November/December 2023Vol. XXXVI No. 2

Gaza: What Have We Learned from the bin Salman Scandal?

Sally Haslanger, Jonathan A. King, Ceasar McDowell, Nasser Rabbat, Balakrishnan Rajagopal

The war in the Middle East is forcing us to confront the often-silenced dialogue around Israel and Palestine. Regrettably, the world has been forced into this reckoning by two unimaginable events: Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel that resulted in nearly 1,200 people being killed and over 200 kidnapped and held without information or access, and Israel’s vengeful and indiscriminate slaughter of over 11,000 people, primarily women and children, and wounding over 25,000 while causing more than 1.5 million to be internally displaced within the tiny territory of Gaza – all the while imposing the tightest blockade of all food, water, fuel, medicines and necessary humanitarian supplies. Israel has also launched indiscriminate and widespread attacks on hospitals, ambulances, homes, churches and mosques, and refugee camps that have caused enormous civilian casualties, which are against modern rules of warfare. This comes on top of decades of occupation and land appropriation by Israel, which is the background against which the current war in the Middle East has erupted.

While many argue that MIT should not try to adjudicate geo-political issues, we must live up to our stated values and commitments and seek to end human suffering. And above all, we must never be complicit with the forces of violence.

Letters from President Kornbluth and the Chair of the Faculty Fuller have affirmed the principle of freedom of speech at MIT. We agree with them that antisemitism and Islamophobia are not free speech (see editorial on MIT Values and protests in Lobby 7). We also recognize that for many of our students and, indeed, our community, the pain and confusion of these events are affecting their physiological and psychological well-being. We are all filled with grief, sorrow, rage, confusion, and fear.

And yet, we must go beyond concerns about free speech and condemnations and ask more challenging questions about the ethical obligations of educators and universities. What Hamas did on October 7th has been rightfully condemned as war crimes by the United Nations. Equally, the disproportionate and vengeful attack by Israel on Palestinians has also been condemned as war crimes, and the specter of genocide has been raised. When students accuse MIT of practicing genocide, what they are asking for is an honest assessment of MIT’s complicity in human rights violations with either side.

After the Epstein and bin Salman scandals, MIT established mechanisms to ensure that it would never be involved with or endorse human rights abusers. The same standard should be applied to what’s happening in the Middle East. If we use that standard, any objective view based on overwhelming evidence points to grave violations of human rights by Israel and Hamas. As a university, we should never be complicit with institutions and individuals from either side who contribute to occupation and war. A thorough audit of all MIT engagements with human rights abuses and the war machinery of both sides is warranted. The audit should also examine any involvement by academic units, labs, and centers at MIT with any entity, governmental or private, in the United States that contributes to human rights abuses and war crimes in Palestine and Israel to avoid our complicity.

The new review processes established after the Epstein and bin Salman scandals call for attention to risks related to human rights concerns in MIT’s transnational engagements. The narrow list of illustrative countries in this process – China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia – is arbitrary and not grounded in objective comparative human rights data. There is no reason why MIT should claim to have a process that addresses human rights risks if it will not apply it to the current situation in the Middle East.

Like all higher education institutions, MIT is entrusted with a fundamental duty to educate the next generation of leaders, innovators, and creators. They look up to us for guidance, and we must show by example to help them navigate our complex, unfair world. What guidance are we providing through our actions, and does it truly uphold our espoused values and principles?

MIT should also ask how it contributes to solutions for the world’s biggest challenge illustrated by this latest war in the Middle East – the barriers to the sustained pursuit of peace. The word peace does not appear in any program, unit, or other entity’s mission at MIT. What are we to make of that? Shouldn’t tackling this challenge be a strategic priority for MIT? A modest first step is to mean what we say: adhere to the new review process, which calls for avoidance of engagement with abusers of human rights.

Editorial Subcommittee