Students Blast Prohibition of Palestinian Flag Display

Over 100 students at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) are protesting a decision that prohibited a classmate from carrying the Palestinian flag at the school’s 25th anniversary celebration on Sept. 19.

In a petition presented to KSG Dean Joseph S. Nye and Senior Associate Dean Joseph J. McCarthy Thursday, 112 students said permitting the flag would symbolize the school’s broad diversity and its commitment to peace in the Middle East.

The luncheon of the day-long anniversary event featured a procession by dozens of KSG students holding their home countries’ flags.

School officials said they did not permit the Palestinian student, Issa J. Kassissieh, to carry his flag because Palestine is not on the U.S. State Department’s list of independent states.

“Since Palestine is not recognized by the U.S. government, we are unable to offer you the opportunity to march,” David O’Brien, the interim deputy director of the KSG’s Alumni Programs Office, wrote Kassissieh in an e-mail.


KSG spokesperson Doug Gavel said that the school was following a Harvard-wide policy established by the University Marshal’s Office. The Marshal’s office could not be reached for comment.

Kassissieh, a Palestinian official from Jerusalem participating in the KSG’s Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration (MC/MPA) program, said he thought rejecting the flag was unnecessarily exclusive.

“I thought that if there would have been a will, there would have been an opportunity,” he said. “I’m here with my Israeli colleagues. It would have been great if the two flags could have been together.”

After receiving the message from O’Brien, Kassissieh wrote to the KSG’s student open e-mail list to object to the decision.

That prompted several other students to circulate a petition in support of Kassissieh, which they presented to McCarthy.

“We think both the Israeli and the Palestinian flags need to be represented at the school,” said Erin C. Rogers, an MC/MPA student who is one of the original drafters of the petition.

“The Kennedy School should take the lead in promoting peace by displaying both flags, despite what the State Department wants to dictate,” she said.

McCarthy was unavailable for comment Friday but said through a spokesperson that he plans to respond to the students’ letter.

Kassissieh is a fellow in the Edward Mason Program, which brings leaders from developing countries to study at the KSG. He said he thought the University had made a move toward the inclusion of Palestinians in bringing him to Harvard, but that the decision on the flag matter represented a step backwards.

“By respecting my aspirations and my symbols, they would respect the Palestinian nation,” said Kassissieh, who was a policy analyst in the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Negotiation Affairs Department before coming to Harvard.

Other students said they thought the decision was not a rejection of support for Palestinian students but rather a matter of having a standard policy.

Guang He, a student in the MPA-International Development program, said that while he supported Palestinian statehood, he thought the school had made the correct choice in excluding the flag.

“The action [would] destroy the present policy of KSG, which may lead to many, many requests for raising all kinds of flags,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Pedro Cerdan, an MPA-International Development student, said that because “Israel was created artificially” he supported the inclusion of a Palestinian flag in the procession.

But Cerdan, who carried the Spanish flag at the Sept. 19 ceremonies, said that if a student representing a Spanish opposition group like the Basque nationalists had wanted to carry that flag, he would oppose it.

Stephen E. Boucher, an MC/MPA student who signed the petition, said he recognized the “danger of getting into that kind of debate as to what is a country.”

But Boucher said that in general, “if a student is considered [by the KSG] as from a certain country, that should be recognized.”

Boucher and Kassissieh added that although the U.S. government does not recognize a Palestinian nation, it has included the flag at various diplomatic events.

“So if there is a strong request from a particular body of students, I think we could show the same level of flexibility,” Boucher said.

According to the petition, the U.N. and 124 other nations recognize Palestine.

Rogers said that the students who organized the petition would wait for a response from McCarthy and Nye before taking further action.

–Staff writer Elisabeth S. Theodore can be reached at