Physics Professor Or Hen speaks out on campus protests and student conduct

Hen: “Let’s have the harshest debates. Let’s develop scientific tools. Let’s be MIT.”

10549 whatsapp image 2024 05 22 at 17.23.44
Professor of Physics Or Hen speaks in front of a pro-Israeli crowd during a rally on May 3.
Photo courtesy of Or Hen

Editor-in-chief’s note: This piece touches upon the ongoing war in Palestine, including associated acts of rape and killing. 

Or Hen is the Class of 1956 Career Development Associate Professor of Physics. His lab centers on experimental nuclear and particle physics. Prior to coming to MIT, Hen served for seven years in the Israeli Defense Forces, and is an active member of the campus Israeli community.

The following article is based on an interview between The Tech and Professor Hen on May 28.

On the May 15 and 17 faculty meetings

The conversation with Professor Hen began with a discussion about the executive sessions of the May 15 and May 17 faculty meetings, in which attending faculty members voiced their opinions on the interim suspensions of pro-Palestinian student protestors earlier that week.  A motion for the faculty body to officially call for the lifting of the student suspensions was debated at length, and ultimately failed in a 154-191 vote.

Hen stated that the meetings, rather than centering around faculty members’ personal views on the Israel-Palestine conflict, were primarily about appropriate student conduct. 

“Many of us have our political views, and they can vary much more than people think. To me, the question has always been about campus,” Hen said. “It’s not about my own personal goals; to me, the issue is that there’s a group of students that wants to voice out their concerns, their opinion about what’s happening in this part of the world... [and] they chose to do that [also] in ways that are unacceptable.”

Hen described the methods that pro-Palestinian student demonstrators used to protest the administration and the Israeli intervention in Palestine — such as interrupting classes and research groups, holding unapproved rallies and marches, and obstructing campus events and building entryways — as having come at the expense of other students who do not share the same views. “We have to live together with all the ethnicities and all the political points of view. We have to have some common mission here of research and education, and we cannot let a disagreement take over our interactions,” he said.

Hen claimed that pro-Palestinian students ostracized and refused to interact with their pro-Israeli peers in social situations, further commenting on some student-organized social events that allowed entry only to students who shared the organizers’ political leanings on the conflict. He added that, just as many faculty members are still able to collaborate on a professional basis, students should learn to create and maintain “cordial co-living” environments.

On protestors’ “disregard” for campus rules

Hen believes a “disregard [for] campus rules” was the rationale for the administration’s decision regarding the encampment and student discipline. 

“You can’t systematically just go around and do whatever you want. And the feeling many of us got in the last 8 months is that, that’s what’s going on,” Hen said.

Hen pointed to blockades of Lobby 7 and the Stata Center garage, as well as the occurrences of other rallies and protests on campus spaces without adhering to clearly-delineated rules for protest and expression. These rules are based on details set in the MIT Student Organization Handbook and communicated in emails to the MIT community. Such measures have been strictly enforced by the administration as unregistered protests continued to occur: in February, the student group Coalition Against Apartheid was suspended and in recent weeks dozens of pro-Palestinian student protestors have received interim suspensions.

The reason for the necessity of adhering to campus policy, Hen said, is that “what seems peaceful to one individual” — as pro-Palestinian student protestors have defended their protests as being “peaceful” in nature” — “is not peaceful to another.”

Although major acts of physical confrontation did not materialize, Hen described  a different kind of violence he saw as being perpetrated by members of the encampment. “The fact you are not beating somebody up or physically blocking them — it can still be a very violent act towards some people,” he said. “You might not notice it, but the message you are sending could actually be very violent to somebody else.”

Hen added, “We have rules that are meant to make sure that we don’t do these things, even unintentionally.”

Still, he commended the encampment for how it, at times, brought in community. “At times, it was a very beautiful place. I went there a bunch of times [and I saw] kids sitting and playing music and learning about each others’ culture and talking... and why not? Jews 4 Ceasefire had their own version of the Passover Seder — that’s not the one I would take, but they’re celebrating their own way.”

Hen then noted that despite the community that formed around the encampment, which pro-Palestinian student protestors had touted as a point of legitimacy during its occupancy of Kresge Oval, that “the second a line has been crossed, there’s a problem. And lines have been crossed.”

He drew parallels between ongoing debates regarding pro-Palestinian protestors’ chants for death to “Zionism” as opposed to “Zionists” with the issue of the concept of LGBTQ+ identity versus  LGBTQ+-identifying individuals, further clarifying that “you shouldn’t call for death... That’s just not right.”

On the term “genocide”

Hen then spoke on the use of the term “genocide” by pro-Palestinian demonstrators to refer to the Israeli intervention in Gaza. To date, nearly 40,000 Palestinians and over 1,000 Israelis have been reportedly killed as a result of the ongoing war between Hamas and the Israeli military.

“First of all, the first thing I would look for [when identifying an act of genocide] is that you would be targeting civilians — that you would literally go to where there is only civilians and start shooting. All I know about what the Israeli army did, and I know it from people on the ground, is that it is not that,” Hen said.

