CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Economic prosperity for Palestinians is necessary, but not sufficient, to bring about sustainable peace, according to the graduate student organizers of Harvard University’s second “Economic Prosperity for Peace” gathering, held Sunday in a snowy Cambridge.
Outside conference walls, several campus groups denounced any approach that normalizes or expands relations with Israel, while other groups boycotted the conference “passively,” according to organizers. Despite a general avoidance of politics during the program, opening keynote speaker Ala Sader pointed to “the occupation” several times in discussing obstacles facing the Palestinian economy.
“You pass like cattle going to slaughter,” said Sader of the treatment received by Palestinians at Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank.
Blaming what he called the Palestinians’ “closed-mindedness” in business on “the occupation and the isolation,” Sader criticized Israeli policies that — for instance — only recently allowed Palestinians to access 3G technology, and that prevent Palestinian businesspeople from entering Israel, he said.
When asked about Sader’s critique of Israeli policies in the West Bank, conference co-chair Aliza Landes told The Times of Israel that Sader is “committed to engagement,” unlike several Harvard campus groups that “actively or passively boycotted this conference,” she said.
“Sader and our other Palestinian and Arab partners here today are part of the solution, not the problem,” said Landes, pointing out that Students for Justice in Palestine — the largest anti-Israel group on American campuses — boycotts similar conferences as a matter of policy.
“We need to talk to each other more, not less, and be accepting that we come from very different backgrounds, even if this might make us upset sometimes,” said Landes, who added that Sader fulfilled the organizers’ request by addressing obstacles to economic growth.
Since participating in Jewish-Arab youth programs in Haifa, Sader has partnered with Israelis at Hebrew University and the high-tech sector. He was one of the first Arab consultants to work for Ernst & Young’s Israel office, and Sader now promotes Arab entrepreneurship in Europe.
Along with Israeli high-tech maven and co-keynote speaker Gai Hetzroni, Sader launched GeoFree Software, a for-profit outsourcer helping Palestinian companies enter the international market and develop stronger R&D cultures. According to Sader, the venture addresses what he called a “brain drain” of educated Palestinians to the Persian Gulf states.
“Borders do not exist in the cloud,” said Sader of high-tech’s ability to break down barriers.
Noting that just 10% of Palestinians who study Information Technology are able to find employment in the field, Sader said Palestinians must “change their Arab mindset” by learning “how to delegate” in their business activities.
Like the conference organizers, Hetzroni views economic ties between Israelis and Palestinians — such as his venture with Sader — as a prerequisite for peace.
“As Israelis we have the most to gain and the most to lose,” said Hetzroni in his remarks. “It’s live or die,” he added.
Attended by about 100 students and community members, the conference drew advance condemnation from Arab and Palestinian student groups at Harvard, as well as criticism from several audience members who took to the microphone.
In a statement emailed to students at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government on Friday, the Arab and Palestine student caucuses said they “collectively oppose” the conference, viewing the project’s mission as “a way of keeping [Palestinians] under brutal Israeli occupation while continuing to make them economically profitable to Israel.”
Without using the term BDS — Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — the groups denounced attempts to increase cooperation between the Jewish state and the Arab world, reminding students that Palestinian activists have called for an elimination of such ties.
“Only when economic cooperation occurs between two equal peoples, rather than between an occupier and an occupied, can it genuinely create the prosperity that will consolidate a sustainable peace,” according to the Palestine Caucus statement.
During the conference, a student identifying as Palestinian pushed back on the organizers’ gestalt in person, asking Sader and Hetzroni why Israel must always be “the middle man” for Palestinians looking to do business with other countries. Sader challenged that claim, saying joint ventures like his and Hetzroni’s are a necessary step toward Palestinian self-sufficiency in a market with few job opportunities.
Despite what he called “criticism from all sides of the aisle,” conference co-chair Aziz Albahar, from Kuwait, said he and his three co-chairs will not be deterred.
“This [economic strategy] is not meant to replace a political solution,” said Albahar in his opening remarks. However, said Albahar, “the very nature of commerce makes it amenable to win-win agreements,” all the while avoiding thorny issues like “borders and justice,” he said.
As the day’s top-billed keynote, leading Israeli venture capitalist Chemi Peres spoke about the future of social change residing with entrepreneurs like Sader and Hetzroni, as opposed to within governments. Citing Elon Musk as an example of non-governmental leaders shaping the world, Peres urged attendees to focus more on the future than the past.
Striking a note from the repertoire of his legendary father, former president Shimon Peres, the younger Peres said “the future needs to be built.” To that end, Peres-associated ventures like Amelia Investments and Takwin Labs are advancing Mideast regional collaboration, while his Al-Bawader Investment Fund is steering resources to the Israeli-Arab sector.
In addition to keynotes, the conference featured breakouts on issues like social entrepreneurship, infrastructure, and culture. Two-dozen speakers — including several Arabs — discussed opportunities at the local level, such as prospects for Israeli-Arab cities like Sakhnin, represented at the conference by its mayor and city manager. Receiving particular buzz was the Iran-born Maryam Faghih Imani, the founder of the Centre for Cultural Diplomacy and Development, known for her work with youth and women in the Mideast.
According to conference organizers, the development of deeper ties between Israelis and Palestinians cannot wait for a peace agreement. To the contrary, the signing of an agreement depends on the growth of relationships able to break through deep-rooted fears and hostility.
“Signing peace accords is only one step in the process for establishing peace across societies,” noted the conference co-chairs, whose organizing committee included 15 Arab students. “For peace to be sustainable, societies need to interact in mutually beneficial ways that signify respect, equality and openness,” according to the graduate students.
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