What are the implications of Qatar, a close US ally, increasingly acting as a mediator between Israel, Hamas, and Egypt? What would it really take to implement a permanent political solution for Palestinians and Israelis? What impact might the Mideast conflict have on the global economy? You are unlikely to hear any of these major policy questions discussed in the halls of the Harvard Kennedy School — a school that aims to educate the next generation of policy leaders.
I am sitting in the nation’s oldest educational institution — whose mission statement is predicated on “advancing new ideas” — and I am struck by the sense that on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, I am not being educated. I have received a number of community support emails with mental health resources but virtually no academic resources or expert perspectives to help me understand the conflict. I have been given neither an outlet to discuss policy solutions nor a space for constructive dialogue with my peers. Nobody seems to be willing to educate me, and I know I have more to learn.
Across Harvard’s campus, there has been a marked lack of policy discourse and discussion around the Middle East compared to many other global challenges. Reactions to public controversy have stifled discussion and debate — so much so that students who want to understand their peers’ perspectives, or even just check on the well-being of their families and friends, have been left whispering in hallways for fear of retribution. Even now, as the humanitarian situation in Gaza becomes more dire by the day, there is no open discussion about policy solutions to be had.
Unlike the depth and breadth of engagement on conflicts such as the war in Ukraine, there have been sparingly few guest speakers or teach-ins on the situation in the Middle East. In classes, many professors with expertise relevant to this issue — humanitarian aid, diplomacy and negotiation, US foreign policy — seemingly refrain from bringing up the topic at all. The impact of this is that only the few loud voices of those with the strongest preconceived notions dominate the discussion, leaving many with no opportunity to learn more, engage across differences, or find common ground.
Some of this silence may come from fear — fear of donor reactions, public scrutiny, and student protests. In the coming weeks and months, when emotions hopefully won’t run as high on Harvard’s campus, students and faculty may come together to have policy discussions on this issue.
But if universities want to educate the next generation of leaders, they need to step up in times of crisis despite the risks and teach students how to engage with one another in even the most challenging circumstances. After all, if we are too uncomfortable to discuss this conflict in a classroom, how do we expect Palestinians and Israelis — those in physical danger — to not just discuss but solve this crisis? If we graduate and become policy leaders in our own right, how will we be prepared to engage on such challenges?
Fear is understandable. We live in an increasingly polarized time and public backlash can have far-reaching implications. But that fear cannot outweigh the primary responsibility of universities — to educate their students.
In the coming weeks, it will be critical that Harvard establishes study groups, enables dialogue, and encourages faculty to engage on this topic in line with their expertise, just as they do for other critical policy issues. Such efforts are core to the institution’s mission — the reason we are all here.
Zahra Asghar is a first-year master’s student at the Harvard Kennedy School studying public policy.