The Palestine Talk

Dear Olin, 

You are about to read the all-student email I sent at the end of my senior year in 2022. Today I believe that email is more important than it ever was. There have not been many Palestinians at Olin – to my knowledge, the only two were in my class of 2022. By the time we both graduated, we had left our marks on our classmates by engaging them in our family histories and our culture. As anyone who attended Olin at that time could attest, I sent a lot of emails about Palestine, and you can still see some of the posters I hung up around campus. I tried to do my part to be an activist from Olin’s apolitical bubble, and I am still engaging in activism in my post-college life. The way I see it, I owe a lot to Olin – I learned so much about myself here. But Olin also owes a lot to me, and to the other students who fought for their rights here. My class began a lot of the work that you see happening today at Olin – we fought for better considerations for students who experienced sexual abuse, we fought for gender-neutral bathrooms, we fought for the climate, we fought for racial justice, and we fought for Palestine. I believe my class only had the ability to fight and only found success because we uplifted each other’s causes. There have only been two Palestinians at Olin, but the people who I studied with amplified the Palestinian voice and cause as if it were their own. I hope that you will read my words and feel what my classmates felt – that Palestine is your issue too. My people are facing genocide after decades of slow ethnic cleansing. We have been suffering in the diaspora and from the occupation. We need you to be the Palestinian voice at Olin. 

Email from 2022:

As my final semester at Olin comes to a close, I grow more and more worried about what will happen when I leave. I am one of the few Palestinian students to ever attend Olin, and in my time here I’ve been trying really hard not to let anyone forget it. Being Palestinian defines so much of my identity, both because it is my culture that I love and because it is the identity for which I am the most hated. Every friendship I have starts with “the Palestine talk”, a frankly exhausting endeavor in an attempt to make sure my friends know what they’re signing up for. But they’re mostly graduating, and I don’t want the Palestinian story at Olin to die, so here’s the Palestine talk, one last time, for all of you.

My dad’s parents grew up in a farming village outside of Haifa, called Al-Mansi, which no longer exists. In 1948, they were forced from their homes and into refugee camps. Because of the way the UN categorized names, my family name was changed from Bin Seidan to Al-Ahmad. My grandfather at the time was, we think, 7. His original records don’t exist anymore. The UN decided he was 5, which is the only reason he was able to start getting his education, and gave him the birthday of January 1, the birthday they assign to all refugees whose records are lost. My dad’s family is not unique – my grandfather was one of at least 750,000 people forcefully made refugees in 1948. My mother’s family is from Hebron, a city in the West Bank. After 1948, the economic opportunities for Palestinians in all occupied lands were scarce, and they were forced to move more and more into what is now Jordan (at the time all of the West Bank was occupied by Jordan). In 1967, Israel gained control of the West Bank and suddenly what was supposed to be a temporary move to find work meant they could no longer go back to their home in Hebron. This is what happened to another 280,000-325,000 Palestinians. I tell this story to new friends when we start to get close – 9 times out of 10 the conversation ends with them sobbing and me numb. 

Today, there are more than 7 million Palestinian refugees across the world – the same number resides in the Palestinian territories and Israel today. I am counted in that number. This month, Israeli forces raided a mosque during Ramadan and barred Palestinian Christians from entering their churches on Good Friday and Easter. They also bombed the Gaza Strip, which has been under blockade since 2006 and is widely considered to be an open-air prison. No one at Olin is talking about it. This is not unique or new – this kind of treatment of Palestinians has been ongoing for 74 years, and it has been more deadly than this in the past. No one at Olin is talking about it. The story of Palestinians is often not told, the humanity of my people ignored as we get slaughtered by a military that is funded by the US government. The story of Palestine is also not unique – it’s the same story of all indigenous people forced from their homelands or forced to live under their colonizers. The Israeli Defense Forces (the ridiculously named Israeli military) trains police forces in the United States – the same police we protest today in many movements for their horrifying treatment of black men and women. I bring this all up because I know that many do not engage with Palestinian activism because they believe they do not know enough, it’s too complicated, or it’s not their place. I invite you all to reconsider that. You know this story here in America – it’s the same story in a different language. By staying silent, you are allowing what exists today to continue.

This year, I started the BOW Students for Justice in Palestine. This organization isn’t my first form of activism for Palestine on campus, but it will be my last. When I graduate I will be passing the leadership on to a Babson student. Currently, we have very few active Olin students. I am begging you all – please don’t let the fight for my people on this campus die. Please don’t let Palestine be forgotten at Olin. All I want is for the next Palestinian girl who comes to Olin to not feel so isolated and alone and to not face as much racism and ignorance as I did. You all hold the power, now and always. Start talking about Palestine.

