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Shawn Zelig Aster

Harvard’s president implicitly called for dialogue with Hamas supporters

Last week began with an unprecedented attack, and ended with something else unprecedented: the president of Harvard issued a statement that implicitly called for a dialogue with Hamas supporters.

President Claudine Gay sent a video address to all members of the Harvard community in response to last Saturday’s massacre of over a thousand Israeli and foreign civilians by Hamas. In the transcript issued by her office, she rejects Hamas’s “barbaric atrocities,” and then states: “We can issue public pronouncements declaring the rightness of our own points of view and vilify those who disagree. Or we can choose to talk and to listen with care and humility, to seek deeper understanding, and to meet one another with compassion.” (The full statement is here.) This is appears to be a thinly-veiled refusal to reject dialogue with Hamas supporters (of which there are no shortage in Western academic institutions, though not necessarily at Harvard).

A less veiled endorsement of Hamas as a legitimate dialogue partner comes from the vice-president of the University of Toronto, Joseph Wong, who expressed sadness at the attack on Israel’s civilian population, without mentioning Hamas, and then wrote: “The University joins the international community in its calls for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, grounded in dialogue.”

Taken out of context, these statements seem reasonable. But it is completely unreasonable to call for or even allow dialogue with those who butcher civilians. Such dialogue in unacceptable, whether it takes place in the context of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations or in the hallowed confines of Harvard Yard. Academic institutions have a moral responsibility to spit out and isolate those who support Hamas, and no international actor can grant Hamas the legitimacy of partnership in any dialogue. By its actions, Hamas has ranged itself with ISIS. Did anyone call for dialogue with ISIS?

It is hard to find calls for dialogue with Hamas are in the international community to which Dr Wong alluded. The closest to such calls come from Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, who rejected any possible Israeli response to Hamas and said “The most important thing now is to stop the bloodshed,” adding that his country was “ready to coordinate with all constructive partners.”

Contrast this with the clear moral statement of American Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin: “This is no time for neutrality, or for false equivalence, or for excuses for the inexcusable.” With the exception of Robert Malley, all US administration officials have been resolute in rejecting dialogue with Hamas, whose murder of civilians did not begin last Saturday.

No dialogue is possible for Israel with Hamas, just as no dialogue with Hamas supporters is possible in university settings, or in any other civilized forum. There are views that stand beyond the pale of possible dialogue. Would President Gay of Harvard allow a student group to sponsor a talk by someone who supported a return to segregated schools in the US, much less a talk by a supporter of random lynchings?

COVID highlighted the public responsibility of academia, as policy-makers relied on the scientific evidence produced by researchers. Academic research has shaped modern public dialogue by setting the boundaries of acceptable opinions. As purported guardians of truth through research, they set the goalposts within which debate takes place. When academic institutions refuse to place Hamas beyond the pale, they forfeit their moral responsibility.

This was highlighted in a rare joint letter from all the presidents of all of Israel’s universities, demanding that their Western colleagues clearly exclude support for Hamas from the bounds of acceptable dialogue: “There can be no support for such terror organizations in Western democratic societies, just like there is no support for Al Qaeda or the Islamic State.”

Such statements have been forthcoming from some the leaders of major Canadian and US universities. President Eisgruber of Princeton University denounced Hamas acts as among “the most atrocious of terrorist attacks” and placed the blame for the ensuing loss of life on Hamas: “This cruel and inhumane attack has provoked a bloody war.” (The full statement is here).  Contrast Harvard’s call for dialogue with the statement of McGill University’s Principal Saini, who denounced Hamas’ “heinous terrorist attack” and placed support for Hamas outside of the acceptable dialogue: “Communications that laud acts of violence and terror are completely at odds with the climate that we strive to foster at McGill.”

Regardless of how elite universities shape the public dialogue in the West, Israel’s only path forward is clear. It needs to destroy all of Hamas military capabilities, just as the West destroyed ISIS, and just as the West destroyed fascist regimes in the past. But Israel’s ability to do just that is limited by the need to maintain the support of its allies. And support from Israel’s allies is determined, to a large extent, by public opinion in Western democracies. If and when public calls for dialogue with Hamas outweigh Western outrage at Hamas’ butchering of babies, Israel’s future will be in doubt.

Is dialogue possible? After the elimination of Hamas, dialogue with Palestinians who reject Hamas’s path and who accept peaceful coexistence will be possible. Such dialogue will face challenges. Secretary Austin’s statement that “Hamas does not speak for the Palestinian people,” is more of a wish than a description of reality, given the widespread support for Hamas in various Palestinian forums. But any such dialogue will have to wait. First, the military destruction of Hamas is imperative.

There is no other moral path. For Israel to dialogue with Hamas or attempt to reach a modus vivendi with a group that has perpetrated horrific atrocities would be a supreme abdication of moral responsibility. Israel is attempting to balance its compassion for Palestinian civilians with the need to eliminate Hamas by telling civilians to flee, even as their path to safety is blocked by Hamas. Hamas is forcing Gazans to return to areas from which Israel has ordered them to flee.

A photo released by the IDF which it says shows Hamas roadblocks preventing Gazans from leaving the northern Strip, as the military has instructed them to do ahead of an expected ground offensive, October 7, 2023 (IDF)

Meanwhile, Egypt is blocking the free exit of Palestinians from Gaza and preventing them from escaping. Without the evacuation of Palestinians from Northern Gaza, it is nearly impossible for Israel to remove Hamas and avoid civilian casualties.

The moral responsibility for any civilian casualties that result from this behavior lies on Hamas. The failure of Western academic “goalkeepers” to recognize that Hamas is “out of bounds” is a stain on the reputations of these institutions.

About the Author
Shawn Zelig Aster is associate professor of biblical history and geography in the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University.
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