Clueless in Gaza

The shabby shortsightedness of denying Fullbrights to residents of Gaza

I felt sorry for alternate Bush brain Karen Hughes when she took the job of “getting America’s message out” to the Arab-Islamic world. She was put in charge of rather lame news services and propaganda, and she had some other pretty limited tools at her disposal that hardly approached the subtlety and genuine dialogue required to win hearts and minds around the world.

To really accomplish this task, one would have to do the near-impossible: Identify really talented and influential young professionals in faraway places, fly them here, place them at major universities and other places that showcase America’s diversity, tolerance, and incredible talent. These foreign professionals could see how our world-class universities work. They would learn valuable skills, form social ties, and return home to strengthen their own societies and their non-governmental bonds with Americans and others.

Oh wait. We already have such a program. It is called the Fullbright fellowship. Named for the great Arkansas Senator, this program has brought thousands of Americans overseas and has allowed thousands of foreigners to come here and see first-hand what we are like and what we do. One does not have to believe every bromide about “soft power” to see that this modest program has strengthened America’s position in the world.

I would have thought this is all pretty obvious. Yet precisely when we have every strategic, diplomatic, and humanitarian reason to pursue these efforts, the United States has withdrawn all Fullbright grants to Palestinian students in the Gaza strip. Ethan Bronner has the full story in an excellent New York Times piece.

It remains unclear whether the United States or Israel was the main holdup here. Both governments seem a little embarrassed and befuddled by the story. Many Israelis are angered to hear that these fellowships will be lost. As the Times describes it:

A letter was sent by e-mail to the students on Thursday telling them of the cancellation. Abdulrahman Abdullah, 30, who had been hoping to study for an M.B.A. at one of several American universities on his Fulbright, was in shock when he read it. “If we are talking about peace and mutual understanding, it means investing in people who will later contribute to Palestinian society,” he said. “I am against Hamas. Their acts and policies are wrong. Israel talks about a Palestinian state. But who will build that state if we can get no training?”

Good point. Excluding talented students from studying in the United States is a shabby and short-sided policy from any reasonable perspective. The best way to defeat or moderate Palestinian extremists, and to alleviate real suffering, is to nurture positive elements of civil society with whom we can find common ground.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.