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Cornell NYC Tech's Alarming Ties to the Israeli Occupation | The Nation

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Cornell NYC Tech's Alarming Ties to the Israeli Occupation

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A view of the southern end of Roosevelt Island, where the Cornell NYC Tech will be located. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews.)

New York City’s Roosevelt Island, a narrow strip of land that sits in the East River, is home to around 12,000 residents living in a quiet neighborhood in the middle of a large metropolis. The Island is soon to be transformed: by 2037, Cornell University will establish a 2 million square foot graduate school on the island. Last November, representatives from Cornell attended a community board meeting there to discuss the university’s plans for a new campus. Left largely unmentioned was Cornell’s partner in the venture, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and Technion’s troubling role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Adam Hudson
Adam Hudson is a journalist, writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a former Nation...

In December 2010, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the city was seeking proposals from any “university, applied science organization or related institution” to construct a “state-of-the-art applied sciences research school” in New York City. In an effort to create technology jobs and establish itself as the East Coast’s Silicon Valley, the city later announced it would provide the winner public land at virtually no cost and up to $100 million of taxpayer money to build the campus. Fifteen universities, including Cornell, Stanford and Columbia, submitted proposals.

Because of its strong engineering and science programs, and its role in spurring innovation in the high-tech industry, Stanford University emerged as an early frontrunner. To compete with Stanford, Cornell sought a partnership with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, a world-renowned university in Haifa and an incubator for the high-tech industry, particularly focused on military technology.

The two were “planting seeds of collaboration” well before Bloomberg announced the bid, according to The New York Times. While touring the Middle East in summer of 2010, Cornell president David Skorton visited Technion and befriended its president, Peretz Lavie, and in February 2011, Cornell provost W. Kent Fuchs and Technion senior executive vice president Paul D. Feigin “started a series of conversations about working together,” reported The New York Times. To avoid revealing such plans during Bloomberg’s bidding process, the schools turned in separate “expressions of interest” in March 2011.

Shortly afterward, the schools began months of secretive discussions to cement their collaboration. Both schools were interested in building on Roosevelt Island, establishing interdisciplinary hubs rather than typical departments and creating a Master’s program in applied sciences. By July, the schools reached a deal: “Cornell would pay for construction and have ultimate control of the site, but they would collaborate in designing curriculum, selecting students and supplying faculty,” the Times reported.

On October 18, ten days before the deadline for proposals, Cornell publicly announced its partnership with Technion. When it came time to present their proposals and negotiate with the city, in December 2011, Cornell surprised city officials when it announced that it had secured a $350 million “gift” to finance construction from a wealthy donor, later revealed to be Charles Feeney, an 80-year-old philanthropist and Cornell alumnus. This generous donation gave Cornell and Technion a crucial advantage, since other schools discussed fundraising challenges during their presentations. It also offered $150 million from its endowment as venture capital for start-up companies—something no other university offered.

On December 19, three days after Stanford dropped out apparently due to concerns about successfully meeting the city’s construction deadlines, Bloomberg announced that Cornell and Technion had won the bid. The entire project is expected to cost around $2 billion. The first campus buildings on Roosevelt Island will be built and open their doors to students in 2017, with the entire project slated for completion by 2037.

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When Community Board 8, which represents Roosevelt Island and the Upper East Side of Manhattan, met last November, Cornell representatives described the campus as an engine of job growth, entrepreneurship and technological innovation for New York City. Despite the marketing, many Roosevelt Island residents had reservations about the proposed campus. Some raised concerns about the impact the building project would have on their community, including environmental and public health issues related to the exposure to hazardous material around the construction site. Others were worried about what construction would do to traffic flow on the small island.

One resident, however, expressed a different concern. Mohammad Ali Naquvi, a 36-year-old health lawyer and bioethicist, spoke out against Cornell’s partnership with Technion because of the school’s connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I do have concerns with the partnership with the Technion,” he said at the meeting. “My concern is what would happen on Roosevelt Island just because we have an Israeli institute here.”

Technion conducts research and development into military technology that Israel relies on to sustain its occupation of Palestinian land. For example, Technion developed an unmanned D-9 bulldozer for the Israeli military, which it used during Operation Cast Lead, a war that killed around 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and thirteen Israelis. Because of the machine’s “exceptional results” in Cast Lead, Israel is expanding its use of unmanned bulldozers. Israeli bulldozers have demolished some 27,000 Palestinian homes and properties since 1967. Currently, more than half-a-million Israeli settlers live in the occupied territories; that number continues to rise. Technion also has partnerships with Israeli arms companies, such as Elbit and Rafael. Elbit provides surveillance equipment for the separation wall, such as cameras and drones, while Rafael manufactures missiles that accompany drones and an armor protection system for the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) Mk4 battle tank.

