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Harvard Divinity School Panel Provides ‘Theological Perspective’ on War in Israel and Palestine

Three members of the Harvard Divinity School’s Religion and Public Life program and Mae Elise Cannon, the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, discussed the religious context of the Israel-Gaza war during a panel on Wednesday.
Three members of the Harvard Divinity School’s Religion and Public Life program and Mae Elise Cannon, the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, discussed the religious context of the Israel-Gaza war during a panel on Wednesday. By Aran Sonnad-Joshi
By Matan H. Josephy and Aran Sonnad-Joshi, Contributing Writers

Religious scholars called for peace in Israel and Palestine and discussed the religious context behind the war during a Harvard Divinity School panel on Wednesday.

The event, titled “Faith in Action: Jewish, Christian, & Muslim Solidarity for Just Peace in Times of Conflict,” featured Mae Elise Cannon, the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, and three members of the Harvard Divinity School’s Religion and Public Life program: Atalia Omer, a visiting professor from the University of Notre Dame; Hussein Rashid, assistant dean for religion and public life; and Diane L. Moore, associate dean for religion and public life.

Omer, Rashid, and Moore signed onto a statement released by the Religion and Public Life program’s leadership last week that urged people to acknowledge the “decades of oppression” that preceded Hamas’ deadly attack on Israel.

“When these ‘decades of oppression’ are left out of the story about Hamas’ horrendous attack on Israeli civilians, a narrative about an ‘innocent’ state of Israel’s right to ‘defend’ itself against supposedly ‘unprovoked’ aggression is legitimized,” the statement said. “The reality is much more complex.”

Interim HDS Dean David F. Holland later distanced the school from the statement in an email to HDS affiliates last Thursday, writing that the six signatories “do not speak for their program, for HDS, or for its wider community.”

The hour-long panel, however, did not mention Holland’s email or the statement signed by three of its participants.

According to Rashid, the goal of the event was to engage with the fighting in Israel and Palestine through nuanced theological discussion.

“It’s important for us to think about the issues we were talking about today — both from a religious studies perspective and also a theological perspective — because we’re trying to bring nuance and complexity to a situation that’s often oversimplified,” Rashid said.

But Rashid also cautioned against simply treating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as purely religious.

“I think it’s often portrayed as a faith issue where in many ways, it’s not,” he said.

Cannon emphasized the importance of religion as a way to achieve peace in the region, even though she said she also doesn’t believe the fighting in Israel and Palestine is primarily driven by religion.

“Right-sizing religion is important,” Cannon said.

She added that being aware of how religion intersects with the conflict “can be very helpful to understanding, or posing questions, or even coming up with creative solutions toward peace.”

During the panel, participants also emphasized the need to acknowledge the deaths of both Israelis and Palestinians.

“It was absolutely overwhelming the whole week,” said Omer, who grew up in Israel.

“I was constantly in tears, and screaming, and hurting, and fearful for my Palestinian friends in Gaza and elsewhere — and also very attuned to the pain that many of my Jewish Israeli friends are feeling,” she added.

Cannon said just acknowledging pain is not enough and urged members of the audience to consider ways to promote peace.

“The realities that are happening right in this moment are a tragedy — a tragedy for the people of Israel, and a tragedy for people in Gaza, and a tragedy for the Palestinian people,” Cannon said. “And yet, I don’t think we have the luxury of just resting in grief.”

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