The panel argued before a 400-person audience over whether the conflict is rooted in the Israeli occupation or in the fanaticism of Arab culture.
The debaters included Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz, as well as Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a syndicated radio talk show host, Hasan Abdel Rahman, the chief Palestinian negotiator in the U.S., and Hussein Ibish, the communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Associate HBS Professor Michael Watkins, who teaches a popular course on corporate diplomacy, moderated the debate.
Although the debate was entitled “America, Israel and the Arab World: Can There Be Reconciliation?,” the discussion focused more on the problem in the Middle East than seeking a solution.
Emotions ran high at the debate, with many of the debaters shouting at each other and passionately calling out to the enthusiastic audience. At one point, Dershowitz bet Rahman “an Israeli bomb” over the accuracy of a historical quotation he cited in a rebuttal.
Despite ideological disagreements, all the debaters did favor a two-state solution to the Israeli conflict. But they had varying views on its probability of achieving peace.
Dershowitz, along with Boteach, expressed concern for the Palestinian government’s practices of tyranny and terrorism.
“There are no elections in Palestine—you vote for Arafat or you get in a bullet in the back of your head,” said Dershowitz, who has recently made headlines as a vocal supporter of Israel. “It is crucial that Palestine establish some sort of democracy—democracies do not wage war against civilians, tyrannies do.”
Ibish presented the crowd with a diversity of solutions to the conflict.
“There are only four options here—ethnic cleansing, apartheid, democracy or two sovereign states,” he said.
Ibish said that he favored the two-state solution, but that equality was vital for a peaceful reconciliation.
“Israel and Palestine must relate to each other as equal, sovereign states,” he said. “The only opposer to that plan right now is the Israeli government.”
Unlike the governmental-policy approach of the other three panelists, Boteach focused on the religious history of the conflict—calling for the return of harmony between the Jews and Muslims.
“I urge all of you here at Harvard to stop the hate,” he shouted. “For example, those of you who signed the divestment petition, take all that energy you have devoted to hating Israel, and put it towards reclaiming Islam—recapture your roots.”
Although many in the crowd found the debate well-balanced, some decried the lack of representation of the Israeli government.
“I felt like we heard from the Palestinian government but that the Israeli side was represented less directly—it was more emotional and theoretical,” said Robert Den, a second-year Harvard Medical School student.
The debate, which was sponsored by HBS’ Jewish Student Association, in conjunction with the Middle East and North Africa Club, drew a diverse crowd—including Cambridge city residents and some who had traveled from as far away as New Hampshire and New Jersey.
But not everyone could gain access into the debate—about 60 people were kept outside the closed doors of the auditorium.
“At a certain point, they were only letting in people with a Harvard I.D.,” said John Snirelli, who came from Connecticut to watch the debate. “There was a crowd of 20 of us who ended up spending the whole evening listening through the door, waiting to meet friends afterwards.”