Long before Israel was a country, it was an idea. Today, 64 years after its creation, the Jewish State stands as proof of the power of a bold idea to change the world. It is only fitting, then, that Harvard’s inaugural Israel Conference focus on the theme of innovation. Our aim in organizing this conference, as nonpartisan Israeli students from across the Harvard schools, is to share the spirit of innovation—so central to Israel’s identity—with the broader Harvard community. Our aim is to show our classmates and friends what makes our small country unique and dear to us.
Perhaps we should have known better—but to our great dismay and surprise, the posters advertising the conference that we recently put up around campus were quickly targeted and defaced. They were covered in stickers saying “apartheid” and “white phosphorus.” While we welcome legitimate forms of criticism, and understand the vital role it plays in any discussion, these actions are nothing short of vandalism. Perhaps more importantly, they represent a trend of anti-normalization of anything Israel-related, and by extension, effectively labeling us, the conference organizers, as illegitimate. The group organizing the conference is diverse, representing a wide range of political opinions. One of us, for example, heads an organization committed to promoting dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians on American campuses, another runs the North American operations for an Israeli humanitarian agency and was an active participant in the struggle against the Israeli occupation of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. In so many ways, our world-views are probably more similar to the views of those who decided to deface the posters than they are different. This irony in turn reveals a much sorrier truth: Indiscriminate, aggressive campaigns of this sort inevitably marginalize everyone and everything related to the state of Israel, both critic and target.
We understand why this conference is upsetting for some—it is perceived as an attempt to whitewash the wrongs Israel often afflicts on the Palestinians. But we would ask that, rather than forcing this conference into that preexisting and well-worn frame, our goals receive a fair hearing. This conference is not an attempt to shift the focus from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to replace this very important and much-needed conversation. Rather, it is an attempt to infuse new meaning into a campus discussion that has become polarized and one-dimensional. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one part of Israel’s complex and multifaceted identity. Israelis are not defined by the conflict alone, nor are the Palestinians. Delegitimizing Israel and Israelis in their entirety, persisting with a useless blame game, and refusing to recognize the complexity of the matter at hand only pushes peace farther away. A legitimate Israel and a legitimate and empowered Palestine are the only two partners capable of reaching any kind of peaceful solution for this region. Vandalizing our posters, as trivial as it may seem, conveys that Israel and Israelis are irrelevant—not worthy of being heard, not to mention negotiated with.
Sometimes it is difficult to hear voices with which we disagree. It was not easy, to say the least, for us to watch a group of Harvard students host the “One-State Conference,” which, in our eyes, challenged Israel’s fundamental right to exist. We sat quietly and attentively in the audience while speakers’ denied the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. This was an excruciating experience for us, but learning to listen to others, especially when we disagree, is what this institution is all about.
It’s because of this diversity of opinion that Harvard is uniquely positioned to be the setting for real progress in discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One attempt to inspire such conversation is the Avi Schaefer Peace Challenge, a competition open to all Harvard students, which will award $1,000 to the most innovative idea helping to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians. Unfortunately, people who claim to be committed to peace responded to this initiative with derogatory cynicism, labeling the initiative as “pathetic," "ridiculous," "undesirable," "desperate," and "sloppy” on Facebook. These responses, which delegitimize discussion rather than substantively engage with it, are manifestations of the same mindset that motivated the defacement of the Israel Conference’s posters.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Hopefully in the future we can plan a conference together to show people just how complex these issues are. We must discuss one-state versus two-state, Palestinian right of return and the plight of the refugees, the issue of settlements, what it means to live under occupation, and what it feels like to live under the threat of terrorism. Any program, conference, or contest that engages in the debate over Israel and Palestine must challenge itself to change the old paradigms and find new ways to engage with these issues. That’s what we’re hoping the Harvard Israel Conference will accomplish—and we wholeheartedly hope to see you all there.