Here are some websites to check out if you want to learn more:

And here is the BOW SJP Instagram – the link to join the WhatsApp is in the bio:

Maya Laila Al-Ahmad 🇵🇸

I haven’t shared much of my family’s story to many in the Olin community in detail, but I want to share pieces now because it hurts to know that this community that supported me and I supported during my time at Olin can be silent while my family and people fight to live through a genocide. My dad grew up in Gaza City, most of which is now rubble. The church my family used to go to on Sundays in Gaza was bombed on October 20th killing 18 Palestinians, 3 of which were my cousins. The cemetery where my grandparents were buried has also been destroyed in bombings.  None of my family that had left Gaza was able to return for their funerals because you can’t simply visit Gaza as a Palestinian and not fear for your own life. The killing and destruction in Gaza has been happening for years. When my dad was a kid going to school in Gaza in the 1980s, 6 of the students in the class he entered with didn’t make it to graduation and were killed by bombs or the Israeli Defense Force. If he were a kid in Gaza today only 6 would be considered lucky. My family chose to stay in Gaza from 1755 being the earliest documented up until my grandparents’ generation passed away in their home in Gaza that is likely now rubble as well. My dad and his brothers were lucky to be able to leave before it became a blockade where that choice is no longer a choice people in Gaza can make. I called it a choice, but it was never really a choice. Leaving Gaza is to leave your family’s home that you’ve stayed in for years and years and leave the family you grew up with, cousins, siblings, and know that you may never be able to peacefully return and for my dad that holds true 38 years later. And if he hadn’t left, who knows if he’d be alive today after over a month of genocide that this community had been silent about. I echo Maya’s plea to support Palestinians and keep our fight alive. 

David Tarazi 🇵🇸

Some groups to follow to stay updated on upcoming Free Palestine actions:

Student organizations: MIT Coalition Against Apartheid (@mit_caa), Wellesley for Palestine (@wellesleyforpalestine), Harvard Palestinian Solidarity Committee (@harvardpsc), Tufts SJP (@sjptufts), Northeastern SJP (@nuslsjp and @nusjp)

Boston organizations: Jewish Voices for Peace Boston (@jvpboston), Boston South Asian Coalition (@bsac_boston), If Not Now Boston (@ifnotnowboston), Boston Liberation Center (@bostonliberationcenter), Massachusetts Peace Action (@masspeaceaction), Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Boston (@bdsboston)

