ITHACA, N.Y.—Over a hundred Cornell University students and affiliates rallied in solidarity with Palestinians Wednesday afternoon. In the evening, another student group held a gathering in support of Israel’s efforts to retrieve hostages.
Both events come amid increased local tensions over the war between Israel and Hamas. In a statement last week, Cornell President Martha Pollack said university police have increased patrols and officer presence across the university’s campuses.
The earlier rally, which was organized by the University’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, called on Pollack to condemn Israel’s counterattack on the Gaza Strip and years-long blockade of the region. The group also called for Cornell to divest from its interests in Israel, which include a shared campus and partnership with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
One student who declined to give his name for fear of reprisal, said he attended the earlier march because he felt it was important to “be on the right side of history” but said he did not have high hopes that the university would change its stance.
“I don’t know what we will see from the leadership of the University,” the student said. But [we] expect the worst, hope for, well, not the best, but for something. Hope for them to maybe just not completely side with the donor money.”
Top universities have reportedly lost high profile donors who said they wanted to see swifter condemnation of Hamas. At Harvard, a student letter that said Israel’s occupation of the region was the catalyst for the current conflict prompted some major donors to close their pocketbooks.
In a series of statements, Pollack has condemned the initial attack by Hamas militants as “an act of terrorism” and described civilian losses throughout the region as tragic and heartbreaking.
At the evening event, attendees gathered in support of Israel’s efforts to recover 222 hostages taken by Hamas militants earlier this month. Dozens of people can be heard singing in a video posted to social media by Cornell Hillel, a Jewish campus group that helped organize the event.
More than 1,400 people in Israel have died since Oct. 7, mostly during initial attacks, according to Israeli authorities. The Palestinian Ministry of Health, part of the administrative wing of Hamas, said Israel’s subsequent counterstrikes have resulted in the deaths of 5,791 people in Gaza as of Tuesday.
University statements made little mention of Israel’s counter-attacks on Gaza in the days since the initial Oct. 7 attacks.
Malak Abuhashim is the president of Cornell’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, the student group that organized the rally. She said that as a Palestinian-American, it has been heartening to see more people paying attention, though she said she wished more Americans would consider the recent attacks within the context of the decades-long conflict.
“Obviously, I condemn Hamas and those atrocities that happened,” Abuhashim said. “But it’s really annoying to see people only focus on that, and then not also focus on the violence of the colonization, the violence of the occupation.”
Abuhashim said she has never been able to visit the Palestinian territories herself, but has family in North Gaza who have been trying to escape since Israel issued a 24-hour evacuation order on Oct. 13. She said she has struggled to focus on class work since the Oct. 7 attacks.
“My family is getting bombed. They had to evacuate from North Gaza and while they’re evacuating, the bus in front of them on the evacuation route got bombed by the Israeli airstrikes,” Abuhashim said. “It’s a constant fear for their lives. And it’s like, I’m supposed to be worried about my damn problem set?”
Abuhashim, who said she has been very outspoken about the war, said she has gotten threats and hateful messages on social media in recent days.
“I’ve had people boo at us, they’ll stay at the back of our events and try to intimidate us or write mean things about us on the internet,” Abuhashim said. “Many of my friends have [had their photographs] put on the internet, I’ve [had my photograph] put on the internet.”
Abuhashim’s photograph, work history, hometown, social media accounts and an extensive history of her activism have appeared on a website that posts the personal information of US college students who have criticized Israel.
Sam Friedman, who describes himself as proudly Jewish and Zionist, said he and other like-minded students have also felt intimidated in recent days, describing fliers, chants and signage criticizing Israel. Pro-Israel literature and rhetoric has become prevalent across town as well.
Campus police have responded to several reports of graffiti espousing a range of sentiment, from anti-Zionist rhetoric to general messages of support for Palestinians.
Friedman felt attendees at the pro-Palestinian event were well-intentioned but said he found some of the protestors’ anti-Zioniest sentiment to be antisemitic.
“I think they’re good-hearted people. And I think they have the right ideas, but I think they’re very ill-informed about the situation. They don’t know the context about what they’re talking about. And they’re saying things that are really hurtful,” Friedman said as he watched the afternoon rally from a few feet back.
Friedman, an American, said he has visited Israel and has family friends who have moved to the region. He was one of several students who stopped to capture photos and videos of attendees at the Palestinian solidarity event.
“[Pro-Palestinian activists] want to have their cake and eat it too, in that they want to spread this message very widely, but they also don’t want to have consequences for the message they’re spreading,” Friedman said of the protestors. “And I think that’s not fair.”
One notable pro-Palestinian Cornell affiliate, history professor Russell Rickford, has faced some consequences following a controversial speech on the Commons. Amid a national backlash, doxxing and calls to resign, Rickford is currently on leave from the school.
Friedman said he planned to share the videos with other Jewish students. He later offered the footage to Max Whalen, a student who writes for Cornell’s conservative student newspaper, The Cornell Review.
Whalen said protestors confronted him and asked him to leave after he began to discreetly photograph speakers at the Palestinian solidarity event.
Despite several tense interactions, there were no reports of violence at either event.