Psych Guru Examines Israel

Ben-Shahar’s proposal to “reframe” conflict meets with some student skepticism

Tiffanie K Hsu

Tal Ben-Shahar ‘96, a lecturer on psychology, delivers an address entitled “Understanding the Arab-Israeli Conflict” in Sever.


Lecturer on Psychology Tal Ben-Shahar ’96 advocated an “alternative framing” of the Arab-Israeli conflict at a Harvard Students for Israel (HSI) event last night, saying that taking a wider geographical, historical, and moral perspective on events in the region is necessary before the Israelis and Palestinians can reach peace.

“Frankly, I don’t know of a solution to this conflict,” said Ben-Shahar, who teaches Psychology 1504, “Positive Psychology.” “But for both sides to thrive, prosper, and coexist, the first step is to understand the conflict in a fair and just framing.”

Ben-Shahar said that reframing the conflict would eliminate what he called the anti-Israel bias in academia and the media.

The geographical aspect of his alternative model involved evaluating the Arab-Israeli strife as a power struggle and “not a local, but a regional conflict” involving Egypt, Lybia, Syria, and Iran [SEE CORRECTION APPENDED].

Ben-Shahar said the historical elements of his framework relate to the problems Palestinian refugees have faced in Gaza and Hebron [SEE CORRECTION APPENDED].

Ben-Shahar said that when the colonial European Jews [SEE CORRECTION APPENDED] purchased these “uninhabited and uninhabitable territories” from Arab landowners then living in Turkey, the land came with an official decree preventing the displacement of Palestinian Arabs.

“It was the Arab leadership that did not allow [Palestinians and Jews] to coexist then, and the Arab regimes are still perpetuating the suffering of the Palestinian refugees,” Ben-Shahar said. “The refugees deserve better and it can be better in a day if the Arab leaders would stop getting in the way.”

Ben-Shahar also said that Israel has made multiple efforts to attain peace since 1947, but that their overtures have been denied by the Arab authorities.

Though Ben-Shahar said he has criticized Israel in the media, he warned against conflating anti-Israel sentiment with anti-semitism.

“I’ve written op-eds against every single Israeli government, and it is totally okay to criticize Israel, the settlements, or [Israeli Defense Force],” he said. “But it is not okay to zoom in on Israel and ignore the context—this is anti-Semitism...both sides will suffer as long as this education continues.”

Ben-Shahar said that while he lectures on the pursuit of happiness in his Positive Psychology class, he must also focus on issues of life and liberty in Israel, because they are prerequisites to happiness.

But with many attendees interrupting him to criticize the validity of his remarks, Ben-Shahar did not achieve as warm a reception last night as in his “Positive Psychology” course, which has an enrollment of 842 students.

“I didn’t really like anything about his speech,” said Rami R. Sarafa ’07. “It was empty rhetoric with factual errors and dismissal of contradictions.”

But HSI President Amy M. Zelcer ’07 said that Ben-Shahar’s “fielding of challenging questions was a testament to his expertise.”

“His concept of ‘reframing the conflict’ is an interesting and important one in the hopes of avoiding moral relativism,” said Zelcer. “The event on the whole was a success.”


Lecturer on Psychology Tal Ben-Shahar '96 did not classify pre-1948 immigrants to present-day Israel as "colonial European Jews." And he did not include Egypt among the countries engaged in a "regional conflict" against Israel. In fact, Ben-Shahar noted that Israel and Egypt have signed a peace accord.

Moreover, as Ben-Shahar wrote in a clarifying e-mail today, "I spoke about the 1929
massacre of Jews by Palestinian Arab terrorists in Gaza and Hebron"; he did not say that the historical elements of his framework related to the problems faced by Palestinian refugees in Gaza and Hebron.

The print and original online version of the Feb. 16 news article, "Psych Guru Examines Israel," mischaracterized Ben-Shahar's remarks on all three accounts.