• Spring 2009

Congressman Brian Baird speaking at the Gaza symposium on March 30, 2009. Photo courtesy Alexender Biletzki

May 1, 2009

Visit our website and events calendar for a complete listing of spring 2015 activities. Many of our events are captured on video and available to view on YouTube.

MIT-Harvard Gaza Symposium

The second annual Gaza symposium, this year jointly organized by MIT and Harvard, hosted a series of panels on the role of U.S. and international actors, as well as human rights and international humanitarian law in the wake of recent events in Gaza. The symposium brought together experts in the fields of human rights, history, political science, U.S. foreign policy and law over the course of two days on both campuses.

The symposium opened with an address from Congressman Brian Baird who, along with Congressman Keith Ellison (the first Muslim U.S. Congressman in history), were the first U.S. government officials to set foot in Gaza in three and a half years. Congressman Baird stressed the need for more expanded, immediate aid into Gaza, with a focus on quality rather than quantity. For instance, Baird noted that the Israeli administration was not allowing in extraordinary things (lentils, tomato paste, macaroni, and toothpaste) as they were considered a "luxury." To Baird, the issue was not the specific items, but the message being sent by saying that Gazans cannot have these commodities. He pushed the audience to move beyond the false dichotomy of "if you criticize the actions taken by Israel in Gaza, you condone rocket attacks on Sderot" (which he condemns). In reality, Baird argued that one can criticize both acts and recognize that there are many other options for dealing with them.

Questions to the Congressman and subsequent panels pushed the debate forward while sharpening the claims of the speakers. One audience member asked if there is a way to address the conflict without addressing Israel as a racist state. Gabriel Piterberg, professor of history at UCLA, argued that if you want to achieve a nonviolent solution, one must avoid descending into incendiary rhetoric and instead promote reasoned, serious debate and political progress. However, he argued that proper understanding of the situation can not be achieved without perceiving Israel through the settler-colonialist lens, similar in many ways to the British in South Africa and others.

Another audience member challenged one panel by asking: "Where is the talk of Hamas as a terrorist organization in this symposium? What is the purpose of firing missiles into Sderot? Is it democratic for Hamas to eliminate Fatah opposition in Gaza?" Karma Nabulsi, lecturer in international telations at Oxford University and former PLO representative, responded that Israelis would like to have peace and quiet without addressing questions of injustice. Nabulsi claimed that Sderot is built on destroyed Palestinian towns, and the people in Gaza are refugees from previous wars. Nabulsi agreed that firing rockets into Sderot is wrong and should be condemned, but claimed that Israel cannot guarantee its security until it engages with the major issues of the Palestinians. Another questioner later claimed that she had not heard about the human rights of Israelis and asked about their rights to existence and self-defense. Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Center at the American University of Beirut, claimed that he actually agreed with the audience member’s points, but only if she agreed that the rights of self-defense and existence apply to Palestinians as well. Khouri, a Palestinian, stated that if the rules of the game are that Israel gets security and then the Palestinians will later find out what they get, then the answer is thanks but no thanks. However, if the answer is respect and giving the right to existence and self-defense to both sides, then progress can occur.

Gaza Symposium Panelists

Panelists (left to right) Nancy Kanwisher, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the McGovern Institute, MIT (moderator); Gabriel Piterberg, professor of history at UCLA; Irene Gendzier, political science professor at Boston University; Karma Nabulsi, lecturer in international relations at Oxford University and former PLO representative. 
Photo courtesy Alexander Biletzki

In the most poignant moment of the symposium, Sami Abdel Shafi spoke to the audience via telephone from Gaza. Abdel Shafi, co-founder of the Emerge Consulting Group in Gaza, was scheduled to speak in person but could not attend because he—a Palestinian and a U.S. citizen—was not allowed to leave Gaza by Israeli authorities. Abdel Shafi stressed that Palestinians are being engineered into perpetual beggars. Palestinians are thankful for the assistance, but they have the skills to take their place among the nations of the world if empowered. Abdel Shafi claimed that no people in the world would accept a situation where they do not have control over their airspace, crossing points, and coastlines. His biggest worry is that people around the world and in Israel no longer visit Gaza and see the people there and their conditions, which has made knowledge of the situation scarce and the bonds between Gazans and outsiders weaker.

On the second day of the symposium, Richard Falk, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, argued that there is no set of issues in which the American political consciousness is more out of tune with the rest of the world than Gaza and Israel-Palestinian issues. He lamented that international humanitarian law is largely absent from the discussion. Palestinians are so weak politically that the conflict gets framed in terms of bargaining over "facts on the ground" instead of recognizing rights of the Palestinian people. On key issues—refugees, removal of forces from territory, right to water—Falk contended that there exist clear statements of rights for the Palestinians that they simply do not receive.

Organizer Hilary Rantisi, director of the Middle East Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School, closed the event by noting that this was the second annual symposium on Gaza. She expressed hope that there would not be a need for a third symposium and that the situation in Gaza would significantly improve, but recognized that the immense difficulties in the region today mean that Gaza will remain a central, challenging issue in Middle Eastern politics for years to come.

