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The director of the Harvard Center for Health and Human Rights was formally presented with a proposal, in November, 2004, that it sponsor a symposium on AThe ethnic state and human rights in Israel/Palestine." The proposal came from John Spritzler and two professors at the Harvard School of Public Health B Richard Levins and David Christiani B and it read as follows:



We, the undersigned, propose that the Center for Health and Human Rights sponsor a one-day Symposium open to the public, at the Harvard School of Public Health, titled, "The ethnic state and human rights in Israel/Palestine." Invited speakers should include the Israeli consul (or his or her designate) and John Spritzler, with approximately equal numbers of speakers in favor of and opposed to an ethnic state in Israel/Palestine. The Symposium should also address the intimately related question, "Is it anti-Semitic to oppose a Jewish state?" The format should allow ample time for audience participation in both a question and answer period and general discussion.


The Center's director, Professor Stephen Marks, replied as follows:

Date: Sun, 21 Nov 2004 17:23:40 -0500
From: Stephen Marks <>
To: Richard Levins
Cc: , David Christiani

Subject: John Spritzler's symposium

Thanks, Dick. It is always good to get ideas from colleagues on topics for intellectual exchanges. I had a long conversation with John about our work relating to Palestinian rights. He wanted me to sign an appeal to the Globe to publish his op-ed piece on this historical issue. I think he agrees with me that it was difficult to justify putting the name of the FXB Center behind his campaign to have an op ed piece in the Globe in the absence of some link to our work on health and human rights.

This proposal for a symposium is a different matter. We have sponsored two public events on Palestinian rights in the last few months and have several research projects in the pipeline on Palestinian rights and health. All of these activities involved the links between health and human rights, and therefore correspond to the mission of our Center. The topic of John's symposium seems to be more a topic for an exchange among historians and specialists in Jewish studies or Middle East studies. It does not appear to be an issue of health and human rights.

There is already a tremendous amount of research and debate on the impact of Israeli policies and practices on Palestinians' health and human rights of concern to our Center. That is where our energies are focused. Don't you think it would be better to leave the historical and area studies questions to centers and faculty with specialized knowledge in those areas? I hope John will understand and direct his appeal to the more appropriate groups. There should be other fora where John can debate the Israeli consul on the nature and justification of the Jewish state.



John Spritzler replied as follows:

Dear Professor Marks,

I fail to see the logic in your explanation for why the Center will not sponsor a symposium on an ethnic state and human rights in Israel/Palestine.

You say that the Center has sponsored two public events on Palestinian rights in the last few months. But, you say, the question of an ethnic state and human rights "seems to be more a topic for an exchange among historians and specialists in Jewish studies or Middle East studies." Why in the world it seems to be a topic for historians and specialists in Jewish studies you don't say.

In fact, the topic of an ethnic state and human rights is about the current situation, not some academic historical event. You acknowledge that the denial of human rights to Palestinians is a topic that falls within the scope of your Center (since you sponsor events about this topic) but then you assert that critical evaluation of the government which is responsible for the violation of these rights, in particular evaluation of this government's rationale for denying these human rights (that it is required to protect the status of Israel as a Jewish state), is not within the scope of the Center, that it is a topic for an exchange among historians and Jewish studies specialists.

If the Center were in existence during the days of the Apartheid South African government, and if you had been its director then, would you similarly have argued that the Center should discuss human rights of non-white people in South Africa but it should avoid, as of historical interest only (or of interest only to "specialists in White studies or southern African affairs"), the topic of whether there should be an Apartheid government in South Africa?

When I look at the mission of the Center on the web, I see that it includes the following:

"* develop domestic and international policy focusing on the relationship between health and human rights in a global perspective;

* engage scholars, public health and human rights practitioners, public officials, donors, and activists in the health and human rights movement."

What does "policy" mean in the first bullet? Doesn't the Center wish to develop an "international policy" in Israel/Palestine that reflects the Center's commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? If it does, the Center would then of necessity sharply differ from Israel's policy of denying human rights in order to protect Israel's status as a Jewish state. Surely the Center would not avoid discussing international policy when, to do so, would entail speaking out against the rationale for human rights violations employed by the top ally of the United States government, would it?

What does "health and human rights movement" mean in the second bullet? I would think it would mean an effort by people to protect human rights or redress their wrongful denial around the world. But how can such a movement succeed if it does not question the rationales that governments use to justify their denial of human rights? The mission of the Center is to engage scholars and others in this human rights movement. Engage them for what purpose? To help their movement succeed? If so, then the Center's mission clearly includes helping them become clear about why the rationale used by a state such as Israel to deny health and human rights to a people like the Palestinians is wrong.

Dismissing the topic of Israel's very current status as a Jewish state, and its denial of human rights in order to protect that status, as a topic outside the scope of the Center for Health and Human Rights, and a topic of interest only to historians and specialists in Jewish studies, seems to me to be an entirely specious argument for wiping the Center's hands clean of this controversial topic.


John Spritzler


Professor Marks has not replied to this yet.

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