A fragile peace prevails in Lowell House small dining room, site of a student-led Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, last Monday night. But Joachim C. S. Martillo ’78 promptly shatters it .
The others have barely finished exchanging pleasantries when Martillo drops his first rhetorical bombshell.
“Emerson supported terrorism against slaveholders, and I don’t see much of a difference between Zionism and slavery in terms of the evils they cause,” says Martillo, formerly a physics concentrator in Adams House.
To some participants in the dialogue, a fledgling effort to engender friendlier Arab-Jewish relations on a campus frequently polarized by Middle Eastern conflict, Martillo is a known commodity. With the approach of his 25th Harvard reunion last year, Martillo began to mull a donation to his alma mater, and started carefully observing campus debate over Israeli-Palestinian issues. He didn’t like what he saw, so he jumped into the fray. Since then, he’s gained notoriety for his incendiary comments at pro-Israel events and his provocative posts on e-mail list-serves.
“He’s pretty nuts,” says David B. Adelman ’04, former president of Harvard Students for Israel (HSI). But Martillo, a Boston-based entrepreneur who started selling computer products in the Palestinian territories after the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, is no dilettante when it comes to Middle Eastern issues, although his views lie well beyond the mainstream. “The first time I went through a checkpoint and had to experience this as Palestinians did... I began to believe that we [in the United States] were on the wrong side,” he says.
Last spring, Martillo and HSI secretary Eric R. Trager ’05 sparred in a volley of e-mails on HIPJ-Open, the now-abolished e-mail list hosted by the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice, a student activist group. The heated exchanges between Martillo and Trager underscore the deep rift between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists on campus.
At an institution that prides itself on facilitating free discourse, the debate over Israel tests the limits of tolerance and the possibility of dialogue. As Adelman asks, “If we can’t do this at Harvard, what does that say about the people who are trying to do it in Tel Aviv and Ramallah?”
Harvard students may not reach a peace treaty resolving Israeli-Palestinian conflict—at least not before graduation—but they can arrive at a cease-fire to defuse the tension that has marred on-campus debate. To accomplish this, the brash ideologues on campus must make room for more measured voices to set the tone of discourse.
More than a year since his September 17, 2002 address in Memorial Church grabbed headlines nationwide, University President Lawrence H. Summers’s words still reverberate on campus, casting an expansive shadow over Israeli-Palestinian discourse.
On that autumn morning, Summers told congregants, “Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.” He specifically referenced a petition signed by 75 Harvard faculty members calling on the University to divest from companies with holdings in Israel.
Summers’ remarks drew mixed reactions within the Harvard community. “I was unhappy with the statement because it made people afraid to talk about Israel and Palestine,” says Ilana J. Sichel ’05, a literature concentrator in the Dudley Co-op who describes herself as a “leftist-Zionist.” She says that Summers’ speech “made me afraid to voice criticism of Israel for fear of being labeled a self-hating Jew.”
But for Trager, Summers’ Memorial Church address was a rallying cry. “Larry Summers, he makes me so proud to be a Jew,” says Trager, who after the speech went to Summers’ office hours to congratulate him personally. “He is willing to stand up to sentiments that—when accepted on the academic level—challenge the Jewish people and their international existence.”
Trager, a government concentrator in Kirkland House, spent the summer after his freshman year in Jerusalem as an intern for a right-of-center member of the Israeli parliament. The sharp-tongued Queens, N.Y. native is now on a mission to expose what he sees as HIPJ’s sordid underside.
“For a group like [HIPJ] to display a significant amount of anti-Israel sentiment to the point where it embodies anti-Semitism is disturbing,” he says. “If you don’t believe Israel has a legitimate right to use its army amidst this clear threat, then you oppose its secure existence, and that’s anti-Semitic.”
Trager claims that Martillo’s posts “came without any rebuke or organizational distancing from HIPJ,” although some suggest that may simply reflect HIPJ’s non-hierarchical power structure.
But active HIPJ members note that neither Trager nor Martillo is actually affiliated with the group. “These two nutcases essentially had a fight on our list, and it had nothing to do with us,” says Suvrat Raju, a HIPJ member and second-year physics doctoral candidate.
The antics of Trager and Martillo led HIPJ moderators to shut down the list last spring, but Trager remains dogged in his battle with the group. In the most recent round, Trager seized upon an e-mail Raju sent to HIPJ members upon his return from an Oct. 25 Washington, D.C. rally protesting America’s presence in Iraq.
“At various points, chants like ‘the only solution: revolution’ and ‘long live the intifada’ were taken up enthusiastically,” Raju wrote in that e-mail. “If 50,000 people could turn out for a largely socialist rally that wasn’t afraid of cheering the intifada then what would happen if we had large organizational structures and some time to build the movement? The mind boggles!”
