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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Hoisting the Palestinian Flag

By Issa J. Kassissieh

In his 2002 Commencement address, University President Lawrence H. Summers proclaimed, “today, when we say that the University is a place of veritas, we mean that we are open to all ideas, no matter what their source.” But it seems that his high-minded proclamation did not extend to last month’s 25th anniversary of the rededication of the Kennedy School of Government (KSG)—a ceremony at which I was prohibited from carrying my country’s flag in a procession of students ostensibly representative of the students and staff of the Kennedy School.

I would like to tell President Summers that I am a member of this community, and that my idea—one of those ideas to which he has pledged such openness—is simple: I should have been allowed to march. Excluding me as a student at the Kennedy School from bearing the flag of my nation was wrong.

The decision seems all the more confounding because Harvard has done so much good for me so far. It was a generous step for the University to embrace me as the first Palestinian official in the Mid-Career Masters of Public Administration program at KSG.

Harvard has provided me with a unique opportunity to sit side-by-side with my Israeli colleagues, exchange ideas with them and build a constructive forum for discussion. This is especially important at a time when the voices of revenge, fear and hatred are very strong in our homelands and channels of communication are almost non-existent between the two peoples. This dialogue is fundamental at a time when we, as Palestinians, are in the process of building and reforming our institutions in preparation for complete independence.

Raising the Palestinian flag with its sister flags of all nations would have been understood as part of a consistent policy of fairness on the part of the University. Harvard, as a leading academic institution that represents hope and innovation, had the chance to brighten the way for others, especially at a time when blindness is becoming more severe every day in my region of the world.

The Palestinian flag is an unambiguous representation of the national aspirations of the Palestinian people and of a possible pragmatic solution to the Middle East conflict. The moment that the flag is no longer in the hands of the current secular Palestinian leadership, those who seize power would either change it to a green flag—the color of the Islamists—or would advocate the idea of a bi-national state. In both cases, the prospect of stability for the region would be far-fetched, and the very existence of the state of Israel would be shaken.

Harvard should advocate the legitimacy of the Palestinian flag as a practical step toward ending the bloody conflict and opening a new chapter in our history, when Israel and Palestine can both enjoy sovereignty and stability.

Harvard should allow the Palestinian and Israeli flags to fly side-by-side as a message of hope for the region and as an act of respect for a nation that has struggled for decades for its independence and dignity.

The late Edward Said, the Columbia University Professor who passed away just two weeks ago, once remarked that “the Palestinian is almost always out of place.” Undoubtedly, he must have died a very disappointed man, because he was a peace advocate all of his life. The new Palestinian intelligentsia is still holding fast; it is keeping up hope that the Palestinian flag will be raised again despite the fact that despair and anger are gaining momentum.

The late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin realized the importance and meaning of the Palestinian flag, as he allowed it to be raised high when he signed the historic mutual recognition agreement at the White House with the Palestinian secular leadership. The late Rabin was killed just as he was about to realize his dream of securing a strong and stable state living peacefully alongside his Palestinian neighbors as equals. The fact that the bullet that ended his life shattered the chances for his dream to succeed make his death all the more tragic.

Harvard should share responsibility in helping the dream of Said and Rabin come true so that their souls, and the souls of all who have contributed to the historic reconciliation between the two people, can rest in peace and tranquility.

As John F. Kennedy once urged, let us all be participants and not observers in this process. Let us all work together in an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding—and work with creativity and sincerity—to improve a region that is desperate for a way out of blindness and extremism. In all this, Harvard can and should lead.

Issa J. Kassissieh is a masters of public administration student in the mid-career program at the Kennedy School of Government.

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