Announcement - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Women in Public Policy Program, Harvard Kennedy School

On Gaza and Israel

| Oct. 12, 2023

Dear Friends and Colleagues,
Israel and Palestine are two place names that I have always associated with tragedy, anguish, and lost innocence. As a child who grew up in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila pogroms, my nightmares were often populated by the Israeli soldiers I saw on the news. (I was not sophisticated enough at that time to distinguish between Israelis and their Lebanese Phalangist allies.) Though I understand today that Israel is more than just an armed camp that daily heaps indignities upon Arabs, those early impressions remain powerful. If I am being honest, I will never totally shake them. To this day, when I befriend an Israeli whom I calculate was old enough to have served during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, or during some of the most repressive episodes of the first Intifada, part of my brain cannot help thinking about what they might have done to Palestinians. 

Last weekend, in visiting an orgy of violence upon civilians in southern Israel, Hamas not only extinguished hundreds of lives, but it birthed a new generation of children who will never shake an association between the Palestinian cause and some of the most spectacular crimes against humanity ever to have been televised. Israeli commentators commonly illustrate the magnitude of such crimes in their small country with a simple mathematical exercise: Hamas’ operation, they might say, claimed 1,200 Israeli citizens, which is—as a proportion of Israel’s population—equivalent to 43,000 Americans. I never understood the need for such calculations. The Talmud and the Qur’an both teach us that one life is equivalent to the world entire, and in any case the algebra is particularly unnecessary here. What children will remember forever is not the numbers, but the depravity.

As we mourn the innocents of Israel, we brace ourselves for the mourning that awaits us. In the coming days, as the Netanyahu government prepares for a reprisal operation in Gaza that will add to the thousands of lives that the 16-year siege of that territory has already claimed, yet other children will form durable impressions of Israel as a hard-hearted place blind to the suffering of anyone but its own people. The images that will emerge—indeed, that are already emerging—from Gaza will be of bodies pulled from rubble, families obliterated, and a people imprisoned by both a deranged mafia that rules the streets and a fearsome military power that lurks just over a high wall and that periodically rains fire upon them under the heartless euphemism of “mowing the lawn.” 

The purpose of this message is not to strike an ostentatiously exquisite middle ground or to signal the author’s virtue or to draw attention to the fineness of his sensibilities. It is to recognize the gravity of what occurred, to underscore the fact that good people can have profoundly differing interpretations of these grim happenings, and to explain what the Middle East Initiative will do to help us as an academic, scholarly community make sense of the world in which we now find ourselves. Through public events, study groups, and other opportunities for learning, we will in the coming days and weeks work to expose our students to a range of worthy views on the situation in Gaza and Israel and the broader region, so that they may come to their own considered understandings of how the peoples of Israel and Palestine can transcend the equilibrium of blood that their leaders appear to be choosing for them. 

The next few weeks and months will be ones of deep debate and disagreement on our campus. This is not something to be feared or avoided. That is what a University is for, and our rock bottom commitment is to make space for that debate and disagreement. But the space we seek to create is one in which emotions are subordinated to logic, evidence, and reason, and in which arguments are answered with other arguments, not with ad hominem attacks, personal recriminations, or calls to punish those with whom we disagree. 

I urge you to attend a Forum that we have organized on this issue on Friday, October 13th at 4:00 pm with former United States Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian, Professor Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, and Professor Shai Feldman of Brandeis University. Next week, on Monday, October 16th at 6:00pm, the Middle East Initiative will hold a teach-in for students who are interested in understanding what social science offers us in understanding the conflict and the paths out of it. On Wednesday, October 18th at 3:30pm, we will host a public talk by former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Dr. Salam Fayyad. More events are in the works, and we encourage you to reach out with any suggestions you may have for speakers or any leads you may have on educational resources of which our community can avail itself. 

In the meantime, I pray for the people of Gaza and Israel and the broader region that I love, and ask the Almighty to make each one of us an instrument for peace, justice, and reconciliation among all of the world’s peoples. 
Sincerely and respectfully,

Tarek Masoud
Ford Foundation Professor, Harvard Kennedy School
Faculty Chair, Middle East Initiative

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Masoud, Tarek.“On Gaza and Israel.” Announcement, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Women in Public Policy Program, Harvard Kennedy School, October 12, 2023.

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