This past fall, Ariella Aisha Azoulay, a guest lecturer from Brown University, was invited to Cornell University’s architecture department to speak to students. Azoulay gave a biased, anti-Zionist presentation titled “Palestine Is There, Where It Has Always Been.” In it, she showed photographs of the early pioneers of the State of Israel working the land, each with their faces blacked out. She excused this erasure by saying, “I can’t bear to look at them.”
First of all, the event should have been an apolitical and factual lecture on architecture. What makes it more disturbing is that in a caption for one of her photographs that advertised the lecture, Azoulay singled out Jewish soldiers. She didn’t describe them as Israeli or Zionist soldiers, but as Jewish — resulting in a statement that is not just anti-Zionist but antisemitic.
One of the revamped photographs is the famous one of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, declaring the establishment of modern-day Israel on May 14, 1948. In the doctored version, Azoulay erased not only Ben-Gurion and the rest of the people present, but also the hanging portrait of Theodor Herzl and the two Israeli flags.
This action is unsurprising considering Azoulay’s history of anti-Zionist views. The professor is a vigorous advocate of the BDS movement, which seeks to delegitimize Israel. She has compared Israeli actions to those of the Nazis, and called Israel an example of colonialism. Of course, Azoulay ignores the abundant historical and genetic evidence of a continual Jewish presence in Israel for thousands of years.
One of the most disturbing parts of Azoulay’s lecture was the response from those present.
At the outset, the Cornell chair of architecture, Andrea Lee Simitch, acknowledged that the lecture was controversial and promised to organize a future discussion with different viewpoints. In response, some 1,000 academics, architects, and Cornellians signed an open letter against bringing in another speaker. Their fear of engaging in dialogue and refusal to hear another side is the antithesis of academia, and a clear example of censorship.
This is not the only recent instance of a guest speaker at Cornell pushing an anti-Israel agenda.
In November, assistant professor Julia Chang invited Sa’ed Atshan, himself an assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore College and author of Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique, to address her students as part of her Gender, Feminist and Sexuality Studies course.
As preparation for the lecture, the professor required the students to read the preface and second chapter of the speaker’s book, which was an extensive “pinkwashing” accusation against Israel. Pinkwashing is another trope used in anti-Israel propaganda that accuses Israel of deflecting attention away from the plight of the Palestinians by focusing the public eye on Israel’s LGBTQ-friendly policies.
This is a straw-man argument. Israel is the only real democracy in the Middle East, and all citizens enjoy equal rights under the law regardless of race, background, or sexuality. The insistence that Israel uses its status as an LGBTQ-friendly country as propaganda holds no legitimate weight. It’s simply a recitation of facts.
Atshan is not an unbiased figure. He has taken part in national conferences for Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), an organization that has been known to support terrorists. His speech at the 2014 SJP conference, which included the comment, “We all know Israel is an apartheid state and should be boycotted,” received a standing ovation. He has donated to UNRWA, which has been accused of providing antisemitic textbooks to Palestinian schoolchildren and of allowing the storage of arms for Hamas terrorists. Like Azoulay, Atshan has a clear anti-Israel prejudice that comes through in his work.
The common thread that comes out of the above incidents is sobering. In both cases, professors attempted to impress their own opinions on students. Even more disturbing, in the case of some Cornellians, is the apparent resistance to entertaining another point of view.
The university needs to take a stronger stance against allowing known anti-Zionist professors to present their prejudices as the only legitimate perspective. If not, students will walk away with the idea that when faced with an opinion they don’t agree with, they can do what Azoulay did and crudely erase it. No college should permit — or want to permit — that.
Originally published in The Algemeiner.
Contributed by 2020-2021 Bar-Ilan University CAMERA Fellow Tehilla Katz.