BY CLINTON DICK
The debate over whether Harvard should divest itself of stock issued by companies doing business with Israel took a heated turn two weeks ago when five Harvard-MIT panelists spoke at the Law School about why they signed a growing divestment petition.
The panelists included Lamont Professor of Divinity and Winthrop House Master Paul D. Hanson, Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Spelke, Pierce Professor of Psychology Ken Nakayama, and Professors Molly Potter and Nancy Kanwisher from the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department at MIT.
Speaking to an overflowing and rowdy crowd of students and faculty, the panelists raised issues about Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the need for the United States to take a neutral position in the Middle East, as well defending themselves against charges of being anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. Each panelist said the Israeli occupation of the West Bank was the primary contentious issue that must be resolved if Israel wants to protect its citizens. They further argued that signing the divestment petition was concrete action Harvard could take to help end the cycle of violence that began over two years ago with the Palestinian uprising.
The tension in the room was only partially evident during the speeches, as those who held differing opinions were usually deferential to whomever was speaking. Sometimes, however, a particular comment would evoke jeers from many in the crowd, as was the case when a panelist linked her signing of the divestment petition to Christian resistance during the Nazi era.
When it came time to field questions, however, it was evident that many in the crowd were not convinced by the panelists’ arguments. Though Prof. Duncan Kennedy was the moderator, several students used the occasion to make brief speeches on why the divestment petition was either necessary in order to stop the violence, or why it represented an unfair characterization of Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. Several asked why Prof. Hanson declined to debate Prof. Alan Dershowitz in Winthrop House recently, leaving Dershowitz to speak with Winthrop students by himself. One crowd member in particular asked what credentials the panelists held that gave them the authority to solve a geo-political issue as contentious as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Most members of the audience thanked the panelists for defending their position and for bringing these issues to the forefront of the debate. Others applauded their bravery in facing an overwhelmingly anti-divestment crowd while remaining true to the principles that led them to sign the divestment petition.
Outside the debate, a group of students gathered to protest the event. Harpaul Alberto Kahli, a senior at Harvard College said, “The divestment petition is one of the most inflammatory petitions ever to come out of Harvard. It is just very divisive.”
Another student who was holding a “Divest from P.A. Terror” sign commented, “When I heard about the debate hosting only professors who signed the petition, it seemed kind of unfair. We came here to show that it is not a black and white issue, but is many shades of grey.”