The ‘One State Conference’: much ado about nothing

Harvard assembly disappoints on drama

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Opening panel of the one-state conference at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. (SJP Tufts via Twitter)
Opening panel of the one-state conference at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. (SJP Tufts via Twitter)

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Margot Einstein stands under a colorful umbrella across from Harvard’s Kennedy School carrying a sign that reads “Shame on Harvard.” She has passed her 80th year, but decided to venture out of her home in Newton on this drizzly morning to protest the “One State Conference” taking place nearby.

“This is the 1930s all over again, only worse,” she says as she hands me a small booklet containing the Hamas charter. “Today it is so blatant. The hatred of Jews is everywhere.”

Einstein is upset that she was not let into the event, but had she been allowed to enter she may have been in for a disappointment. The “One State Conference,” organized by Harvard students, is a drab, highly intellectual event. Foucault is cited more frequently than Abbas; queer theory discussed more intently than the Palestinian National Charter. Some of the panels are utterly inaccessible to a general public.

Behind glass doors guarded by stern uniformed police officers, the conference participants are an eclectic crowd. Pensioners with Jewish nametags, their shoulders adorned with the Arab kaffiyah, mix with Palestinian and Israeli expats and student activists with Mac laptops. The crowd is clearly diverse in its political orientation: some cheerfully await the elimination of Israel while others, like Jeff who flew in from Los Angeles, speak in a melancholy manner of the rapid demise of the two-state solution.

The Palestinian narrative is often drowned out by the cacophony of an internal Jewish debate. Reform rabbi Brant Rosen of Evanston, Illinois, claims that “Zionism is idolatry,” while Jewish Studies professor Marc Ellis of Baylor University speaks about the prophetic ethic of Judaism, only to be reprimanded by a kaffiyeh-wearing Jewish professor in the audience for purporting to speak on behalf of all Jews. Around the corner, students at Harvard Hillel had just finished reading in Parashat Zachor the biblical imperative to eliminate the memory of Amalek, the archenemy of the Israelites exiting Egypt.

One student points to the ironic coincidence of the two events. Israel activists on campus had debated how to react to the conference, eventually opting for the silent treatment. “We thought of dressing up as Gaddafi and distributing flyers saying ‘I highly endorse this event’,” says Yehoshua Bedrick, head of the Israel Caucus at the Kennedy School, referring to a widely cited 2009 New York Times op-ed by the Libyan dictator endorsing the creation of a bi-national state called Isratine.

There are, in fact, many proponents of the one-state solution both on the Israeli right and on the Palestinian right. But none of these views are represented at the Harvard conference. The speakers here are very much from the left, be they Reform rabbis or Palestinian academics. And that makes the debate somewhat flat and detached from reality. It is the same group of twenty regulars preaching to the converted choir. So many platitudes, so few provocative questions. Until you walk outside.

If you ask Gale O’Hare, a member of Christians and Jews United for Israel who is picketing outside with a large Israeli flag, the two-state solution is a pretty bad idea.

“We know from history that when the land was divided to bring about peace, what did [the Palestinians] do? They set up launching pads for rockets to terrorize the communities of the Israelis.”

“I know they’re talking one-state, but I’m on the other side,” she adds. “The land of Israel has a destiny, and it’s for the children of Israel.”

Ilan Pappé, a historian of the Arab-Israeli conflict, began his academic career at the University of Haifa but now teaches at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. An outspoken critic of Israel, he is the keynote speaker of the conference’s second day.

His impassioned speech laments the supplanting of the Palestinian village of Sheikh Badr by Jerusalem’s government compound on Givat Ram, followed by a lengthy exposé of Israel’s premeditated plan to expel Palestinians prior to the Six-Day War of 1967.

“Gaza and the West Bank are the biggest open-air prisons in human history,” Pappé declares in an address speckled with references to Nazi-era Germany. He receives two standing ovations. Scathing condemnations of Israel are always more cathartic when delivered in an Israeli accent.

But despite Pappé’s assertion that the conference is a historic occasion and that Israel’s right-wing government is increasingly threatened by BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) initiatives directed at Israel, the audience is well aware of the fact that a few hundred miles south of there, US President Barack Obama is promising an audience of 13,000 his unflinching support for Israel at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, promising to always “have Israel’s back.”

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