Engineering for (Literal) Impact

More than fifty years ago, Vietnam War student protests resulted in many universities severing
their relationships with the military-industrial complex. Many universities separated themselves
from on-campus labs that conducted substantial weapons manufacturing-related research,
including Stanford (Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International), Cornell (Cornell
Aeronautical Laboratory, now Calspan), and MIT (MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, now Draper
The ongoing genocide in Palestine has prompted universities across the country—including
nearby MIT, BU, Tufts, Northeastern, Harvard, UMass Amherst, and Brandeis—to reckon with
institutional complicity with those enabling Israel’s war crimes. I would hope that we do the
The following excerpted Frankly Speaking article was published in April 2016. Since then, Olin
has rebranded around a Strategic Plan that explicitly names equity and justice as core
institutional values (“Engineering for Everyone” and “Engineering for Impact”).
And yet Olin’s current military and weapons manufacturer ties include SCOPE and research
projects, recruitment through career fairs and newsletters, endowment investments, and our
president’s position on the Department of Defense Innovation Board.
I republish this article excerpt as neither a critique nor absolvement of individual careers, as
incessant focus on individual responsibility prevents broader structural analysis of the ways
universities perpetuate US militarism. Instead, it is a call to recognize how Olin funnels students
into what Bue Rübner Hansen calls “batshit jobs”, or jobs that are inherently deathmaking.
As Hansen writes, “to call this work mad does not mean that workers are crazy to make a living,
but rather to point out that a crazy contradiction arises when making a living is also a part of
unmaking life on many scales […]. Some workers could leave their jobs fairly easily, and others
are deeply dependent on the next paycheck. These workers have an interest in habitable
environments, but are caught in a maddening contradiction, asked by their employers to destroy
the conditions of life in order to make a living. We are habituated to think of this as normal, even
rational, but it’s time to say openly that it is madness, and to start from there.”
Letter to the Olin Community (2016)
At the most recent Town Meeting I asked President Miller if he thought there was a contradiction
between our talk of teaching students how to have a positive impact on the world and our
participation in systems of violence. I specifically brought up our collaboration with military
contractors in project work, but also that I think we would find violence in more than just the
military-industrial complex if we took a critical look. He did not answer my question, but said that
he thought it is a conversation that our community should have. I would like to use this forum to
continue that conversation and express some thoughts that I have about values and purpose.
I want to be clear about a few things. I do not intend this article as an attack on any member of
the Olin community, either explicitly or implicitly. While I have very conflicted feelings about this
institution, and certainly some criticism of individual actions, I feel a lot love for the people who
are part of this place and have found my relationships here as both a student and an instructor
to be very meaningful. I also want to be clear that this is not an article about the presence of
militarism on campus. I have my own set of values, and I am happy to discuss them, but I am
not going to make the argument that my values should be your values, or that they should be
our community’s values. My argument is that we, as an institution, should decide on and publicly
declare meaningful values and act to embody them.
Our “core institutional values” are all self-centered and neither stake out our position nor offer us
guidance in our engagement with the world. At a recent meeting a faculty member declared that
“Olin’s brand is that students build cool stuff.” The quote above the library, that “Engineers
envision what has never been, and do whatever it takes to make it happen,” is apolitical and
amoral about both ends and means, accepting any vision of “what has never been” and any
tactics used to get there. This is problematic: we could all think of examples of people trying to
realize “what has never been” that we would find abhorrent. Why not qualify that statement with
values that speak to how we want the world to be?
I see a few potential reasons for our lack of commitment to values that speak about how to act
in the world. The first reason is that it is difficult. Such a commitment would compel us to
navigate gray areas, be deeply self-critical, and make hard compromises. It would hold back our
“bias towards action” and likely lead us to restraint, a concept that goes against the instincts of
engineering and of our culture. A declaration of values would necessitate conversations about
whether our institution’s actions realize those values, and these are not easy conversations.
Resistance to these difficult conversations can find validation in the assumption that technology
is neutral, that engineers create tools and don’t have to concern themselves with how those
tools get used. Technologies are not neutral. Technologies reflect the goals of their creators,
have effects on the world that are not neutrally distributed, and re-arrange power structures in
society. We cannot hide behind the idea that technologies are neutral and that their effects,
whether positive or negative, are the sole responsibility of the user.
The second reason lies deeper. It is often implicit, as it is in that quote above the library. It is the
assumption that engineering cannot help but make the world a better place. It is a deep faith in
technological invention and innovation. This faith is problematic; it is ignorant of the lopsided
effects that engineering has, both within humanity and between humanity and the non-human
world (see the surveillance state, drone strikes, climate change, etc.). It also displaces the social
in favor of the technical, and we ought to consider the possibility that what the world needs is
not the stuff of science fiction but of “social fiction.”
There is a third possible reason, and that is that we do not care about figuring out how to leave
the world a better place than we found it. From my experiences here, the conversations I’ve
had, the wonderful and beautiful work that I’ve seen students, faculty, and staff pursue, I don’t
think this is true. I am sure that there are people here that truly don’t care, but I do not see
evidence of this as a general truth.
So I am not trying to claim that we are a community of sociopaths. My argument is more along
the lines that Olin is institutionally sociopathic. Many members of our community want to figure
out how to do good in the world and yet we have an institution that offers little support and is
content with evaluating its success by the starting salaries of its graduates.
I think that if we’re serious about leading a revolution in engineering education, a sense of
purpose around why and how we practice engineering is important. And I strongly believe that
we should codify that purpose. As practicing engineers, and indeed as some of the most
privileged people on the planet (the average Olin starting salary puts one in the top 1% of
income earners in the world), we have incredible power. Using that power for good is not easy. I
think it is quite difficult to leave things better than we found them when we’re explicitly trying
very hard at it, and impossible when we’re not. I am arguing that we should go for it, and we
should go for it explicitly.
What do you think? What do you think the purpose of Olin College is, or should be? What would
you like to see in the list of core institutional values? My idea of amending the core institutional
values is just that, an idea. It is a potential first step, with a lot of hard work to follow.
If this is near and dear to you, get organized. Host discussions, draft proposals, try and build a
consensus among the student body. Look for faculty support, but understand that the lack of
tenure at Olin makes it difficult for faculty to speak critically about the institution. Bring ideas to
the administration and to the Board of Trustees, and expect resistance. Recognize that there is
a lot of comfort with the status quo. But also recognize that this is your college and that you
have power to transform it.
I also want to point out here that I think the scholarship is fundamentally tied into this (fun fact,
the scholarship is the only founding precept that the Board of Trustees has been willing to
revise, even before the grossly misguided commitments to capitalism and no tenure for faculty).
When I graduated from Olin I had no debt and a lot of freedom to take risks, and I know that this
is a freedom that many students do not have. An unequivocal commitment by Olin College to
direct engineering education towards bettering the world would demand a commitment to
students graduating without debt as well as strong support of students taking risks, both during
and after Olin.
For additional context on the history of military contractors at Olin, see these Frankly Speakings:
● Is Our Empowerment Zero-Sum? (2011)
● The Meaning of Empowerment (2011)
● A Few Thoughts (2011)
See also:
● Abrams, R. M. (1989). The U.S. Military and Higher Education: A Brief History. The
ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 502(1), 15-28.
● Smart, B. (2016). Military-industrial complexities, university research and neoliberal
economy. Journal of Sociology, 52(3), 455-481.
● Wilson, D. A. (1989). Consequential Controversies. The ANNALS of the American
Academy of Political and Social Science, 502(1), 40-57.
● Tufts: Students, community members protest military industrial recruitment at career fair The Tufts Daily
● UMass Amherst: Update on UMass Dissenters protest efforts against Raytheon and
subsidiary company – Massachusetts Daily Collegian
● Boston University: Students protest Engineering Career Fair for inviting companies that
‘cause harm’ – The Daily Free Press
● Harvard: O’Sullivan: Resign Out of Shame, Not Pressure | Opinion | The Harvard
● Northeastern: Activists, students protest Raytheon at NU career fair – The Huntington