The term “intifada,” Arabic for shuddering, is widely used in reference to the waves of anti-Israel violence and suicide bombings that have left thousands dead. From that perspective, Raju’s remarks bolster Trager’s case. But Raju maintains, “Intifada to me means resistance. It doesn’t mean support for terrorism. I hope that’s completely clear.”
The fastidiously polite Raju, who hails from Delhi, India, is a relative newcomer to Middle Eastern issues. “I feel really badly about what is happening there,” he says. “The occupied territories are on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe.” As he settles into his new role as a pro-Palestinian activist, he seems shell-shocked by the ad hominem attacks that characterize debate at Harvard, including a recent e-mail from Trager:
“Suvrat, I would be very interested in knowing why you, personally, hold such enmity for the State of Israel,” Trager writes. “Are you Palestinian? Are you Muslim? Are you Arab? Are one of your parents one of the above? Are you dating/married to one of the above? Have you been to the West Bank or Gaza or Israel? Or are you just a run-of-the-mill Marxist Jew-hater?”
Raju does characterize himself as a Marxist, but he emphasizes that the ideological label does not extend to HIPJ as a whole. According to a statement on its website, the organization was founded hours after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks as “a group of people working to…do our part to stop the ill-conceived wars that now surround us.”
Raju says that the group’s foray into Israeli-Palestinian issues accelerated this fall as a “reactive process,” spurred by clashes with HSI. On Nov. 3, HIPJ and the Society of Arab Students (SAS) hosted Amer Jubran—a local activist then facing deportation to Jordan—in a Science Center auditorium, where he delivered a speech decrying the USA Patriot Act. Jubran, who refuses to condemn Palestinian suicide bombings against Jewish targets, provoked protests from pro-Israel groups. HSI members emphasized that their objection was to Jubran’s appearance, not HIPJ’s civil libertarian agenda. One HSI sign read, “Patriot Act, No; Support for Terrorism, Never.”
The HSI-HIPJ rift widened on Nov. 22 when first-year physics doctoral candidate Phil Larochelle, a 2003 MIT grad, launched a “HIPJ Weblog” tracking human rights abuses and progressive movements worldwide. The Weblog’s first news summary featured a link to a Zmag.org article comparing the Israeli Defense Forces to the Nazi military. Bur Larochelle stresses that his controversial weblog isn’t specifically aimed against Israel, and that it levels even harsher criticism against other U.S.-backed regimes with checkered human rights records.
As Trager pushed for a publicity campaign aimed at exposing HIPJ’s anti-Semitic leanings, HSI President Joshua Suskewicz ’05 intervened in the row. “I sincerely hope that our clubs do not reach a point of confrontation,” Suskewicz wrote in an e-mail to HIPJ leaders.
Suskewicz’s overtures to HIPJ, which included a meeting between the two groups before Thanksgiving, appear to have cooled the tempers of combatants. “I would like to commend Joshua for initiating a very constructive dialogue with us,” Larochelle says.
Suskewicz, a Currier House resident from Teaneck, N.J., has strived to heal the rift between Arab and Jewish students, favoring less rancorous rhetoric and more constructive engagement. He responds to questions on the subject with the careful word choice of an English concentrator, frequently musing, “How can I say this diplomatically?”
Suskewicz says that under his leadership, HSI has been judicious in its selection of campus speakers. “The implied understanding that I was operating under…was that hateful and extremist views had been excluded from this campus,” he says.
While Israelis and Palestinians battle with tanks and bombs, their supporters at Harvard are waging their fight by luring hot-button lecturers to campus. Last fall English department members, who had asked Irish poet Tom Paulin to receive an award at Harvard, rescinded the invitation amidst uproar over an interview with an Egyptian newspaper, in which Paulin said that Brooklyn-born settlers on the West Bank “should be shot dead.” Although the department later reinstated the offer, Paulin has yet to speak here.
In the wake of the Paulin and Jubran spats, Suskewicz says that the student-led dialogues provide “a means of communication to ensure that we [pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists] are not being offensive to one another.”
At the first dialogue, held Nov. 17 in Mather House, Jewish students constituted a minority of the 11 participants, and Suskewicz was one of the lone Israel supporters present. “Josh finished the dialogue we had by saying HSI screens their speakers very thoroughly,” says Rami R. Sarafa ’07, treasurer of the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC). But that evening, Sarafa received an e-mail informing him that Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz of the Israeli Air Force (IAF), a controversial figure even in his own country, was slated to visit campus on Dec. 10.
Suskewicz’s statement “was pretty much a lie right to our faces,” Sarafa says. “That’s really low.”
Halutz’s visit was cancelled last week amidst mounting uproar from Arab students, although organizers say that plans were axed on account of logistical constraints. “Due to security concerns, Dan Halutz is not able to travel abroad,” says Emily Raderman, campus coordinator for the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which was helping to orchestrate Halutz’s visit.
