Kennedy School convenes hard conversations on Israel-Hamas war

Professor Tarek Masoud greets members of the audience following a JFK Jr. Forum on the war between Israel and Hamas. Photo by Martha Stewart.

3 min read

Even as tensions over the Israel-Hamas war have approached the boiling point on campuses across the United States, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative has hosted a series of reasoned, respectful, evidence-based discussions exploring the roots of the conflict and its vexing policy dilemmas.

These conversations with analysts from within Harvard and beyond have ranged across the spectrum of views; hundreds of students have attended each event, and speakers have challenged one another and responded to candid and searching questions. No one interrupted or disrupted. People listened hard.

The Middle East Initiative (MEI), led by Professor Tarek Masoud and now in its 25th year, has established itself as a respected center for policy analysis on the Middle East and North Africa. The initiative, housed in the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, now boasts more than 30 senior and research fellows — from former Arab prime ministers to senior Israeli military officers—as well as two dozen affiliated faculty from across Harvard University.

Among the numerous events the MEI team has hosted over the past weeks were three signature forums, stretching over nearly five hours in total. Moderated by Masoud, the Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Governance at HKS, the conversations dissected the complex history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past century, and assessed potential political paths forward.

Masoud, the Wisconsin-born son of Egyptian immigrants who grew up partly in Saudi Arabia, blended his self-effacing Midwestern humor with his deep grasp of the nuances of Middle East issues and passions to spark frank, constructive discussions.

The first major event  Masoud organized on the conflict was a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Kennedy School, held less than a week after the Hamas assault on Oct. 7. The event was attended by more than 500 members of the Harvard community and has since racked up more than 90,000 views on the Kennedy School’s YouTube channel. HKS Dean Douglas Elmendorf set the tone in his introduction, saying those first days had been searing for many in the HKS community. He said he’d met students who lost family members; others had been targeted with threats.

“It is the responsibility of universities, the responsibility of the Kennedy School, at this time to take on hard issues and to do so with rigor, substance, evidence — but also with compassion for those for whom these issues are not abstract, not things one reads about from afar but things that are personal,” Elmendorf said. “I hope we can bring that spirit to today’s discussion, and to the many discussions we need to have and will have in the days and weeks and months ahead. So thank you for that spirit.”