HKS Affiliated Authors

Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy

The violence in Israel and Gaza has heightened tensions worldwide—including on college campuses across the United States. With both pro-Palestine and pro-Israel students facing threats and several instances of both anti-Arab and antisemitic rhetoric, the current period has sparked debate as to how institutions of higher education can ensure that college campuses remain places of safety.

The Carr Center invited Peter Beinart to discuss these issues at a recent event, where he explored the current state of affairs in Israel and Gaza, and how the conflict has permeated campus life in the United States. The event was moderated by Mathias Risse, Faculty Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Addressing a crowded room of students, faculty, and Cambridge locals, Risse introduced Beinart and the topic at hand: how the Israel–Gaza conflict has recently affected American campuses at universities across the country. While their conversation ranged widely across the nuances of the conflict today and its historical contexts, both Beinart and Risse focused on the current heightened state on university campuses today.

“So much of what we are seeing on campuses in recent times has to do with the fact that generational differences have come to the fore, in addition to a number of other underlying conflicts,” Risse said. “Many of you [in this room] are connected to the region, many of you are from there, you know people who are from there, and we have people at [Harvard Kennedy School] who know people who were taken hostage or killed [in this conflict]. I know there is a lot of pain here, and I want to acknowledge that.”

For students and faculty on university campuses, this academic year has been a difficult one, and Harvard University’s campus has not been immune to the impacts of the conflict. “I also want to acknowledge that there is a lot of fear going on right now,” he said. “It’s very striking when you talk to students ranging from undergraduate level to Ph.D. students: people are worried about saying things, being recorded, having their names out there—and this has profound impacts on the conversation that is happening on campuses,” he continued.

He turned to Beinart, a self-described “cultural Zionist,” who agreed that while conversations about a very divisive conflict can be uncomfortable, that is exactly the point of educational institutions: to ensure that intellectual conversations can be had about difficult topics, providing different perspectives, and hopefully opening our minds to different viewpoints.

“What is incumbent upon a university is to maintain the possibility of having these conversations and actually having an educational function. There are a lot of valuable conversations that take place in which Jewish students who have been raised in communities that never gave them any exposure or access to Palestinians viewpoints meet Palestinians, and it’s actually the process of education, and even in some ways (for some of them), a process of liberation, of being liberated from these dehumanizing and racist views that they were raised with about Palestinians,” Beinart said.

“Of course, if Jewish students are being harassed, or God forbid there is physical violence against them, if they’re being mistreated by their professors in some way—that’s unacceptable,” he noted. “But, on the other hand, intellectual discomfort is what a university is supposed to be about.”

Peter Beinart is a professor of journalism and political science at The Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York. He is also editor-at-large with Jewish Currents, a nonresident fellow at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, and a MSNBC political commentator. He has written three books: The Good Fight; The Icarus Syndrome; and The Crisis of Zionism.