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Lessons Arise From Harvard's Israel-Palestine Study Group

The whole experience was a reminder that everyone is part of the problem -- not only the so-called politicians whom we too often blame for their lack of leadership. The roadblocks and the bridges lie in people's hearts, minds, and the stories that we tell.
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FILE - This Tuesday, July 29, 2003 file photo is an aerial view over West Bank showing a Palestinian village, left, and a Jewish settlement, right, separated by a wall, part of the separation fence Israel is building. Nine months of U.S.-driven diplomacy have left Israelis and Palestinians less hopeful than ever about a comprehensive peace agreement to end their century of conflict. Although a formula may yet be found to somehow prolong the talks past an end-of-April deadline, they are on the brink of collapse and the search is already on for new ideas. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
FILE - This Tuesday, July 29, 2003 file photo is an aerial view over West Bank showing a Palestinian village, left, and a Jewish settlement, right, separated by a wall, part of the separation fence Israel is building. Nine months of U.S.-driven diplomacy have left Israelis and Palestinians less hopeful than ever about a comprehensive peace agreement to end their century of conflict. Although a formula may yet be found to somehow prolong the talks past an end-of-April deadline, they are on the brink of collapse and the search is already on for new ideas. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

In the fall of 2014, four graduate students of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS) created a study group to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The organizers were two Israelis and two Palestinians; and all four had an acute sense of the risks involved in the undertaking. This was particularly true in light of the Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014, which inflamed passions on both sides, and reminded idealistic students of the environment they would find after graduation. The study group was unlike anything that existed on campus. There had been attempts to constitute Israel/Palestine groups in the past, but they were unable to sustain themselves. In recent years, with ever-diminishing hopes of a peace deal, Israeli and Palestinian students had found it increasingly difficult to work together on shared objectives. Now these four students were planning to deliberately create a powder keg and light the fuse. They were going to put Israelis and Palestinians, along with concerned students from all over the world, in the same room to engage with one another on the most sensitive of topics: identity, competing narratives, suffering, and victimhood. It is little wonder that so many people were skeptical at the outset.

The study group began in January 2015 with 25 HKS students from all over the world. It met for two hours every two weeks over the past five months. Now that our pilot semester has concluded, we participants feel compelled to share our story. We believe that the group has lessons that could be useful not only to Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but to many other seemingly intractable issues, as well.

Let's begin with what the group was not. It was not an attempt to "find a solution" to the conflict. It was not a debate platform, and there were no points for trying to "win" an argument. Listening was valued more than talking. The group was also not in the business of assigning blame, and there was very little discussion of historical "facts." We recognized that both sides have legitimate narratives that deserve respect. The goal, which became clearer as the semester progressed, was to explore the feelings that underpin the social, psychological, and emotional barriers to peace.

So what was this study group? It was an exercise in vulnerability that required courage, patience, and a healthy dose of self-restraint. The group created an environment for listening to others' narratives and understanding how each narrative might draw strength and coherence from the ongoing conflict. With the help of an external facilitator, Professor Dan Shapiro, Director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, the idea was to move from recognizing what is at stake for each side, to exploring creative ways to make the other side's potential "loss" more manageable. Rather than trying to adjudicate "right" and "wrong," it was an exercise in humility, empathy, and bridging differences in perceptions.

Perhaps the most memorable session was one in which Professor Shapiro pushed us to develop metaphors that describe the conflict. But how do you capture a world of complexity in a single piece of imagery? Is the conflict a volcano set to burst, or a boxing match between unequal opponents? A struggling tree with one inseparable system of roots, or a bleak prisoners' dilemma? We split into small working groups, each tasked with thinking visually and uninhibitedly to collectively build a fitting metaphor. The one that gained the most traction captured the existential and perverse essence of the conflict: Siamese twins in a life-threatening struggle over vital resources. The twins once had many commonalities, but had become parasitic towards one another. Both were doomed to destruction if a resolution could not be reached. Perhaps they could learn to live in one body. Or perhaps they would need to be separated -- but along what lines, with what division of organs -- and whom could be trusted to do the cutting? In this exercise, perhaps more than in any other, we approached core issues of narrative, fear and loss with a creativity that is often lacking in political posturing and around the negotiations table. We began to speak more productively about the unspeakable.

At the end of a session, we'd go around the room and share a word or two that captured our feelings: "exhausted," "drained," "frustrated." Occasionally someone would simply shake his head and sigh, at a loss for words. Yet a core group kept coming back. Despite all of the frustration, the process helped the group explore what needs to change within us: in Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, Arabs, French and all of us in the international community who are parties to the conflict. The whole experience was a reminder that everyone is part of the problem -- not only the so-called politicians whom we too often blame for their lack of leadership. The roadblocks and the bridges lie in people's hearts, minds, and the stories that we tell.

Toward the end of the semester, we began to consider how our study group might inform the work of others struggling to address highly emotional and polarizing issues beyond the Israel-Palestine conflict, such as racism in the United States.

We recognize that it might be easy to criticize this exercise as naïve, or to suggest that it could only work in the "bubble" that is Harvard. However, we believe that the process embodied in this study group -- in one shape or another -- is needed when peace depends on a change in people, rather than on a change in any particular policy. We understand that this is a frustrating, risky and painful exercise, even in a small group like ours. But it is crucial to enable the gradual transformation that allows people to authorize their "leaders" to make difficult compromises. If our study group was any indication, there is still a great deal of work to be done. However, the direction is clear: we need to create more initiatives like this group to lay the groundwork for future peace.

This post was written and signed by all of the study group participants. The people signed above are the group organizers.