To stop the killing, stop the hate

A call for dialogue

Dan Ottenheimer '79 SM '82 (Course II) is an Arlington MA resident and an active MIT alumnus - he is an Educational Counselor, co-chair of his Class Reunion Gift Committee, member of the MechE Alliance, AILG volunteer, and a Choralum who has sung at recent MIT Commencements. Dan's father, Fritz Ottenheimer, was born in Germany in 1925, fled to the U.S. in 1939, and returned to Germany as a U.S. soldier toward the end of World War II.  Dan is a volunteer second-generation Holocaust speaker for the organization Facing History and Ourselves, and for the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. The views above are his alone, and do not represent the views of any affiliated organization.

“As a second-generation Holocaust Survivor, how do you feel about the ongoing tragedy in Gaza?”  I was fielding questions after a talk I had given at a local middle school on the Holocaust, and the 8th-grade student wearing a hijab waited expectantly for my answer. 

I had been nervously anticipating this question.  I am usually very fact-oriented when I tell my Dad’s story about being a Jewish child in Nazi Germany, letting the attendees do all the comparisons to current events.  Plus I wasn’t sure how to take all of my scattered thoughts about the conflict, and turn them into a coherent age-appropriate response.

I thought briefly about a different discussion I had had with a fellow MIT alum about the MIT campus climate. I had expressed the opinion that the students needed to listen and empathize more; because in many conflicts, an equitable outcome requires discussion, negotiation, and compromise.  The alum seemed to justify the current protest-heavy campus behavior, saying “But are the student groups you mention in charge of driving the equitable outcome you speak of?”

I had pondered the alum’s question for a while.  Is protesting, and rallying people to their cause, the only thing that a U.S. student can do to make a difference?  The Israel/Palestine conflict has been going on for 75 years, with only brief lulls in between violent flare-ups. Can anything we do here on our campuses make long-term peace and stability more likely 5,000 miles away?

Yes.  I believe there is something we can do, but not enough of us are doing it.  And I explained it to the 8th-grade student.

“There are descendants of Holocaust survivors who protest strongly against the excessive deaths in Gaza, and call for an immediate ceasefire.  And there are descendants of Holocaust survivors who insist that Israel, home to half of the world’s Jews including many descended from Holocaust survivors, be allowed to defend itself, to make the country safe from its enemies.  But… This is what I believe.  The only way to stop the killing, is to stop the hate.  And there is a lot of hate in the Middle East right now, on both sides of this conflict.”

The region is full of fear, mistrust, anger, and hate.  And historical studies show that unchecked hatred leads to demonization and dehumanization, and to remorseless killing.

So how do you stop the hate?  By learning about the other side.  By sharing perspectives and narratives; by agreeing jointly that we are all human beings who are entitled to stability and safety; by envisioning together possible equitable solutions to the conflict.

Is this what is happening on MIT’s campus?  Perhaps among the more moderate students.  But there is still a lot of shouting and protesting.  In many ways the fear, mistrust, anger, and hatred in Israel/Gaza has transported itself 5000 miles to our local campuses (in fact college campuses have been called the second front of the Israel/Gaza war). I fear that this propagation of hatred will not bring peace to the Middle East; it will only guarantee another 75 years of conflict, if not more.

Which brings me back to the question from that MIT alum.  Are you students at MIT in charge of driving an equitable outcome in the Middle East?  No, probably not in 2024 while you are students.  But what about 2034? We don’t know where you will be in ten years, and what you will be doing.  But you are MIT students, and that means many of you are going to have significant roles - in academia, industry, and also the government (note that the current Prime Minister in Israel is an MIT alumnus).  And the lessons you learn while at MIT will be an important part of who you are in the future. 

Will you have learned how to listen to and respect opposing viewpoints?  Will you have learned how to engage in difficult conversations and work out equitable solutions to challenging problems?  Will you have the conviction that all human beings are deserving of safety and security?  If you have learned all this, then perhaps there is a chance that you can help bring about peace in the Middle East.  But what if all you learn while at MIT is how to out-shout and out-protest and out-publicize your opponents?

The fight against hatred is a very slow, difficult struggle.  It is fought one person at a time, dispelling misconceptions and building understanding.  And there are several STEM-oriented non-profits that have been working at it – trying to build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians. Some examples are Our Generation Speaks, Tech2Peace (https://www.tech2peace.com/), and MIT’s MEET program (Middle East Entrepreneurs for Tomorrow).

So, what can you do to make long-term peace and stability more likely in this 75-year-old conflict taking place 5000 miles away? You can spend as much effort working with these bridge-building organizations, and learning about opposing viewpoints, as you spend on your next protest or open letter or media campaign. 

Let’s not propagate the hate; let’s stop the hate.  One difficult conversation at a time.


Dan Ottenheimer SB ‘79 SM ‘82 (Course II)