Technion is also a leader in the development of drone technology, which Israel has deployed in the occupied territories. Israel developed such technology in the 1970s and is now the world’s top exporter of drones. The Technion Autonomous Systems Program (TASP) focuses on researching and developing new unmanned vehicle technology, including drones, and in 2010 the school developed the “Stealth UAV” (unmanned aerial vehicle). It can “fly up to 1,850 miles without refueling,” “carry two 1,100 lb ‘smart bombs’” and operate in the dark “under all weather conditions,” according to the American Technion Society, a New York City–based organization that provides support to the school.

With more Israelis dodging its military draft and cuts to its military budget, Israel’s occupation is being maintained by other means. Economic researcher Uri Yacobi Keller explains that Israeli security forces are relying on “technological means and developments that facilitate a continuation of the [Israeli] occupation with less manpower and government support.” Such technological advancements allow for the “daily operation of instruments of occupation, such as checkpoints, with fewer soldiers” and “provide Israeli security industries new products to market and export to foreign countries,” according to Keller. Most of this research and development comes from “private companies and academic institutions,” such as Technion.

At the board meeting, Naquvi worried that Technion would bring unwanted controversy to the island, adding that possible protests of Technion could impact security. Such protests heighten the possibility of security tightening around the Cornell-Technion campus, and “when we have extra security, that changes the atmosphere on the island,” Naquvi said at the meeting. “A foreign university, especially one that is complicit in war crimes, has no business using New York taxpayer money to make a name for itself on American soil,” he later added in an e-mail.

A man in the audience loudly interrupted Naquvi’s speech, saying he was “out of line” for discussing politics. Notably, Naquvi was the only person who expressed concern about Technion’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, aside from Naquvi, the word “Technion” was barely mentioned, and no Technion representatives attended the meeting.

While the United States provides Israel significant political, military and economic support—$3 billion in aid annually, most of it military—Israel is looking to polish its image in the United States by strengthening economic ties. Ido Aharoni, Consul General of Israel in New York, told The Jewish Week that Technion’s partnership with Cornell “is of strategic importance in terms of positioning Israel not only in America, but all over the world, as a bastion of creativity and innovation.” He added that “When Americans think of Israel, overwhelmingly the first thing that comes to mind is the association with conflict, the fact that Israel is in dispute with its neighbors.” Aharoni hopes that the partnership will counter this perception by fortifying “Israel’s image as a country that is about the promotion of goodness, about the advancement of knowledge for all humanity.” Technion professor Paul Feigin called the campus a “boon” that “raises the profile of the Technion in the United States,” adding that this relationship will help Israeli entrepreneurs access US markets.

Cornell NYC Tech representatives have been very careful to avoid discussing Technion’s role in Israeli militarism. Technion will be discussed in a positive light to make the campus look good. But questions about the occupation are typically ignored. At the community board meeting, they mentioned that much of the research done at the new campus will be focused on engineering and computer science, particularly developing computer software and robotics. Jeremy Soffin, a spokesman for Cornell NYC Tech (and also a senior vice president at the PR firm BerlinRosen), said that none of this research will be military-related. But when asked to address community concerns about Technion’s connection with Israeli militarism, he said, “Technion was chosen as an academic partner due to its unparalleled global experience in innovation and experience translating academic research into commercial products, a key goal of the new campus.” When asked similar questions by phone and e-mail, Cathy Dove, the campus’s vice president, did not respond.

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The Cornell-Technion partnership has drawn criticism from some students and faculty members at Cornell. University professors claim the administration did not consult faculty about the Technion partnership, even though Cornell’s bylaws state that the administration is obligated to consult faculty on “questions of educational policy which concern more than one college, school or academic unit, or are general in nature.” University faculty can then bring their recommendations and concerns to the Board of Trustees, who have the final say. After a special meeting on October 12, 2011, however, the Board unanimously endorsed the Cornell-Technion plan. The process “violated the rules of [university] governance,” says English professor Eric Cheyfitz. While Cheyfitz, who is Jewish and has an Israeli daughter, opposes the partnership and Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, his “first concern is for democratic process.” He said there should have been a debate before the decision for Cornell to partner with the Technion was made.

