The One-State Conference
March 3rd-4th, 2012
The Harvard Kennedy School of Government

When is an idea so dangerous that it should not be voiced?  When does political discourse become hate speech?  Which proposals are appropriate for the university, and which should not even receive the tacit acknowledgment that comes with the permission to use its space?

These questions—more than any about the details of the actual Israeli-Palestinian conflict—set the tone for the One-State Conference, held last weekend at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  The conference aimed, in the words of its seemingly benign mission statement, to “expand the range of academic debate” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to “educate ourselves and others about the possible contours of a one-state solution and the challenges that stand in the way of its realization.”  However, the conference’s list of speakers and the program for its panels led many—including public officials, Harvard affiliates, and even the Anti-Defamation League—to condemn the conference, characterizing it as anything from dangerous to anti-Jewish.  What sparked the uproar?  What ideas did the speakers at the conference actually advance?  Was the controversy justified, and what can we learn from it?

In the days before the conference, the organizers published only the mission statement, a list of speakers, and the topics of its panels.  For some, the speakers and topics alone prompted serious concerns.  By the time that the conference began, the Anti-Defamation League had labeled it an instance of “U.S. Anti-Israel Activity,” various others condemned it for anti-Semitism—or at least an inappropriately high level of opposition to Israel—in petitions, and Senator Scott Brown had called on Harvard to shut down the conference to prevent its “dangerous thinking” from giving “comfort to Israel’s enemies.”

While the critics of the conference were right to question the rationale for and viability of a “one-state solution,” their allegations that the mere consideration of such an approach to the conflict constituted an act of hateful or menacing speech were premature and fundamentally misguided.  At no point during the conference did its organizers engage in anti-Semitic discourse.  Throughout the speeches and panels that I observed (on the conference’s first day, March 3rd), positions that critics alleged the conference had assembled to endorse—that a one-state solution is the best way to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that Israel is illegitimate, that a one-state solution would entail the end of Israel as a Jewish state—were treated not as answers to be dogmatically accepted as part of an anti-Israeli ideological agenda, but as the sort of questions that had to be considered for any study of the conflict to be truly comprehensive. 

The panelists and speakers at the conference did not share the uniform worldview attributed to them by their critics.  Steven Walt, on one hand, opened the first panel with a compelling case against a one-state solution, arguing that the two-state solution is vastly more popular with both populations, that bi-national states have poor track records, and that a two-state solution was the original foundation for international consensus. He was followed, on the other hand, by Ali Abunimah, who—both in this first panel and in a keynote later that afternoon—employed comparative conflict studies research to argue that if the orthodox policy approaches to ethnic conflict resolution were applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a one-state solution would be back on the table.  Walt and Abunimah offered divergent interpretations of the history of the conflict and sharply disagreed on what the political contours of a solution would look like.  Nobody who heard what they had to say could have entertained the suggestion, implicit in the criticism of the conference, that Walt and Abunimah had gathered to represent a united front of opposition to the existence of Israel.  To anyone who actually attended the conference, it was evident that all the two shared was a scholarly commitment to examining ideas before dismissing them.  The critics’ allegations, the speeches revealed, were often predicated on the very sort of assumptions about what “one state” would mean that the conference sought to interrogate.

Did some of the speakers at the One-State Conference voice proposals with which I completely disagree?  Of course.  Many speakers voiced support for the BDS movement—an international drive for a boycott of Israeli goods, divestment from the Israeli economy, and sanctions against the Israeli state—without providing a compelling rationale for their approach.  Why is a BDS approach warranted, necessary, or helpful?  The question wasn’t really posed; BDS supporters seemed to take it for granted that their approach was self-evidently right.  This is poor scholarship—and worse policymaking—but hardly poses a threat to anyone.

What is ironic, though, is that the best service opponents of the conference could have done for their own positions—and for the benefit of the conference audience and other students of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—would have been to engage with the ideas of the conference’s speakers and to participate in the dialectical process of free academic debate.  In the rare moments that the ideas voiced at the One-State Conference departed from critical consideration of policy proposals and entered into the realm of ideological exhortation, nothing could have more clearly exposed their departure than the sort of cogent rebuttals that bolder academics like Walt stood in to offer.  In condemning the ideas of the conference before its speakers could voice them, many of its critics distracted from the very issues they sought to discuss—the perils of a “one-state solution.”

The One-State Conference and the controversy that surrounded it present us with a well-worn lesson about the value of our commitment to academic freedom.  Academic freedom helps ensure that the best ideas emerge from social and political discourse by drawing from the largest possible pool of thinkers and maximizing the scrutiny to which their ideas are subjected.  And in refusing to exclude our own assumptions from this same attention, we participate in the great (if imperfect) discourse on which democratic society is built.  Does hate speech warrant the protection and legitimation of academic freedom?  No.  But the One-State Conference gave its critics no sound reason to expect that it would become a forum for hate speech in the first place—merely that it would voice ideas that they opposed.  In opposing the conference in the name of the nation with the greatest tradition of free speech in its region, these critics betrayed their own values.  If they had attended the conference rather than protesting outside its gates, they might, perhaps, have learned this.