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Following the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, Harvard junior Shira Z. Hoffer ’25 is launching a text hotline service for information on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The effort has already picked up 20 volunteers on Harvard’s campus and around the world and aims to launch formally in the next two weeks. The hotline will provide nonpartisan information aimed at “promoting dialogue for peace” and countering hate, according to its website.
Hoffer said she first had the idea for an Israel-Palestine information hotline after forwarding an Oct. 11 statement by University President Claudine Gay about the conflict to her House’s mailing list. At the end of the email, Hoffer added her contact information as an open offer for conversation.
“I have this perhaps naive, but really powerful belief that conversation across difference can change the world,” Hoffer said.
Hoffer said she initially did not expect anyone to reach out to her, but when she received several responses, she thought, “maybe there is interest in making this a broader initiative.”
Nicolas G. Pantelick ’24, a Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Government joint concentrator, said he learned about the initiative from Hoffer and decided to get involved as a volunteer after studying the Israel-Palestine conflict for the past six years.
“I think the hotline is mostly aimed at those who are seeking to learn more about what’s going on, and maybe even cutting through the noise,” he said.
Pantelick — who along with Hoffer, is a fellow with the Safra Center for Ethics’ Intercollegiate Civil Disagreement Partnership — said he hopes the hotline can be an effective educational resource despite polarization around the issue.
“I believe that, regardless of difference, whether it’s Israel-Palestine, whether it’s any other contentious political issue where there’s extreme polarization and people are pushed to one side or the other, there’s always an opportunity for impactful and productive exchange of ideas,” Pantelick said.
“I’m just most looking forward to hopefully creating an environment on campus that's open to this inquiry and in a nonjudgmental and nonconfrontational way,” he added. “So often, emotions can get the best of us when there are very real human consequences.”
According to Hoffer, volunteers are compiling a master document of reliable sources for information on the Israel-Palestine conflict as well as possible solutions. The website provides an email address for questions on the conflict and lists the direct hotline as “coming soon.”
A LinkTree for the hotline includes a volunteer information sheet offering guidance on what to do if volunteers do not know how to answer questions from users or the conversation becomes heated, as well as outlining the hotline’s overall philosophy.
“Our philosophy follows the adage, ‘give a man a fish, and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,’” the guide reads. “When people contact the hotline with a question, our volunteers do not give a definitive answer; rather, they contextualize the question and provide resources from different perspectives for further education. That way, the person will know where to look next time.”
Chiraz Arbi, a Tunisian political scientist, said in an interview that she learned about the hotline through a Harvard mailing list. Arbi, who is Muslim, said she has noticed a “lack of conversation” in the U.S.-led organizations she has worked for.
She said she volunteered to help combat misinformation circulating within both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine circles.
“I worked in NGOs, for the right to information, right to access information to average citizens,” Arbi said. “I believe that this is a fundamental right and so yeah, I wanted to be part of it.”
Arbi stressed the need to reach and educate younger generations, who are especially susceptible to influence by social media.
She said that historical background for the ongoing war is vital because “this conflict did not start yesterday, didn’t start on Oct. 7 — and started decades ago in the case of our generation, and there are new generations that have never heard of what’s happened before.”
Hoffer — a member of the College’s Intellectual Vitality Committee, a group of students, faculty, and alumni committed to open dialogue on campus — said it is important that volunteers frame their responses in a way that doesn’t place blame on one side.
“The ultimate goal is to teach people to be able to educate themselves, and to show people that dialogue across differences even among such a controversial and identity-based topic is really possible and necessary.”
Volunteer Shabbos Kestenbaum, a student at the Harvard Divinity School, said he hopes the hotline is able to “tear down some of the walls” between Harvard students.
“Ideologies can only take you so far, but they won’t be able to allow you to see the individuals behind the social media screens or public statements,” he said. “This initiative very much brings people to other people — students to students — by doing it in a personal way.”
Shukri Taha, another volunteer for the hotline, is a Palestinian tour guide living in Israel. Taha, a Muslim secular educated in a Christian school, said his background and experience moving to Israel motivated him to join this initiative.
“Throughout my life, I was raised in a way that Jews are your enemies, Israelis are your enemies, until I decided to be a tour guide,” he said. “Today, I can proudly say that half of my best friends are Israeli Jews, and I realized that the only solution for real peace is to be able to create this dialogue and to create friendships, let the people meet.”
Taha said that, though conversations may become difficult, people who would come to the hotline to ask questions will likely have an open mind.
“When we talk about politics, everyone is biased,” he said. “The only truth that you can take is from the people that are living there.”
So far, Hoffer said reactions to the hotline on campus have been positive, though she said one person called the initiative “inappropriate” because there is just “one right side to the conflict.”
“I just fundamentally disagree with that,” Hoffer said. “I think the whole idea of a conflict is that there’s multiple sides. The purpose of this initiative is to engage people with different perspectives.”
—Staff writer Francesco Efrem Bonetti can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Megan S. Degenhardt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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