The school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) also challenged the partnership. According to Cornell senior and SJP member Emily Koppelman, the group circulated a petition among students and faculty demanding an end to the partnership. However, by the time the petition went up “it was pretty much a done deal”, said Koppelman. The partnership was already publicly announced and Cornell and Technion moved forward with their plans. Cheyfitz and Koppelman both said that Cornell administrators have been careful to avoid talking about Technion’s role in developing military technology used in the Israeli occupation and campus discussion on the issue is largely muted. Despite the silence, some students and faculty continue to speak out. The petition is still up and has over 1,000 signatures. Koppelman said her problem with Technion is that it’s “employing students to build computer systems and weapons that perpetuate the Israeli occupation. The occupation is wrong, illegal and should end.”

In 2012, several New York City–based activists, students, academics, writers and concerned individuals formed New Yorkers Against the Cornell Technion Partnership (NYACT). NYACT, along with Cornell SJP, is part of the broader boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS is an international solidarity movement against Israeli oppression answering to the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions. The demands, enumerated in the call, are ending the occupation and equal rights for Palestinians, and supporting the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Technion, because of its role in the Israeli occupation, is a target of the BDS campaign. Anna Calcutt, a Manhattan resident and a member of NYACT, says that the group wants an end to the partnership, to encourage “closer consultation [between] Cornell faculty, staff and students and Roosevelt Island residents and workers,” and investments in education that don’t “come at the expense of others.”

Terri Ginsberg, an academic film scholar and another NYACT member, is concerned by Technion’s ties to the Israeli occupation, but also noted that Roosevelt Island’s Coler-Goldwater Specialty Hospital and Nursing Facility will be demolished to make room for the new campus. In June 2010, before Bloomberg announced the campus competition, the city began to move patients from Coler-Goldwater Hospital to other city hospitals, but it had not announced its closure—until Cornell and Technion won the bid. It will close by December 2013. “I do not think Goldwater Hospital should be torn down, but instead renovated with the very $100 million that Mayor Bloomberg handed over freely to Cornell-Technion,” she said in an e-mail. A concerned healthcare worker at the Goldwater facility expressed anger in an e-mail, writing, “Now, we learn that the nursing facility is to be torn down and the forest land deforested in order to provide a safe haven for the military destroyers created by Technion. As a healthcare professional you can not disrespect my life-giving work more than by replacing my work with the profession of death and destruction.”

Another group, Roosevelt Islanders for Accountability and Transparency (RIACT), emerged as a sister organization to NYACT. RIACT is a group of Roosevelt Island residents who are critical of the Technion partnership and have “local concerns like security, traffic, transportation and relocation of patients from Goldwater,” according to Naquvi, who was a RIACT member before moving. It formed after a May 2012 Roosevelt Island resident meeting in which “more than half the meeting’s participants had major issues with the partnership,” Naquvi said in an e-mail. While many residents were “unaware [of] or indifferent” to Technion’s connection to Israeli militarism, others were afraid to speak up for fear of potential backlash.

Despite these criticisms, after several public meetings, Community Board 8 approved the building of the Cornell NYC Tech campus on December 20, 2012. This is not the final step in the process, as the proposal needs to go through City Council. Some issues remain unresolved, such as Cornell’s financial contribution to public services on Roosevelt Island. Ellen Polivy, a member of Community Board 8 and Roosevelt Island Community Coalition, says, “Cornell is going to put additional pressure on our infrastructure and we would like to see them add money to the budget of running our island” to support “public safety, social services, and education.”

Meanwhile, community members continue to challenge the partnership. On January 21, NYACT organized a protest at Google in Manhattan, which donated offices to Cornell NYC Tech to use for classes before the first campus building is finished in 2017. About twenty-five demonstrators showed up demanding an end to the Technion partnership, and future protests are planned. Every other Tuesday, NYACT and supporters plan to host a “leafleting vigil” at Google’s offices and they’re also gathering signatures for a petition against the partnership. “Since international bodies such as the UN have been helpless in stopping Israel’s actions, which are illegal under international law, we are left with no option but to impose boycott, divestment and sanctions until [Cornell and Technion] comply with the requests of the Palestinians,” NYACT member Calcutt says.

Read Roane Carey on Oscar-nominated documentaries that focus on Israel-Palestine.

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