Magazine Article - Harvard Kennedy School

Diving deep into disagreements on the Israeli-Hamas war at Harvard Kennedy School

| May 14, 2024

Just days after Hamas staged its deadly terror attack against southern Israel on Oct. 7, Harvard Kennedy School Professor Tarek Masoud launched what has become an extensive series of discussions at Harvard on the Israel-Hamas war, its historical roots, and what lies ahead.  

At a time when universities across the country, Harvard included, were swept up in protests and arguments over what had happened and should happen, Masoud plunged into the most potentially divisive policy and political issues—from the war itself to antisemitism and free speech. In the fall, he hosted three heavily attended panel discussions and additional seminars with academics and diplomats. This year, from February through April, he shifted to an interview format for what he called the Middle East Dialogues, a series of one-on-one conversations with six experts on the issues and the region.  

The speakers’ views could hardly have been more divergent.

These 90-minute events drew rapt audiences of students, faculty and staff from across the University. Masoud challenged and probed for an intense discussion with each guest, then invited questions from the audience. The conversations at times grew testy and there was one brief silent protest, but all six sessions proceeded civilly and without disruption.  

Read excerpts from the conversations here

Masoud didn’t shy away from the emotions that sometimes flowed in the packed conference room. “I don’t think we, as an institution, should be necessarily surprised or shocked that people become agitated around this issue,” he told the Harvard Gazette. “We’re talking about an issue that people experience viscerally, and we’re trying to get them to experience it cerebrally. Sometimes that’s hard. But I hope that our events have modeled for people how that can be done.”

Masoud, the Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Governance, is faculty chair of the Middle East Initiative in the School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He also leads the Democracy in Hard Places Project—and often notes that the Middle East may be the hardest of all places for democracy to thrive.  

One of the most controversial speakers in the series was Dalal Saeb Iriqat, a professor at the Arab American University Palestine, whose tweets on and after October 7 appeared to support the Hamas terror attack. Masoud pressed her to explain the tweets. Iriqat noted that she had sent the tweet at dawn on Oct. 7 before details of the nature of the Hamas attack were known and that she was not a Hamas surrogate. She spoke about the long history of violence in the region and suffering of Palestinians over many decades. Masoud noted that her views are similar to those held by many Palestinians and need to be understood.

On the other side of the policy spectrum in the series, guest Jared Kushner stoutly defended Israel’s invasion of Gaza and pursuit of Hamas. Kushner was Middle East advisor to his father-in-law, then-President Donald Trump, and led negotiations that resulted in the Abraham Accords, peace treaties between Israel and several Arab countries. The only protest during any event occurred during Kushner’s talk, when several students held up signs criticizing U.S. policy and silently walked out of the event.  

Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf said this week that the Middle East Dialogues had proved to be a valuable contribution to learning at Harvard about the war in Israel and Gaza and the decades-long strife that preceded it.

“Professor Tarek Masoud’s Middle East Dialogues series has been a courageous example of the Kennedy School’s duty to air disparate views on policy issues with huge stakes for the world,” Elmendorf said. “These dialogues have modeled the best of the School’s convening role, enabling students to hear many different ideas in candid and constructive conversations, including ideas with which they may disagree deeply.”

Masoud, born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is the son of Egyptian immigrants and grew up partly in Saudi Arabia. So he brings a personal as well as scholarly grasp of the complexities of the region. And he welcomes the challenges of holding tough conversations at Harvard in this impassioned season. 

“The feedback has been largely supportive and positive within the University. People at Harvard understand that this is the kind of thing we have to do,” Masoud told the Gazette. “If we can’t have a conversation about what’s happening in the Middle East with a professor from Ramallah, or with a former Israeli parliamentarian, or with a former Middle East policymaker from the Trump administration, or with one of Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy advisers, then we’re not really doing our job.”

“There would be something deeply wrong with an institution that could not convene those kinds of conversations,” Masoud added. “I’m pleased to say that there isn’t anything deeply wrong with Harvard. We’ve been having those conversations. Our students and my colleagues have been complete adults about it.”  

Erica Chenoweth, HKS Academic Dean for Faculty Engagement and the Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment, led the Kennedy School’s task force last year on improving the ability to hold tough conversations across difference. “Professor Masoud’s series provided crucial learning opportunities and rigorous discussions about a challenging topic,” Chenoweth said. “I am grateful to him for convening these dialogues and for modeling how to do them well.” 

  – Via the original publication source.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Smith, James. “Diving deep into disagreements on the Israeli-Hamas war at Harvard Kennedy School.” , May 14, 2024.

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