Hen pointed to the difference between the ongoing war in Gaza, which reportedly has a 2:1 civilian-to-militant casualty ratio, and previous wars and military engagements that averaged a figure closer to 9:1. “Assuming the numbers quoted to me are correct, it means that there is a lot of due diligence being done, more so than in other wars that again have nine civilians over every involved person,” he said.

"Still, 2:1 is two too many," Hen added.

On war and ceasefire

Before coming to MIT, Hen served seven years in the Israeli Defense Forces. “Almost every Israeli in the campus served in the IDF. There’s a mandatory draft law, it’s not a choice,” he said. “I spent seven years in the IDF — I’m very proud of myself for that.”

When it came to witnessing pro-Palestinian chants against the Israeli military and its members, Hen felt personally attacked. “To compare me to the KKK? Do you know about me?” he asked, rhetorically.

Hen noted that disagreements with military engagement as a generality were appropriate but that it was inappropriate for students to make comparisons with other groups or individuals. “You’re telling me,” he said, referring to the pro-Palestinian student protestors, “who might be your teacher next semester, that you view me as the KKK? Really, do you know me? Have you talked to me? Do you know what my politics are? Do you know what I think about the war?”

He also clarified his own stance on the war in Gaza, stating that he is personally in favor of a ceasefire. “I just think returning the hostages must be part of that,” he added.

On civil discourse

Hen also discussed  ways in which discourse between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli perspectives could be held moving forward. “Before getting into the details of things, we have to have a different discourse. We have to agree on some ground rules for how we live together alongside disagreement,” Hen said. 

He also pointed to the Mind & Hand Book as a suitable source of guidelines for campus conduct.

In acknowledging the complexity of debate surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict, Hen said that, “I think first of all, we need to kind of agree on maybe the rules of debate.”

“I would never say that I'm happy that an innocent Palestinian died. I would acknowledge the complexity, but I would say that it's never okay to target an individual. I would say that it's really hard and I would like to learn more myself about how you make the decision about [targeting] a terrorist when you know that there could be civilians around,” he said.

“It's really hard. But I also expect the other side to not tell me that ‘resistance is justified’ by any means. It's not. Nothing in this world, in my mind, is justified by any means.”

Hen then described a personal frustration regarding how pro-Palestinian student protestors have failed to engage in a significant response to concerns shared by pro-Israeli students of rape-supporting and Hamas apologism by proxy.

He noted that “the reason [the pro-Israeli students] say that is because of the CAA posts and support values and taking Hamas pictures and the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] symbol being hung.” Both Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine are designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and the European Union.

“Now it could be that it’s not true and it’s all a misunderstanding,” he commented, “[so] use your words to correct me. Put out a statement that says, ‘we don’t accept all these things’ ... And the other side would say, ‘good, thank you for clarifying that this is not where you stand and let's move on.’”

On the response of the administration

When asked about his stance on the administration’s response to suspend pro-Palestinian student protestors, Hen stated his support for the decision, saying that “I think it was not a choice... I mean, they tried everything else.”

“At the end of the day, you have to own up to your actions,” he said. “I think anything below that is disrespectful to [the disciplined students]. They are adults.”

Hen noted that following the action to suspend students, he agreed that the administration should continue to stand by it — even if the demonstrators had chosen to voluntarily take down the encampment. He views each action taken by the administration as “setting a precedent,” and that overturning the suspensions at this point would cause a loss of respect for similar decisions in the future.

“If there was an argument that, ‘you [took] the encampment down, now [the interim suspension] is not needed anymore,’ that doesn’t work out because that’s the precedent you’re setting,” Hen said.

On upholding a higher standard in the community

Finally, Hen discussed a need for students — both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli — to begin focusing on repairing the rifts formed in the aftermath of campus events.

He shared an example of his own experiences with family: “I’ve been with my wife since we were twenty — [we’ve been together for] fifteen, sixteen years... If she and I focused entirely on the aspects we disagreed on, we would get divorced in a millisecond.”

“Living in a place like MIT, especially for students... I get to go home at the end of the day. But for students who live here so intimately in the dorms, we have to develop the ability to look beyond the things we disagree on; otherwise, you divorce,” he said. “That’s what’s happening in this term — [the pro-Palestinian student protestors] split the community, they drove everybody that’s in-between crazy... And then, we ended up with the administration doing something that none of us wanted to see.”

He added: “who wants to see students get suspended here? None of us are happy with it. I think it was the right thing to do, I don’t think there was any alternative. Pushing the system to the point where the system felt they had to do that, there was no other way, otherwise we really risk violence here.”

Following a semester of escalating conflict between the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli students, Hen called on the community to hold each other accountable.

“Let’s have the harshest debates. Let’s develop scientific tools. Let’s be MIT. I’ve been here for 10 years — this is not what I know to be MIT. I don’t feel like I’m walking at MIT; I feel like I’m walking a bizarre reality that isn’t MIT, and that’s sad in my mind,” he said.

“I do think that at MIT, at the end of the day, I want us to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”