Defending the Indefensible

Less than one year ago, Israel launched its attack on Gaza, in which over 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. According to the report of the U.N. Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, headed by preeminent South African jurist Justice Richard Goldstone, Israel deliberately targeted civilians during the attack. Among other things, Israeli forces deliberately targeted educational institutions, destroying or damaging at least 280 schools and kindergartens during the war.

The devastating impact on Gaza’s schools should be of special concern to an institution dedicated to education such as Harvard. Instead, on November 23 Harvard extended an invitation to Michael B. Oren—the Israeli ambassador to the United States—to speak at the Kennedy School. Fittingly, he was rejected by students who attended the event. Oren is a former officer and paratrooper who served as an Israeli army spokesperson during the unwarranted and illegal attacks on Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009.

While the university envisioned a warm reception, it must be recorded that the students took a clear stance against impunity for war crimes. During the question-and-answer session, the vast majority of questions and comments leveled at Oren were critical of his actions and statements on the Gaza invasion and the Goldstone report.

One student read a quote by Oren in which he compared the Goldstone report to the Holocaust. She then asked, “Why do you make such hyperbolic statements? Don’t you think it cheapens the memory of Jews killed?” Oren denied making the statement, which he wrote in an article for The New Republic. Many other questions and statements equally rattled Oren. Students showed that they are unwilling to stay silent when a uniformed spin doctor tries to rewrite recent history.

There is a difference between offering an argumentative viewpoint as a public citizen and doing so as a state official and army officer defending alleged war crimes. The university is a place to exchange ideas, including difficult and occluded ones. However, the appropriate venue to defend war crimes is the International Criminal Court at The Hague, not at Harvard University.

Justice Goldstone told the U.N. Human Rights Council that “the lack of accountability for war crimes and possible crimes against humanity has reached a crisis point.” Rather than hold Israel accountable, the Harvard Middle East Initiative provided one of its official spokesmen a platform to defend the indefensible actions of “Operation Cast Lead.” Oren jokingly quoted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and others as telling him that he will have “a very hard job” as Israel’s ambassador.

Surprisingly, I agreed with them. Indeed, Oren, who defends the bombing of schools, universities, and factories and the illegal use of white phosphorous among countless other crimes, has a challenge ahead of him. Defending the destruction of Palestinian life as a necessary form of security strategy can’t be easy, especially since collective punishment is outlawed by international law.

It is particularly ironic and disturbing that Oren, who was a visiting professor at Harvard in 2006, could justify the destruction of academic life and the continued ban on school supplies to Gaza’s students. Israel also bans Palestinian students in Gaza from studying abroad. In May 2008, Palestinian students who received Fulbright scholarships were not allowed to leave Gaza because of Israel’s crippling siege. Israel’s systematic denial of Palestinians’ basic human and civil rights should be confronted, not legitimized, by academic institutions.

It is imperative that Harvard adopt principled guidelines and vetting practices to ensure that war criminals and their official apologists—regardless of country of origin—not be given a platform at our university. By welcoming those whose actions deny students in Palestine their academic freedom, the university inevitably trivializes the struggle for human rights and collective freedom.

Abdelnasser A. Rashid ’11-’12 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. He is a board member of the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee.

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