The general is a central figure in an escalating scandal regarding the IAF’s alleged use of a “secret banned weapon” in an October mission over the Gaza Strip. Halutz also drew criticism for his alleged insensitivity to the human costs of IAF missions. “I don’t feel a thing, except a slight bump in the airplane when the bomb is released,” he said in one recent interview.
“The fact that any student organization would even think about bringing a speaker like that, who is not even trusted by his own country, is completely preposterous…Imagine if PSC and SAS and HIPJ wanted to bring a Hezbollah military commander,” Sarafa says, comparing the IAF to a Lebanese group that has attacked towns inside Israel. “Do you think Harvard would allow that?”
The Halutz event was part of the nationwide Caravan for Democracy tour, backed by the JNF, that seeks to counter what it sees as a rising tide of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments on campuses. A spokesperson for the organization said that the group would visit campus next semester, although perhaps with a different speaker in tow. The effort to bring the Caravan to Cambridge comes in the wake of an October article by a senior Israeli government official, published in Israeli and American newspapers, that paints an ugly picture of free speech at Harvard.
“One [Harvard] student admitted to me that she was afraid—afraid to express support for Israel, afraid to take part in pro-Israel organizations, afraid to be identified,” Israeli Minister of Jerusalem and World Jewish Affairs Natan Sharansky wrote following a Sept. 16 visit to Cambridge. The student, a doctoral candidate at one of the University’s professional schools, only agreed to speak to FM on the condition of anonymity.
She met me in a Harvard Square eatery, constantly scanning her surroundings to make sure that no one else was listening. Expecting to earn her Ph.D. this spring, she is concerned—perhaps phobic—that her pro-Israel opinions could doom her application for a faculty position at a research university in the Northeast.
While she says that undergraduates have less to worry about if they express strong viewpoints, “if you’re a scholar—and you’re looking for the one or two or three positions in the country in anthropology or sociology or economics—the stakes are higher.”
Her fears were fanned when an Oxford University pathologist turned down an Israeli Ph.D. applicant in June, writing in an e-mail to the rejected student, “I am sure that you are perfectly nice on a personal level but no way would I take somebody who has served in the Israeli army.”
The Harvard doctoral candidate says she worries she will be victim of a similar anti-Israel backlash in the United States if her Zionist views become widely publicized. “I feel that my career is at stake,” she says. “But once I get the job, once I get tenure, you’re not going to shut me up.”
But at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), it’s the pro-Palestinian camp that says it’s been silenced. KSG officials blocked a student from carrying a Palestinian flag at a September luncheon celebrating the school’s 25th anniversary, noting that under University policy, only banners from countries officially recognized by the United States could appear at the event. That decision deeply offended many Arab students. “Just because there isn’t a Palestinian state doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t hope for it and shouldn’t have symbols that convey that hope,” says Hebah Ismail ’06, an Egyptian-American and a Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations concentrator in Quincy House.
More than 100 KSG students signed a petition protesting the school’s ruling on the flag issues. “In the context of my world, it is much more accepted, faddish, and in line with the politics of the more left-leaning schools to support the Palestinian cause,” the fearful doctoral candidate says.
While Sharansky portrayed the Harvard doctoral student’s predicament sympathetically, Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature Ruth R. Wisse offers a divergent perspective. “Anyone who uses that as an excuse not to speak up is simply a coward,” she says.
The grandmotherly Wisse has long been one to speak up for Israel, and in the process has emerged as an intellectual hero to Jewish conservatives. “The liberal betrayal of the Jews remains one of the most painful questions for me,” says Wisse. “I cannot understand why liberals of all people—who pretend to believe in democracy, who pretend to believe in freedom…who pretend to believe in tolerance—could fail to speak out energetically on behalf of [Israel]…One has to conclude that their liberalism is a sham.”
When it comes to the student-led dialogue at Harvard, Wisse expresses mixed feelings. “Students talking to one another can never be bad. I would not like anything I am saying to be a discouragement of such gatherings,” she says.
“A dialogue of this kind keeps up the pretense that there is something Israel can do to accommodate the Palestinians. But there is nothing Israel can do to accommodate the Palestinians. If there is going to be a real dialogue, it ought to address why the Arabs will not allow the Jews a single, small state.”
But the faculty’s most prominent pro-Israel voice, Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz, seems genuinely intrigued by the recently-launched student dialogue. He laments that no similar effort has taken root at the faculty level. “I have been prepared to have a debate or dialogue with anyone,” he says, but notes that his fellow professors have been unwilling to engage him in discourse. “I hereby throw out an open challenge to any pro-Palestinian faculty member to debate me on the two-state solution,” he says, restating an offer he has extended before.
Perhaps in contrast to some of his professors, Sarafa, a first-year in Pennypacker Hall, isn’t one to shrink from debate or dialogue. Although he hails from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., he says he feels inextricably linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His mother is from the West Bank town of Tulkarem, and he still has relatives living under Israeli occupation.
