Two Sides, One Waste of Time

Which was more hysterical: the One-State Conference or its response?


Yes, I know it’s a little late to comment on the One-State Conference. By now everyone from your roommate to the Israeli ambassador has added his or her voice to the cacophony. So if you want to stop here, that’s fine—trust me, I get it. But the topic is worth discussing at least one more time because, with the benefit of hindsight, it has become evident that while the debate surrounding the conference taught us little, the character of the debate taught us everything.

Being six thousand miles away prevented my attending the conference, so I will give the conference the benefit of the doubt and assume it rose above the destructive rhetoric used by its organizers on this page. Most of the debate on the conference revolved around two subjects: anti-Semitism and free speech. The Harvard Crimson Editorial Board and Harvard Students for Israel excellently explained those two issues in relation to the conference. However, these two issues are really peripheral to the main lesson from the conference’s hubbub—academia is a destructive force in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For five decades, no world conflict has received nearly the disproportionate attention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This attention manifests itself not only in United Nations Resolutions, but also in a remarkable abundance of academic scholarship, literature, conferences, symposiums, etc. But if there were any positive relationship between academic obsession and results on the ground, then Palestine would be the glaring anomaly. The remarkable quality and quantity of international resources dedicated to conflict resolution in Palestine demonstrates that sometimes more is less. And as the One State Conference indicates, there is no other field so dominated by experts without expertise.

Why have these endeavors been so futile? It is worth considering the causes of academia’s collective failure to be relevant and helpful.

Perhaps the failure cannot be placed on academia, especially when other fine explanations abound: The lack of balance between the two sides, the obsession with the “right to return,” and the failure of specific political actors are only a few among many. Nonetheless, in addition to those issues, universities and academic scholarship have tended to function more as echo chambers and less as a medium for genuine understanding and resolution. The central cause of this phenomenon is quite simple—no one rewards compromise and moderation. Being relevant in the field nearly requires selling out to one of the sides.

Ideally, academia in any sphere ought to facilitate dialogue toward compromise and away from violence. In this regard, many critics of the conference attacked it for its one-sided participants. That may be true, but it is hard to imagine a conference where the two academic sides would sit down and politely discuss real solutions.

One clear example of the destructive rhetoric utilized during the debate surrounding the One State Conference is the recurrence of false analogy. For instance, Alan M. Dershowitz asked us to consider this thought experiment: What would Harvard’s response be to a conference on the topic “Are the Palestinians Really a People?” Recommending a single state in Palestine cannot be equated to questioning the legitimacy of an ethnic identity. Additionally, proponents of the conference inappropriately compared Israel’s political climate with apartheid in South Africa multiple times, using “Desmond Tutu said so” as more or less infallible evidence.

In case there is still any doubt, the one-state solution is infeasible for multiple significant reasons—most obviously because the desires of the majority of the people in the region, in addition to its political leaders, make it a pipe dream. It is particularly unfortunate that the Kennedy School of Government, which ought to be a paragon of realism and compromise, was instead an arena for an idea that belonged in the Folklore and Mythology department.  And although this conference gathered a lot of attention from a variety of pundits, those who wield power in Israel and the Palestinian territories likely respond with a scoff—if there is a response at all.

With the future of the Arab world in deep uncertainty and tensions running high with Iran, the conference is not only tone-deaf but also myopic.

This One State Conference does not warrant a passionate conclusion. Its organizers were not remarkable visionaries bravely breaking barriers—as they no doubt perceive themselves to be. Nor are they rabid radicals or anti-Semites—as some over-enthusiastic pro-Israelites would like to convince us.

Let us diagnose this as another ivory tower issue: sound and fury signifying everything to the participants and nothing to the world. Academia has let itself become a tool for magnifying extremity instead of approaching compromise, and Palestine has been worse off for it.

Eric T. Justin ’13, a former Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. He is spending spring 2012 abroad in Egypt. His column appears on alternate Fridays.