, General Dynamics, L3Harris Technologies, Leonardo, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, RTX, and ThyssenKrupp.

They are also calling on Cornell to ban the research and development of technologies used by the Israeli military at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute. The institute is a Cornell campus located in New York City, created in partnership with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

The group is calling on the Cornell board of trustees to bring the issue to a vote.

Over 1,000 Israelis and 30,000 Palestinians have died since the Israel-Hamas war began. Hamas still holds over 100 Israeli hostages. Many of the people who have died in Gaza are children and non-combatants.

The CML has been protesting since last semester, when the war began. However, this semester, something is different. Cornell instituted an “Interim Expressive Activity Policy” in January. The CML’s protests usually violate that policy.

Protesters are taken aside by Cornell University police officers during rallies. Protesters told WSKG the police are taking down their identification for disciplinary action due to policy violations.

Protesters told WSKG the police officers are taking down their identification for disciplinary action due to policy violations.
Aurora Berry
Protesters told WSKG the police officers are taking down their identification for disciplinary action due to policy violations.

Among other regulations, the policy bans the use of “amplified sound” like megaphones. Students may use amplified sound at a specific plaza between noon-1 p.m. or with prior written approval.

Momodou Taal is a PhD student at Cornell and a member of the CML. He’s spoken at several rallies since the semester began.

“There has to be a pre-booked, pre-planned protest, which I think is quite ironic, because protests are supposed to be disruptive,” he said.

Taal said it’s important for academic institutions to be part of international policy discussions.

“College campuses are a key battleground for social change,” Taal said.

Cornell, in particular, Taal said, has been a battleground for these changes in the past, referencing the 1969 Willard Straight Hall takeover when Black students staged an armed occupation of a Cornell building to protest racism on campus and call for an Africana studies department.

“For example, if you think of the 60s and civil rights era, a lot of the organizing was on college campuses.”

Campus tensions

Cornell’s Student Assembly voted on a divestment resolution last semester but it failed.

Cornell Hillel, a Jewish campus organization released a statement on social media that said the resolution divided students and was “hateful”.

Central New York Republican Rep. Brandon Williams shared a 13-second clip of a February protest on Twitter, saying it was antisemitic.

“Hate speech and blood-libel tropes are the OPPOSITE of education!” he tweeted.

The Anti-Defamation League defines blood libel as “a centuries-old false allegation that Jews murder Christians – especially Christian children – to use their blood for ritual purposes.”

Alaa Farghli speaking at a rally.
Aurora Berry
Alaa Farghli speaking at a rally.

Alaa Farghli is a PhD student at Cornell and president of the Arab Graduate Students Association. He spoke at that rally.

“I do think that he's deliberately distorting our message,” he said. “We called on the president to bring a vote for divestment from primarily American companies. I cannot point to a single hateful thing that was said... that doesn't make sense to me.”

He said the organization works with Jewish organizers on- and off-campus and that he feels this is a political issue, not a religious one.

“I don’t want anyone to mistake that I’m against Jewish people or Judaism,” Farghli said. “I sit down and I share meals and I cry with Jewish men and women all the same as I would with anyone else.”

Cornell, among other universities, is under investigation by the U.S Department of Education for alleged instances of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Last semester, a Cornell student was federally charged after he made violent, antisemitic threats on an online message board.

Freedom of expression

Cornell’s theme for the year is “Freedom of Expression". But some professors and students say the expression policies are in opposition to free speech.

Both Taal and Farghli said they have been referred for disciplinary hearings by the university for using a megaphone at demonstrations.

A representative for Cornell said in a statement that violators of the policy will be “sanctioned”. Right now, it’s unclear what that means.

Cornell representatives declined to speak on any potential disciplinary action.

Farghli’s parents are Egyptian immigrants. He said he’s spent years at Cornell trying to take advantage of the opportunity his parents gave him when they came to America.

He’s worried the disciplinary action will jeopardize that opportunity.

“I'm afraid that my work will not pay off towards this degree. I'm scared that my parents' sacrifice will be in vain,” he said.

Regardless of the consequences, he said the CML is going to continue their protests until Cornell divests.

“I'm more scared about what will happen if we do not push for this genocide to end as soon as possible.”

At a rally in March, faculty spoke out against the speech policy at a protest in front of Cornell’s administrative building.

A faculty-led protest on campus.
Aurora Berry
A faculty-led protest on campus.

Suman Seth, a professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell, said the policy is chilling speech on campus, particularly for those who already feel marginalized.

“If you think like me that it is the most vulnerable who need to speak with the loudest voices, who need to be heard the most, you should oppose this policy,” he said into a megaphone.

Seth said it was “disgusting” that students and staff are facing disciplinary action.

“This is intended to cow those amongst us with the least authority and protection,” he said. “So, I want you to know this right now, you are not alone.”

It’s unclear what the outcome has been from any disciplinary hearings, so far.