Sarafa feels that some American Jews are emotionally distanced from the tragic consequences of Middle Eastern conflict. As a case in point, he cites a beer mug distributed by HSI last year that read, “Party like it’s 1948.”
“Nineteen forty-eight was the year that Palestinians saw their destiny—their right to self-determination—taken from them,” Sarafa says. “Now you tell me how you rejoice over a year in which there was so much suffering, in which so many Palestinians died…It’s like the USA saying ‘Let’s party like it’s Aug. 6, 1945,’” he says, referring to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. “You don’t celebrate the suffering of other people.”
When Sarafa aired his indignation at the Mather House gathering, Suskewicz responded apologetically. Dershowitz, weighing in on the matter and stressing that he does not encourage beer-drinking among undergraduates, notes that in the 1948 conflict, “Israel lost one percent of its population in a genocidal war that was conducted by many of Hitler’s deputies. You can never forget the close association between the Palestinian leadership and the Nazi cause,” he says, reiterating a point expressed in far greater detail in his most recent book, The Case for Israel. Still he says that in an appropriate celebration of Israel’s independence, “you do it with a sense of sadness about the deaths and dislocation it caused.”
But Adelman, who led HSI at the time of the beer mug’s conception, says: “I think 1948 is a great year and is worth drinking to. I have no regrets about choosing that slogan whatsoever.”
A government concentrator in Pforzheimer House, Adelman lived in Israel for seven years prior to attending high school in Raleigh, N.C. “I met [former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin two weeks before he was shot,” says Adelman, describing Rabin’s November 1995 assassination as his “political awakening.”
“The survival of the state of Israel depends on her supporters,” Adelman says, explaining his involvement in HSI.
Adelman—who participated in a similar dialogue series that fizzled last year—is more skeptical after this year’s second session.
“It was funny how the table was set up. You had the pro-Israel people on one side and the pro-Palestinian side on the other,” Adelman says. “I was surprised by how hostile the few guys at the other end of the table were. They had this very attacking tone that really irked me.”
In between the warring factions sat Jessica M. Marglin ’06, who—as a Hillel member and committed progressive activist—bridges the chasm between the two sides.
Marglin worked tirelessly to be a peacemaker as tensions flared at the last two dialogues. Now she is aiming to bring progressives and hard-liners within the Harvard Jewish community together in a “Jewish-Jewish dialogue” next semester. “I think the Jewish-Arab dialogue is something that Jews who are very far on the right would never feel comfortable with,” she says. “The more dialogue, the merrier.”
But the organizers of the Mather and Lowell events, the third attempt in the past three years to generate a sustained conversation, think that the Arab-Jewish dialogue can successfully encompass a wide range of ideologies. The overarching goal, says David A. Weinfeld ’05, who is also a Crimson editor, is the “humanization” of the conflict. He believes that if Arab and Jewish student leaders develop strong personal relationships, perhaps Harvard can avoid the polarization that came in the wake of the divestment petition and the Jubran visit.
Weinfeld, who attended a Zionist high school in Montreal, is moderating the relaunched dialogue series with Nayla R. Hamdi ’05, an economics and psychology concentrator in Lowell House. She grew up in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland, transferring to Harvard from the American University in Cairo at the beginning of her sophomore year, and says she wants to better understand pro-Israel positions after being steeped in the opposing viewpoint throughout her childhood.
“We don’t want this to be like section,” says Weinfeld, a history concentrator in Mather House. So far, he doesn’t have any cause for concern on that front. The emotional temperature at the dialogues has been scalding. “There was definitely a lot of tension,” Hamdi says, specifically referring to the Lowell House event. “What we appreciate about the people here is that participants get very angry here but when they leave they are civil and willing to talk about these issues outside.”
Hamdi and Weinfeld face an uphill battle. The first three sessions revolved around factual disputes rather than substantive exchanges. Meanwhile, as Dershowitz notes, faculty have failed to provide any model for dialogue on Arab-Jewish issues. Most importantly, in a phenomenon not limited to Harvard, increasingly extreme viewpoints are drowning out more conciliatory ones.
The cancellation of the Halutz event may have temporarily averted a further escalation of hostility. But the next time an incendiary figure is slated to arrive, the dialogue sessions will likely see the same sort of polarization that plagued the last two events.
And even the dialogue’s more idealistic supporters are unsure about where all of this is going.
“I’m a little hazy about what we’re supposed to be doing, except just talking,” says Ismail, just after last Monday’s dialogue. “I don’t know what that’s supposed to accomplish.”
She returns to her heated conversation with Trager, having answered her own question. When else would these two exchange words, except from opposite sides of a picket line?
Adelman’s earlier observation rings true: If not now at Harvard, then nowhere, never.