Cornell University is being called upon to close its medical campus in Qatar, an Arab country in the Persian Gulf that is the chief financier of Hamas, which just waged a 50-day war against Israel.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, called the university’s continued presence in Qatar “outrageous.”
Cornell, an Ivy League institution in upstate Ithaca, opened a branch of its Cornell Weill Medical College in Qatar in 2002 in partnership with the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, a nonprofit organization created by the Qatari government.
“What Cornell should say is, ‘We repudiate anyone who funds a terrorist organization,’” Rabbi Hier told The Jewish Week.
The Zionist Organization of America was equally emphatic about Cornell’s ties to Qatar, calling on it and other American universities, cultural institutions and think tanks to “end or suspend their programs in Qatar.”
And ZOA went a step further, calling upon the State Department to declare Qatar a state sponsor of terrorism unless it cuts its financial and other material support to Hamas.
“Designation of Qatar as a state sponsor of terrorism would also enable Israeli and Arab victims of Hamas’ rocket attacks, executions and forced service as ‘human shields’ (or their surviving families) to sue Qatar in the United States and potentially recover some of the oil- and natural gas-rich nation’s assets,” the ZOA said in a press release.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, took a more nuanced approach, calling upon Cornell to re-evaluate its association with Qatar now that it is openly a state supporter of terrorism.
“The Middle East is a very, very fluid place and things are continuously in flux from good to bad and bad to good,” he told The Jewish Week. “It is incumbent on universities to continuously examine and re-examine their host country to see whether the conditions, the promises, the environment has changed to the point where this is not a place where we want our students to mature. Qatar is at that point.”
But Cornell said in a statement that it believes its presence in Qatar “is the best way to promote understanding.” It said its “collaborations across the globe” fulfill its 150-year mission of “teaching, discovery and engagement” and that the Middle East is home to people who deserve “access to top quality education, health care and life-enhancing technologies.”
The statement from Joel Malina, Cornell’s vice president for university relations, said the university’s academic collaborations are formed “without regard to politics or religion.” It said Cornell is not a government, is apolitical, and collaborates with “academic and educational entities that share in our mission of helping communities and individuals to expand horizons and improve lives.”
“We are committed to fulfilling our agreements with the Qatar Foundation and our other global partners, while ensuring that we remain true to our core values as an institution focused on the betterment of humanity,” Malina added.
Some political analysts point out that the U.S. has extensive dealings with Qatar that are vital to American security and that to believe the U.S. would declare Qatar a state sponsor of terrorism is naïve.
In fact, the Washington Post reported last week that American warplanes attacking ISIS troops in Iraq are primarily coming from three major American bases in the Persian Gulf — the al Udeid Air Base in Qatar and bases in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
These three bases have reportedly housed the bulk of American forces in the Middle East since the U.S. withdrew from Iraq and several large bases there in 2011. The base in Qatar is said to be the most strategically important, serving as home to the Air Force’s command center for all air operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan and housing 9,000 American troops and support personnel. In December, the U.S. signed a 10-year lease extension for the base.
Severing U.S. relations with Qatar would also mean the cancelation of the $11 billion arms sale the U.S. signed with Qatar in July. The deal calls for the U.S. to sell Qatar dozens of Apache helicopters, hundreds of Patriot missiles and anti-tank rockets.
Analysts noted also that Qatar helped negotiate the release last month of American journalist Peter Theo Curtis after nearly two years as a captive of al Qaida-linked terrorists in Syria.
But there are reports that Qatar may be pushing the line too far in its bid to play both sides of the fence. Rabbi Hier believes that Qatar’s actions are designed to prevent a terrorist attack on its own soil, and Mordechai Kedar, a professor of Arabic studies at Bar-Ilan University, said “it was recently revealed that Qatar also supports ISIS.”
The Qatari Foreign Ministry denied the charge after a German minister, Gerd Mueller, said Qatar is both financing and arming ISIS. Mueller apologized, but the Washington Post said some in Washington have questioned whether the Qataris “have accumulated outsize influence because of their military cooperation.”
Former Vice President Dick Cheney said as much to Charlie Rose on his PBS program in June. Cheney said Qatar is using the U.S. military base and its great wealth as leverage to, “in effect, get away with the kind of activity they do with respect to supporting the more radical elements of the jihadi movement.”
Qatar is reportedly the richest country in the world, with an average per-capita income in excess of $100,000, unemployment at just .5 percent and GDP growth of 6.6 percent. It has so much money that it is reportedly spending $200 billion to build stadiums and the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said it is Qatar’s wealth that is keeping many people from speaking out.
“Silence has been bought and that is just a part of life,” he said. “If they were consistent morally and politically, they would have nothing to do with university operations in a country like Qatar. But everything has a price and this is the reality.”
Asked about the university’s financial relationship with Qatar, whether the board of trustees was reviewing the matter and whether any students had expressed concern, John Carberry, Cornell’s director of media relations, said in an email: “We will have no additional comment on this issue at this time.”
But in 2001 when the university disclosed plans to open the campus in Qatar, it said the Qatar Foundation promised to spend $750 million on the school over 11 years, including a fee to Cornell. In return, Cornell promised to grant graduates the same diploma it awards graduates here.
The opening was not without controversy. Trustees, student groups and faculty members expressed fear that Israelis and Jewish students might not have an equal opportunity for an education there. Some pointed out that for many years Qatar barred Israelis from entering the country.
But the university said that was not an issue because a non-discrimination clause was inserted into the agreement that established the campus. In addition, it said there were guarantees to preserve Cornell’s principles of academic freedom and autonomy for physicians and scientists.
And Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., told Cornell’s student newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun, that Qatar had established normal diplomatic relations with Israel.
“Qatar is certainly a worthy and safe nation for Cornell to locate a branch of its medical college in,” Rabinovich told the newspaper. “If the location were to be Iraq or Iran, countries that exploit terrorism, that would be a very controversial decision.”
But in an email Tuesday, Rabinovich said all of that has changed.
“Qatar 2014 is not Qatar 2001,” he wrote. “At that time, there was an Israeli diplomatic mission in Qatar and Qatar played a much more positive role in the region, including with regard to Israel. It has since adopted a much more complex foreign policy. It still hosts a huge U.S. military base, but also plays games with Iran, supports the Muslim Brotherhood, and at the same time is not always negative on Israel. … They play complex games.”
He added that rather than choosing to “boycott or abandon” Qatar, Cornell and other Western institutions should “use their influence in order to support U.S. and Saudi efforts to bring Qatar back to the mainstream of Middle Eastern politics.”