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At Harvard, disillusionment is not an option

From narrowly surviving the Park Hotel attack to organizing a pro-Israel conference, a decade of refusing to succumb to cynicism and despair

Last week marked the tenth anniversary of a bombing at a Passover dinner in Israel, at which a Hamas suicide bomber murdered 30 Israelis and injured another 160. My grandparents and I had a table reserved at that dinner. If we weren’t ten minutes late, I probably wouldn’t be writing these words. So last week, when Jews all over the world celebrated liberation by tasting bitter herbs, I remembered the bitter taste of my disillusionment growing up in Israel.

Three years prior to the attack, in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, the seeds of that disillusionment were planted. I was only fourteen, and, for the first time, part of something much greater than myself. The masses surrounding me were dancing in the streets. They were members of a large majority of Israelis who had elected the leftist Labor party that campaigned on peace. Change was right around the corner. We felt so empowered. We were the “peace generation,” and it was especially symbolic that we celebrated in the square that commemorated Rabin, who was assassinated by an extremist Jew for pursuing peace bravely. My forehead was covered with sweat, my T-shirt with election campaign stickers.

“The peace camp had won!” the crowd shouted, and I felt like I truly belonged.

The following morning, the “peace generation” left the Square and went home. And then the suicide bombings began. The wave of optimism we rode led us into one of Israel’s most difficult hours. During the Second Intifada, malls were not safe anymore. Buses were not safe anymore. Life was not safe anymore. The terrorists that detonated thםse bombs were blind to race, religion, or age. Their targets were not soldiers, but civilians. And during the 2002 Passover massacre, I was the target. That night, we watched news broadcasts instead of celebrating the holiday, and my generation of hope suddenly felt the bitter sting of betrayal.

Soon, the day came when the members of the “peace generation” were forced to wake up early and go to a big, bleak military base, where mothers cried, fathers waved goodbye awkwardly, and sons and daughters tried on uniforms that were too big for them.

My day came too.

In 2005, I was deployed to Gaza to participate in the “disengagement” campaign, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory. Our mission was mentally excruciating — to evacuate Israeli families from their own homes. And yet, part of me hoped that a gesture that dramatic on behalf of the Israeli government would start to pave the road toward a resolution, if not peace. But when Hamas used those evacuated homes as bases for launching rockets on Israeli cities, I recalled a taste that by that had become all too familiar: once again, I felt the bitterness of disillusionment.

When I came to Harvard, I hoped that I could leave this sense of disillusionment in Israel. The intellectual bubble I found on campus seemed like the ideal place to experience the same optimism that my “peace generation” had yearned for in Israel. When I joined a group of Israeli students to organize the Inaugural Harvard Israel Conference, I realized that I wasn’t alone. We were frustrated with the repetitive, limited discourse on Israel, and we decided to do something about it.

On Thursday, months of our hard work will culminate when Stanley Fischer, Niall Ferguson and Dan Senor open the first-ever Harvard Israel Conference at the Harvard Business School. We, the organizers, are united in our belief that Israel’s most valuable asset is its innovative culture. We want to bring that spirit to the Harvard campus. We strive to celebrate Israeli innovation and at the same time share it with our neighbors. We want to embrace innovation as a solution to some of our greatest challenges as a nation, and through our keynote speakers and panel discussions, we hope to inspire that thinking.

The Harvard Israel Conference organizing group (photo courtesy)
The Harvard Israel Conference organizing group (photo courtesy)

Like Harvard’s German, Indian, and Arab students, who organized conferences for their nations this year, we hope to introduce the Harvard campus to all aspects of our community, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yet, in a series of op-eds that was sparked by the vandalizing of our posters, some chose to blatantly dismiss our non-partisan group as “propagandist.”

Our conference does not ignore the reality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On the contrary, we devote half of our panel discussions and the concluding keynote speech to addressing the conflict and innovative peace initiatives. One piece in the Harvard Crimson last week even warned against our conference because at Harvard, “we are sometimes told that even war criminals must be given a place at the table.” This dangerous insinuation attempts to harm the legitimacy of the conference’s speakers, many of whom have devoted their lives to the pursuit of peace, including a former American Middle-East envoy, or the founder of a venture capital fund that targets the Palestinian IT sector.

Additionally, we have launched a campus-wide peace innovation competition, challenging students from all walks of life to rethink the peace process, something we can only do at a place like Harvard.

Would-be critics of the conference ought to take a look at the program before dismissing it as an event that “offers merely more of the same,” to use that op-ed’s words. I wonder if those who vandalized our posters last week ever stopped for a moment to think about our message. Whenever I go home, I struggle to convince members of my generation, who have long become cynical about the possibility of peace, that we can reinvent peace, that we must reinvent peace. Yet some critics of the Israel Conference, who cynically attempt to put the entire blame for the perpetuation of the conflict on Israel, force me to question this myself.

But I refuse to be disillusioned again. If at Harvard we can’t embrace these rare opportunities to think outside the box, where else will we? For the sake of both parties in this conflict, disillusionment cannot be an option.

About the Author
Dan Bratter is a senior at Harvard concentrating in economics and one of the organizers of the Harvard Israel Conference. He was born and raised in Israel.