An Open Letter to Brian Kenny, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Harvard Business School
Dear Mr. Kenny,
Welcome to the wacky, world of Middle East politics, where the most benign gestures can bring the biggest headaches. I am sure you and your colleagues are scratching your heads in wonder. A creative dining hall worker at the Harvard Business School (HBS) made a lovely Israeli Mezze Station, offering the stressed-out Harvard Business students a splash of Middle East exotica while downing their humous and couscous – without dripping or dropping the slightest bit onto their Brooks Brothers suits and monogrammed clothing, of course.
Suddenly, you felt like Facebook enemy number one. A Lebanese Harvard alumnae, Sara el-Yafi, posted a protest calling the Israeli buffet an act of cultural imperialism, offending hundreds of millions of Arabs by celebrating Israel’s stealing their foods just as those nasty Jews stole Arab lands.
“That ‘Israeli Mezze Station” is the ultimate multicultural, multireligious ‘f*** you’ inthe face of ALL Arabs at once from North Africa to the Levant,” the Jerusalem Post reported that el-Yafi wrote. “Israel already has a hard time keeping face in the Arab world for the way it has ‘appropriated’ its lands since 1948, don’t make it worse for them by having them appropriate other peoples’ foods as well.”
As a PR professional trained to mollify, watching this post collect 4500 “likes” and counting, you retreated, saying HBS was “deeply troubled that we offended anybody by doing this buffet item, particularly considering that our reason for doing the international buffet each day is to celebrate cultural diversity.” You and your staff vowed you would never stumble like that again.
With that abject apology, the mighty Harvard Business School, a legendary institution which blithely disappoints thousands of high-powered aspiring applicants annually, a school which enjoys crushing then rebuilding tomorrow’s business masters of the universe through the Socratic case-study teaching method, cowered. You appeased out of ignorance rather than standing for principle, violating Harvard’s motto “Veritas, truth.
If you wanted to celebrate cultural diversity you should have lectured these bullies that democratic diversity thrives on cultural syncretism – or as our kids call it – sharing. Sharing cultural expressions like food and tolerating those who are somewhat similar to us yet different are sacred university values and democratic ideals. You should have told the protestors that if Israelis and Palestinians broke bread and ate humous together more frequently peace would come faster. But in your PC haste to appear intolerant of intolerance you actually tolerated and validated Palestinian intolerance.
Dear Mr. Kenny, you fell victim to the well-practiced, craftily developed, Palestinian victimization tactic, for which nice, conflict-averse, compromise-oriented Westerners are ill-prepared. For decades now, Palestinians strategy has mixed actual terror with intellectual bullying, trying to make everything about Israel toxic. Palestinians and their supporters contest everything Israeli, no matter how benign – or beneficial to civilization. They do not want anything about Israel to be normal or normalized, popular or popularized. They want to boycott Israel, ostracize Israel, make everything contentious, make Israel radioactive so nice people like you will retreat under fire – and never touch anything Israeli again. This is the political equivalent of second-hand smoke, making everything surrounding Israel and about Israel so toxic even innocents like you and your staff turn away. Given all the trouble this harmless move caused, I do not expect to see anything Israeli at the HBS dining room again.
You fell into their trap. But your PR move backfired. You alienated me – a Harvard alum, class of ‘82 – and thousands of others by making the institution of which we are so proud look so craven.
This is not the Harvard way. At the risk of offering the HBS marketing students a case study in self-promotion, I just published a book Moynihan’s Moment describing how one Harvard professor taught the West to resist this Palestinian ploy, and to stand for democracy and decency when under attack. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a Harvard academic serving as America’s Ambassador to the UN 37 years ago, on November 10, 1975, when the Palestinians tried to make Israel toxic in the United Nations by calling Zionism, its founding ideology, racist. Moynihan saw that the “Zionism issue is an attempt to induce guilt” in the West. He called it a big Red – Soviet inspired – lie and he refused to play along.
Moynihan explained that this was the “very quintessence of the totalitarian mode,” which hijacked everything to advance the absolutist agenda, no matter how trivial or peripheral. In the process, core ideals were corrupted. So just as the UN had to drain the concept of racism of its essential meaning, and make the application of human rights selective rather than universal to demean democratic Israel and praise Palestinian terror, your Palestinian critics undermined core concepts like diversity and tolerance to ostracize Israel. “We are not about to have dictators lecture us on democracy,” Moynihan said repeatedly, and you should not have close-minded people lecture you about open-mindedness.
I know it’s exhausting. I know this is more than you and the dining hall staff bargained for. But when Western diplomats in the 1970s endured this kind of onslaught, Moynihan sighed that “these were decent people, utterly unprepared for their work.” Learn from Professor Moynihan and take a stand. Show that you are prepared for your work: not PR management but democratic engagement. Treat Israel like a normal country with a charming culture that should occasionally be celebrated like others. Do not purchase peace and quiet by selling your soul. Do not make Israel a pariah because of protestors. Give us a democratic win not PR spin, as a citizen, a Harvard man, and a proud American.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” was just published.