Condemning Kramer

Much has been made of Martin Kramer’s suggestion that Palestinians be denied food and medicine in order to weaken their opposition to the Israeli occupation. We, along with a group of 25 other professors, scholars, and Harvard alumni, add our voices to the chorus of condemnation directed towards Dr. Kramer and express our concern that the Weatherhead Center has lent him its credibility. As academics, we question both the ethical and scholarly basis of Dr. Kramer’s public statements. We maintain that this is not a question of protecting Dr. Kramer’s free speech, as was indicated by the Weatherhead Center’s response to criticism. Rather, it is about maintaining appropriate standards of ethical and intellectual conduct; Dr. Kramer’s repellent statements evince a clear failure to meet those standards.

The speech in question was made at the 10th annual Herzliya conference, the single most important gathering of influential policymakers and commentators in Israel. Kramer’s talk was part of a panel held on Feb. 3, 2010 entitled “Rising to the Challenge of Radical Indoctrination;” his Harvard affiliation was clearly identified in the conference program in connection with the talk. In Kramer’s presentation, he suggested that Israel’s current economic blockade of Gaza, now in its fourth year, represents a successful effort to “break Gaza’s runaway population growth.” He therefore argued against what he called “pro-natal subsidies” of food, medicine, and humanitarian aid that help to reproduce the “constant supply of superfluous young men” demanded by a so-called “culture of martyrdom” in Gaza.

His argument has little scholarly merit. In the name of state security, it validates demographic strategies of population control that date at least back to Thomas Malthus and have been repeatedly found wanting both intellectually and morally for over two centuries. Also, by attributing to culture what is a political and social phenomenon, Kramer misrepresents the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A willingness to sacrifice oneself is not a desire for martyrdom rooted in Palestinian culture. Rather, as has been shown by scholars of the conflict, Palestinian youth turn to violent means to oppose the dehumanizing effects of the Israeli occupation. In short, Kramer’s remarks are not informed by current scholarship, but are animated by the spirit of early 20th century eugenics.

Even if the Weatherhead Center were to overlook these scholarly shortcomings, it should at least consider the ethics of Kramer’s interventions. His characterization of young Palestinians as a superfluous population culturally predisposed to violence can only be described as racist. Indeed, his statements are rooted in a polemic that would have been unacceptable in reference to any other population. To quote Weatherhead Center executive committee member Stephen Walt, “What if a prominent academic at Harvard declared that the United States had to make food scarcer for Hispanics so that they would have fewer children? Or what if someone at a prominent think tank noted that black Americans have higher crime rates than some other groups, and therefore it made good sense to put an end to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and other welfare programs, because that would discourage African-Americans from reproducing and thus constitute an effective anti-crime program?” And, finally, what if a similar argument was made with regard to the Jewish people? If the Weatherhead Center would distance itself from such arguments and likely condemn them, why does it defend Kramer when he calls, in effect, for a policy of eugenics against Palestinians?

As Harvard faculty, alumni, and affiliates, we deplore Dr. Kramer’s statements as morally reprehensible and intellectually indefensible. Furthermore, we encourage the Weatherhead Center to reexamine its procedures for evaluating the scholarly credibility of future affiliates.

Lori Allen is an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy of International and Area Studies. Vincent A. Brown is a Professor of History and of African and African American Studies. Ajantha Subramanian is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and of Social Studies.

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