Ambassador Burns on Foreign Policy Challenges for Obama

Ambassador Nicholas Burns spoke at CIS on February 11 as part of the MIT Security Studies Program Wednesday seminar series. Burns served as ambassador to Greece, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, and is now a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Harvard University teaching courses in diplomacy and international politics. Although Burns noted that he could not recall a time with more foreign policy challenges, he argued that American security, prosperity and global leadership could be maintained with the right policies in place. He suggested focusing on transnational solutions, working through the G-20 rather than the G-7, and prioritizing the Middle East and South Asia during President Obama’s first term. The schedule and summaries of past talks are online here:

Bustani Seminar Examines Ahmadinejad’s Legacy

Ali Banuazizi, psychology research professor and political science professor at Boston College, gave a lecture in March entitled "Iran: Assessing Ahmadinejad's Legacy" for the Emile Bustani Middle East Seminar at MIT. Professor Banuazizi's talk focused on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's domestic and foreign policies over the past four years, with special emphasis on the populist style of his leadership, his messianic worldviews, his failing economic policies, and his re-election prospects in the upcoming June presidential elections. He also discussed current efforts, both in Iran and in the U.S., to promote a U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Each year the Bustani Seminar invites scholars, journalists, consultants, and other experts from the Middle East, Europe, and the United States to MIT to present recent research findings on contemporary politics, society and culture, and economic and technological development in the Middle East.

CIS Announces Two New Working Groups

CIS announces two new working groups to encourage collaboration across disciplines to tackle global issues. The East Asia Regional Security Working Group will be run by David Weinberg and Tobias Harris, two graduate students in political science. The group aims to use the strengths of the Department of Political Science and the Security Studies Program to create a regular forum for discussion of ongoing security developments in the dynamic region of East Asia. The Interdisciplinary Workshop on Institutions and Development, organized by Ben Ross Schneider, professor of political science, focuses on the impact of institutions, broadly conceived, on economic and social development. The Center now sponsors twelve working groups, each being open to MIT faculty, students, and outside scholars. To learn more visit

MISTI Honors More Than 360 Students

MISTI held its annual gala dinner on April 29 to honor the 360 plus students who received fellowships to complete research and internships abroad in the summer and fall of 2009. MISTI (the MIT Science and Technology Initiatives) will send more than 25 students to each of its programs in nine different countries: China, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and Spain. This represents the most students that MISTI has ever sent abroad, a fact that director Suzanne Berger noted was an amazing achievement given the program’s humble beginnings more than a decade ago with a few students being sent to Japan under the guidance of CIS director Richard Samuels. At the event, MIT-Israel coordinator David Dolev announced that MISTI is launching MISTI 2.0, which provides students an opportunity to receive funding for new projects with international partners that the students create with the inspiration and connections they gain from their initial internships.

Fallon and Christia on Afghanistan

On April 30, Admiral William J. Fallon, USN (RET), gave a public talk on Afghanistan along with Professor Fotini Christia, an expert on Afghanistan who spent a great deal of time there conducting research. Fallon joined the Center for International Studies for the 2008-09 academic year as Robert E. Wilhelm fellow. Christia joined MIT last fall as an assistant professor of political science and a member of the Security Studies Program. The two speakers provided background on the current situation in Afghanistan and offered their advice for the Obama administration as part of a Starr Forum. Video of the event is available at

Migration Seminar Hosts Three Lectures

The Myron Weiner Seminar on International Migration sponsored three lectures this semester. Andrea Rossi from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University delivered a lecture on “The Impact of Migration on Children” in February. In March, Oxana Shevel gave a talk entitled “Citizenship Politics in Post-Soviet Russia: Between Identity and Real-Politik.” Mayumi Ueno from the John F. Kennedy School of Government delivered a lecture in May: “Trafficking in Persons in Japan.” The Myron Weiner Seminar Series on International Migration explores factors affecting international population movements and their impact upon sending and receiving countries and relations among them.

Feldstein and Johnson on the Global Economy

Economist Martin Feldstein was the featured speaker at a Starr Forum entitled "The Challenges to the Global Economy" on February 11. Feldstein has been cited as "the most influential economist of his generation." He is economics professor at Harvard University, president emeritus of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Reagan. Joining the talk as a discussant was MIT Sloan School's Simon Johnson. Johnson is an expert on the financial sector and economic crises and served as economic counselor and director of the research department at the International Monetary Fund from 2007-2008.

CIS Announces New Program at McKibben Event

The Center is pleased to announce the launch of the Program on Environmental Governance and Sustainability (PEGS). The new program is directed by JoAnn Carmin, associate professor of environmental policy and planning at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. The Center formally announced PEGS on April 13 at a Starr Forum event with environmentalist Bill McKibben. McKibben, a prolific writer on related subjects, is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College. Beginning in the summer of 2006, he led the organization of the largest demonstrations against global warming in American history. In an effort to help change the thinking of Americans and individuals across the globe, McKibben called on MIT students to share the alarming scientific truth behind global warming.