By Julia I. Bertelsmann
Julia I. Bertelsmann ’09 attends Harvard College and is an Economics concentrator living in Eliot House.
NEW SOCIETY was born in late December 2006 when twenty-seven Harvard undergraduates visited the Shalem Center in Jerusalem as participants in the Harvard Israel Leadership Initiative (HILI). Like the initiative, the journal aims to encourage students and faculty members to debate positive visions for the future of the Middle East. We begin with the question: what should a peaceful, prosperous Middle East look like?
The inaugural edition of New Society features a combination of long, scholarly essays, shorter op-ed style articles, and reflections, plus an interview and write-ups of events on campus. Future editions will feature reviews of books, films and concerts, photographs, and artwork. The journal will publish students, faculty members, and associated scholars based on the quality of their scholarship and writing and on the innovation of their ideas.
The journal is largely inspired by the intellectual vibrancy and influence of a formidable group of students who became known as the “New York Intellectuals” on account of their prolific contributions to American political, economic, and cultural thought several decades ago.
Between the 1930s and 1970s, journals such as Commentary, Dissent, and Partisan Review, sprang up on campuses across New York, largely in response to political change in the distant Soviet Union. The journals asked big questions: Does communist government necessarily lead to dictatorship? How should America respond to Soviet attempts to foment communist revolution across the world? Who should be allowed to own nuclear weapons?
Today, the greatest political, economic, social, and ethical challenges faced by the U.S. are those presented by the Middle East. They concern Sunni-Shia rivalry, the Armenian genocide, Kurdish claims on statehood, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the rise of radical and universalistic Islamism, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the scramble for oil and natural gas, and the actions of unaccountable, non-state actors such as Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah.
We chose Iran as our focus for this inaugural edition because the conflict between the West and Iran threatens the future progress of the region.
In response to political change in the Middle East, New Society hopes to provide a forum for students to exchange new and innovative ideas on how to understand social phenomena in the region, resolve international and religious conflicts, promote multiculturalism, reform and enforce international law, define human rights more clearly, and defend human rights more robustly and equally.
New Society’s firm belief is that for this to happen in a constructive, positive, and forward-looking way, students must agree to play the same game and abide by certain ground rules.
The first rule is that students must recognize one another’s humanity and legitimacy. The second is that students must transcend the politics of blame and demonization and create a new realm of productive criticism and robust debate. And the third, far more difficult, rule is that students must acknowledge the complexity of each conflict and aim to develop equal empathy for all sides.
New Society hopes to create healthy, productive criticism by providing a forum for debate in which acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy and the two-state solution, i.e. the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, is a basic ground rule. A nation’s right to exist, to have secure borders, and to have peace with its neighbors shall be considered a given, not a topic for debate, as much for Israel and Armenia as for Iran and Iraq.
With these basic conditions in place, New Society will establish an intellectual home for moderate Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and other students who value democratic ideas, and create a place for them to have open discussions on contentious issues.
The major obstacle to achieving that goal is censorship. By censorship I do not refer to papers endorsed by Jewish or Israel advocacy organizations that criticize public intellectuals who criticize Israel. (After all, critical papers create debate, not stifle it, and I have yet to find a Jewish student who is genuinely frightened to criticize Israel in these pages.)
Rather, I refer to real, bloody, Soviet-style censorship—executions, violent parades, book burnings, bounties and fatwas. Several students from Iran, Lebanon, and Syria who were contacted to write articles for the first issue were keen to do so, but declined for fear of political consequences in their home countries. One wrote to me: “I’m critical of my government, but I still want to be able to go home.” When I suggested to another that I’d let him use a pseudonym, he too declined, afraid that his identity would be discovered anyway.
In the past two weeks, I have met three Iranian students on three separate occasions whose parents fled Iran after they were persecuted or after their close relatives were executed by the Iranian Revolutionary government.
As an editor, I feel I can justifiably criticize contributing writers for self-censorship and obsequiousness, and persuade American or Israeli students to be more robust critics of their governments. But I cannot make the same demands of contributors from most other Middle Eastern countries, lest their lives be ruined. I cannot ask students to become Salman Rushdies or Ayaan Hirsi Alis for the sake of debate in a student journal.
With this moral complication in mind, New Society strives against convenient biases and for fairness. We have to start somewhere, and we hope that our first forays into difficult and even treacherous dialogues will open up space for other, perhaps more timid, voices. We hope you enjoy our first edition and feel inspired to add your voice, whether in a longer contribution or in a letter.