Delegation from Harvard, Stanfard and Dartmouth visit the Supernova party massacre memorial site in southern Israel, on March 18, 2024. ( Josh Gold/courtesy
'Research shows that the best antidote for trauma is action'

US academics from Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth latest group to make Israel pilgrimage

Mindful of an informal boycott of Israeli academics since Oct. 7, faculty from three prestigious US schools come to tour massacre sites and take home the lessons learned

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Delegation from Harvard, Stanfard and Dartmouth visit the Supernova party massacre memorial site in southern Israel, on March 18, 2024. ( Josh Gold/courtesy

In a conference room at Tel Aviv University last week, a group of visiting professors from the United States listened as a panel of students shared their experiences of the past few months.

Hearing tales of relatives abducted by Hamas on October 7, the perils of reserve IDF duty in Gaza and the struggle to return to finish a PhD while the Israel-Hamas war is still raging, the group of mainly Jewish academics from Harvard, Stanford and Dartmouth were doing exactly what they had set out to do on their solidarity visit: giving and receiving support.

Since the start of the war, US campuses have witnessed ongoing protests, petitions and antisemitic incidents. Coming to Israel and engaging directly with events on the ground is a way for members of the Jewish and pro-Israeli academic community to take action, explained Boston-based clinical psychologist and trauma expert Dr. Miri Bar-Halpern, who was also a mission participant.

The faculty trip is both “unique and important,” she told The Times of Israel. “We know from research that the best antidote for trauma is action. Post-traumatic growth comes from meaning, and you find that from doing. I think we want that sense of agency. We want to feel like we are helping from afar, and that is part of the purpose of this trip.”

An Israeli who has lived in the US for the last 15 years, Bar-Halpern is the director of Intensive Outpatient Treatment Services at the Boston Child Study Center. After October 7, she “began organizing mental health support for the Israeli community in Massachusetts” and was called in by Harvard Medical School, where she is a lecturer, to provide trauma services for the campus community.

“I gathered a team of about 10 Hebrew-speaking clinicians, and we provide support for anyone who needs it,” she said.  “The experience of Israelis in the US now is completely different… On a regular day now, we have 5-6 cases just from the Israeli community. They feel ghosted and alone, it’s a shift in their identity. There is a ton of survivor’s guilt, about being there and not here,” she said.

Dr. Miri Bar-Halpern at Tel Aviv University, on March 19, 2023. (Gavriel Fiske/TOI)

Much of the Israeli community is coping with secondary trauma and “traumatic invalidation,” Bar-Halpern explained, which is “a clinical term for when you go through a very difficult experience and then people tell you it’s your fault, or your emotions don’t matter… You start questioning everything.”

“How is it possible that so many were murdered and kidnapped, but people still blame you? Or they just don’t have compassion, it’s not even blaming, just no compassion,” she said.

Solidarity and looking to the future

For Prof. Gabriel Kreiman, a youthful neuroscientist and the main organizer of the week-long visit of some 35 academics, “part of the goal of this trip is to express solidarity, but also to take an optimistic outlook and see how we can help, how we can build bridges together,” he said.

“We have talked to so many people. It is illuminating for us to hear about their struggles,” he told The Times of Israel.

Visiting the site of the Supernova dance party massacre was “particularly impactful,” Kreiman said. “I couldn’t help but think about my kids, who are 22 and 18. I imagined them dancing, falling in love, thinking about their future, and then all of a sudden… I can’t imagine.”

Asked about the climate at Harvard in light of the widely reported pro-Palestinian atmosphere and the dramatic congressional testimony of former president Claudine Gay and her subsequent resignation, Kreiman said, “I think in general back in the US, it’s frustrating that people are ignorant, people don’t really understand what is happening or the history of Israel.”

Prof. Gabriel Kreiman of Harvard University, at Tel Aviv University on March 19, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/TOI)

The multi-university faculty mission was not officially sponsored by the institutions and the visitors paid for the trip themselves, in most cases missing a week of work to do so.

This represents “just a fraction” of a larger community of academics who want to show support for Israel, Kreiman suggested.

“I think there is a very large community of people in the academic world who want to help, despite the enormous antisemitism and outrageous things that you have been seeing in the news about the US,” he stressed.

Speaking broadly, Kreiman said there is “a clear difference” between STEM and humanities departments in terms of how faculty and students look at the Israel-Hamas conflict, with the latter more likely to be pro-Palestinian in orientation.

Faculty delegation from Harvard, Stanford and Dartmouth at Tel Aviv University, on March 19, 2023. (courtesy TAU)

In his field of neuroscience, he hasn’t felt much direct impact, but “academics here have been telling us: we are alone, we feel isolated, people are blocking and boycotting Israelis. We are talking about projects, collaborations, funding, grants, student exchanges, teaching courses together… different efforts to build a network to help Israeli students and faculty.”

A student’s perspective

Accompanying the faculty members was Harvard economics undergraduate Shai-Li Ron, an Israeli who has become an activist on campus. Before October 7, Ron had already organized several large student groups from Harvard on tours of Israel, and because of that experience, she was brought on board for the faculty visit.

Harvard undergraduate student Shai-Li Ron, at Tel Aviv University, on March 19, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/TOI)

On the tours, which were attended mostly by non-Jewish students, “you could really see how experiencing Israel first-hand allowed them to interact more deeply with the reality and complexities,” she explained.

After the events of October 7, in comparison to much of the Harvard student body, these students were “much more understanding, more sympathetic, more supporting. You could see how they understood the Israeli reality differently than other students, who only have access to the information on campus.”

The campus environment has “a general sense of a lack of safety and a lack of respect for Israeli lives… You hear all kinds of things being called for on campus, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ and ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will just be Arab’ — they were saying that in Arabic,” Ron said.

“I have had a couple of personal incidents,” she continued, and related a story of how, several weeks after October 7, she met someone on campus asking students to sign “a thank you card to Hamas” which would be sent “to the Hamas leadership.”

“I was in total shock,” she said. “He showed me all the students who had signed. I asked him, ‘How would you feel if someone after 9/11 wanted to send a thank you card to Bin Laden?’ and I walked away. It was a very uncomfortable situation to be in.”

Cottage industry

The delegation from Harvard, Stanford and Dartmouth, as well as a separate delegation from Yale visiting last week, are part of a larger pattern of post-October 7 academic solidarity visits, which has also included the University of Pennsylvania and UCLA.

During the meetings at Tel Aviv University, this reporter chatted briefly with Yair Jablinowitz of Israel Destination, the travel agency that organized the academic missions.

Jablinowitz explained that after the December 5 Congressional hearing on antisemitism, where presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT refused to explicitly condemn calls for genocide against Jews on their campuses, he made it a mission to bring academic delegations from the three universities to Israel.

Several months ago, UPenn was the first of several universities to visit Israel. Jablinowitz said that a group from MIT and Berkeley is set to arrive next week. Visiting Israel during this time is “hugely significant,” he added.

“For these people, it’s not normal tourism,” he noted. “It’s very personal.”

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