According to its website and a recent op-ed by the conference’s organizers, the upcoming Israel Conference at Harvard is meant to showcase Israel’s innovation in a way that is palatable to all parties involved in activism around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The assumption is that by talking about the wonders of Israeli technology and corporate aptitude, and by bringing to campus the inventors of advanced technology and the creators of everyday tools, the organizers are opening discussion on a new and uncontroversial area of the Israel-Palestine debate.
Student engagement to bring new perspectives to campus is always welcome, and the success of last fall’s Tree of Life Conference and last month’s One State Conference attests to the receptiveness of the Harvard community to the important debate on peace and human rights in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the Israel Conference will likely mislead its attendees on its broader subject and will bring to campus individuals whose disregard for international law makes their presence one of dubious educational quality.
The conference agenda suggests that it will expound the miracles and marvels of Israeli industry, while spending few words on the economic arrangements that make such a thriving environment possible. According to a Congressional Research Services report, the United States has given Israel over $115 billion from World War II to today; more than half of this aid has been military. No other country in the world enjoys such extensive foreign subsidies. How can Israeli innovation be considered sustainable if it is accomplished through dependence on U.S. tax dollars?
Within Israel and the Palestinian Territories (the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem) themselves, a second arrangement provides Israeli companies with an unfair advantage: the Occupation, or the ongoing military control by Israeli forces of Palestinian territories captured during the 1967 war, in blatant contradiction of international law and numerous United Nations Security Council Resolutions.
The Occupation gives Israeli businesses an unfair advantage in two main ways. First, it makes economic investment in Palestine a great risk. Foreign donors have built and rebuilt schools, hospitals, flour mills, and other facilities which cyclically get destroyed in Israel’s military operations, such as the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead. Other foreign investments, such as solar and wind power installations in the West Bank, are also under unending threat of Israeli demolition. The unstated charges? Those of increasing Palestinian energy independence and fostering development in local communities.
Second, as a U.N. Conference on Trade and Development report indicates, the deterioration of living standards and economic development in the Palestinian territories is largely due to Israeli government policies. These policies include the illegal seizure of Palestinian land for Israeli settlements and businesses and the movement restrictions that hamper Palestinians from conducting trade internationally. This vacuum is then filled by Israeli companies, which force their goods on a market that has virtually no other alternative. Israeli economic innovation really lies in creating hostage markets for its goods, using cheap dependent labor, and illegally exploiting occupied land. And this is really no innovation at all, since it is the same form of exploitation that has long been identified as colonization by the international community.
Finally, it is necessary to question the background of some of the speakers of the conference. Asaf Bar Ilan, for instance, has been involved in settlement activities that have been called out as illegal. He owns a farm in the occupied Golan Heights, territory that belongs to Syria and has been occupied by Israel since 1967. This occupation is a direct affront to the Geneva Conventions, which explicitly forbid the expropriation and settlement of occupied land by citizens of the hostile state, in this case, Israel. Sustainable innovation that deserves praise does not stem from illegal activities. The involvement of any panelists who violate international law in their daily lives proves to us the conference's lack of credibility and "civility," and reflects quite clearly the inextricability of Israeli "innovation" from the occupation of Palestinian land and violation of Palestinian rights.
The “vibrant, innovative, and optimistic” Israel the organizers envisage exists on foundations of illegal activities and 64 fyears of lack of accountability. While it is undeniable that medical and civil technology benefit society on a large scale, the contextual ethical costs cannot be ignored. Hopefully, we can maintain these positive achievements while redressing the human rights and international law violations they emerge in, because only then will these innovations truly be to the benefit of all. Unfortunately, by inviting speakers who directly contravene international law and by obscuring the roots of the Israeli "miracle," the Israel Conference sidelines the potential for innovation in favor of the criminal potential of Occupation.
Giacomo Bagarella '13 is a government concentrator in Currier House.