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How Can Harvard and the STEM Community Stand With Palestinians?

By George Abraham and Laith Alhussein, Crimson Opinion Writers
George Abraham is a master’s student in bioengineering. Laith Alhussein is a sixth-year doctoral student in bioengineering.

As two Arab-American Harvard graduate students with Jordanian Muslim and Palestinian Christian ancestry, we are writing to state our concerns about Harvard’s silence, and general lack of consciousness, regarding the ongoing struggle for Palestinian liberation.

This summer, we witnessed Israel’s efforts to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, and how resulting police aggression led to Israel attacking Al-Aqsa Mosque during the holiest month of the year for Muslims. We witnessed these atrocities lead to a unified response and resistance from Palestinians, which was met by Israel disproportionately murdering hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza. After the ceasefire in Gaza, Israeli occupation forces continued their surveillance and ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

The tools for these atrocities — from the law enforcement and surveillance technologies employed in Sheikh Jarrah to the planes and bombs Israel uses to destroy Gaza — are both funded and directly supplied by an unwavering degree of American support for Israel. As researchers in the engineering sciences, we cannot ignore the complacency STEM industries and the departments that fuel them have within this imperial apparatus. The same Department of Defense grants that fund many labs in the U.S. also directly contribute to the ongoing oppression of Palestinians and many other victims of colonialism.

While it may be easy for some at Harvard to abstract themselves from their own complacency within these systems, other members of our community have historically suffered under American imperialism and the military-technological industrial complex. Harvard students who have suffered the effects of U.S. colonialism cannot help but see the manifestations of these systems at nearly every level of our university, from broader institutional inaction to professors’ pedagogical practices.

For instance, in the wake of Black American protests against police brutality last summer, Harvard approved a racially ignorant course on policing technology designed by bioengineering professor Kevin “Kit” Parker. Harvard did not take action against this course until (predominantly Black and brown) students organized in protest. The irony of these actions, timed mere months after Harvard released statements condemning anti-Black violence, speaks volumes about this institution's disregard for and proximity to oppressive systems.

Harvard often commands attention as a global leader of higher education. And yet, the discrepancy between the Harvard administration’s professed values and its actual actions demonstrates that its statements condemning systemic oppression are generally made to serve the University’s image instead of its students. While Harvard issued statements condemning anti-Asian violence in the wake of the Atlanta shootings, for example, what exactly has the administration done to materially support Asian students thereafter?

We have similar questions regarding Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s recent statement on anti-Semitism — if such a statement fails to contextualize anti-Semitism within fascism’s rise in America, who exactly is it serving? Coincident with this statement is a history of intentional administrative silence on Palestine — a silence that, we fear, is only furthering propaganda that Palestinian and Jewish liberation are, somehow, irreconcilably at odds with each other.

The gravity of Harvard administrators’ failure to comment on Palestine is exacerbated by unfolding the details of the acts of “anti-Semitic” vandalism which prompted Bacow’s statement. These reported actions included the tying of a Palestinian flag with an anti-police slogan on it to Hillel’s door. Furthermore, a window was broken by one of many objects thrown up and down Mount Auburn Street by “extremely intoxicated” individuals after a party. Apologies were made, and compensation was offered ...

How can the administration claim to care about Palestinian or Jewish students if they view the mere existence of a Palestinian flag as an act of anti-Semitic vandalism? How can we trust the administration to stand with marginalized students if its statements consistently reveal basic ignorance, such as misconstruing the popular Black anti-police phrase “fuck 12” as anti-Semitic? How can we trust an administration which denies tenure to rare, beloved scholars like Cornel West, who cites advocacy for Palestine in his resignation, and Lorgia Garcia Peña, whose contributions to ethnic studies are unprecedented?

Juxtaposed with public support for Palestinians from many academics at other institutions through campaigns like Palestine & Praxis, Harvard academics — in particular those from STEM departments — have remained overwhelmingly complacent. For example, in a statement from 80 Harvard faculty members expressing support for the Palestinian struggle for freedom and self-determination, only six signatories are STEM professors, mostly from medical fields, and none are engineering professors.

Furthermore, a recent statement expressing support for Israel has over 1,000 signatories from Harvard affiliates, including many more than six STEM professors. This statement is rife with ignorance of the historical experiences of Palestinians, including a refusal to accept a basic descriptor of Israeli “ethnic cleansing” — which the everyday experience of Palestinians has undeniably proven true historically, morally, and through the illegal nature of Israel’s settlements.

Meanwhile, the Palestine & Praxis call, which rightfully centers Palestinian demands for boycotting the Israeli state, has received unprecedented public support. Though the statement is predominantly directed to the humanities and social sciences, we want to further this call by challenging STEM academics to consider: How can we move towards ceasing research collaboration with Israeli military technological apparatuses which are used to surveil and oppress Palestinians?

As the new semester begins, we challenge Harvard students and staff to think critically about the role every STEM space occupies within empire, from classrooms to labs to internships. How can we, in our daily actions in and outside of STEM academia, move towards a world where our skill sets aren’t exploited by the military-industrial complex?

Centering victims of colonialism in funding decisions and strategically divesting from companies like Hewlett-Packard, which provides technology to the Israeli military and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, would be adequate first steps. However, we must think, more broadly, about how our work becomes an accomplice in empire, capitalism, and the military-industrial complex. Recent history has highlighted the instability of U.S.-Israeli relations; the tide of public discourse is reaching an inflection point in favor of Palestinians.

We urge STEM academics to not shy away from these conversations; we cannot remain stagnant in discomfort. We must take action. The livelihoods of colonized peoples, like Palestinians, depend on it.

George Abraham is a master’s student in bioengineering. Laith Alhussein is a sixth-year doctoral student in bioengineering.

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