In Conversation with Herbert C. Kelman

A Lifetime in the Pursuit of Peace

Interview by Michelle Nicholasen

Image of Herbert Kelman

Although we now think of it as a failed effort, the 1993 Oslo Accord forever changed the nature of the Middle East conflict. It marked the first time Israelis and Palestinians recognized each other’s national identity and legitimacy; it created the Palestinian National Authority and the promise of a two-state solution.

Many give credit to longtime Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Herbert C. Kelman, Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Emeritus, for helping plant the seeds for Oslo more than two decades ago—when he began his efforts to bring together politically influential Israelis and Palestinians in confidential meetings, designed to explore the two sides' needs and fears and engage in a process of joint thinking about possible solutions responsive to their concerns.  

To Resolve Conflict, Listen First

Herb Kelman—a social and political psychologist, peace researcher, and educator—has conducted problem-solving workshops and related activities, with a primary focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for more than four decades. In 1971, he and Stephen P. Cohen, with whom he co-taught a graduate seminar on Social-Psychological Approaches to International Relations, conducted a pilot workshop in the context of the class, in which the students participated as apprentice member of the third party. Such workshops became a standard feature of this course throughout the 1980s and 1990s and a model for Kelman's work over the decades.  

In 1976, Kelman joined the Center for International Affairs (to be renamed the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs in 1998) as a Faculty Associate and executive committee member and soon after began to chair its Middle East Seminar. The seminar series, which brings in scholars, political figures, and other Middle East specialists to address political, economic, and social issues in the region, is held at the Weatherhead Center every other week during the academic year. Since 1997, Lenore G. Martin and Sara Roy have joined Kelman as co-chairs of the seminar.

At the initiative of Kelman’s growing number of graduate students and associates working on various aspects of international and intercommunal conflict, Kelman applied for and received a grant from the Hewlett Foundation in 1993, to establish the Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution (PICAR) at the Center for International Affairs. PICAR was run by its members, all of whom had their own projects—in many cases dissertation research. Most of the members of PICAR had at least some experience with Israeli-Palestinian workshops and a number of the student members wrote their dissertations on various aspects of the workshop process, based on systematic observations of workshops and analysis of workshop notes.

A major area of practice and research for many PICAR members was the Middle East. However, several other initiatives were developed by PICAR members, including projects focusing on Sri Lanka, the Balkans, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Colombia, and US-Cuban relations. PICAR also ran a Seminar on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution at the Center for International Affairs. Although PICAR ended in 2003, the seminar has continued to this day at the Weatherhead Center. It has been renamed the Herbert C. Kelman Seminar on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution. It is chaired by Donna Hicks and, since 2003, it has been co-sponsored (in addition to the Weatherhead Center) by the Program on Negotiation at the Harvard Law School, the Shorenstein Center at the Kennedy School of Government, and the Nieman Foundation of Journalism.

Kelman's latest Israeli-Palestinian working group ran from 2004 to 2013. In these confidential workshops and working-group sessions—and there were more than seventy of them over the years—Kelman brought together political influentials face-to-face in a private setting, not to hash out terms of a political agreement, but to talk about the needs, fears, and concerns on both sides of the conflict that would have to be addressed in order to produce a mutually acceptable agreement. Kelman believed that to make progress in achieving a political agreement, the parties had to understand each other’s experiences and acknowledge each other's identity and legitimacy. He believed in this process so strongly, he would dedicate his career to it.

As Kelman writes in the journal Peace and Conflict, the purpose of the Israeli-Palestinian workshops, and of the model in general, was twofold: “ produce change—in the form of new insights into the conflict and new ideas for resolving it—in the particular individuals who are sitting around the workshop table, and to transfer these changes to the political debate and decision-making process in their respective societies.”

“We preferred to work with people who were politically influential but not bound by an official position—such as community leaders, parliamentarians, party activists, former officials, journalists, and politically engaged academicians,” explains Kelman, who retired from teaching in 1999 and lives with his wife and lifelong collaborator, Rose, in Cambridge. “Someone in the official hierarchy, like the foreign ministry, would be too constrained. You can't have somebody of that level in a group with people from the other side and say something without having to worry that it might be construed as policy. It’s very hard to get out of those official roles and think and speak freely,” says Kelman.

Steve Bloomfield, who joined the Center in 1993, and served as executive director from 2006–2015, remembers Kelman’s Israeli-Palestinian workshops as being rather daring in their construction. “People he recruited would come at some risk to be identified as being in the same room with the other party.”

Kelman’s objective was to promote a process that would gradually change the political culture in the region. His work helped to create the conditions that made the Oslo agreement possible and contributed to the hopeful shift in the Middle East in the 1990s.

“He has dedicated his life toward the promotion of peace with an optimism that is now not at all evident in the macro-politics of the region,” says Bloomfield.

When Kelman’s workshops began, it was a time when realist thinking held sway. Political realism said that a nation’s chief motivation was to accumulate power, and all conflicts arose from this dynamic. A new group of scholars would later challenge this view by emphasizing cooperation and interdependence between nations, instead of a zero-sum, win-lose power scenario.

Weatherhead Center Associate Donna Hicks teamed up with Kelman for many years and served as deputy director of PICAR from 1994 to 2003. She says they approached the Middle East conflict from a group dynamics perspective, not entirely through the lens of economics, policy, or game theory.

“As a social psychologist, Herb recognized that there was another dimension of conflict that wasn't being addressed, and it was what he called the social-psychological dimension: looking at the inner worlds of people and asking what it was psychologically that drove them into these complex situations. A few others worked in this field, but Herb was really the pioneer,” Hicks says.

Early Days as an Activist

As a student at Brooklyn College in 1943–47, Kelman became active in the civil rights and peace movements. In the summer of 1944, he attended a conference of politically engaged conscientious objectors in Chicago that would put him on the path of his life’s work. On his way home on the train after the conference, Kelman sat next to one of the conference speakers—a man who had spent time in prison as a draft resister and whose presentation had been particularly eloquent. In their conversation he said that—if he were at Kelman's stage in life—he would study psychology and sociology, because these were the disciplines most relevant to Kelman's concerns with issues of peace, justice, and social change. On returning to Brooklyn College, Kelman chose to major in psychology and very clearly recognized his special interest in social psychology.

One of his earliest public actions was a demonstration in 1946 at the swimming pool in Palisades Park, New Jersey, which discriminated against blacks. Following Gandhian methods of nonviolent direct action, he and his peers kept standing in the ticket line at the pool behind a black member of the group who had been denied admission. The police were called and ordered the protesters to move. Several members of the group, including Kelman, who disobeyed the order, were arrested. A year later he was arrested again, following a demonstration at the Pentagon against nuclear weapons testing. On their way back from the Pentagon to the DC railroad station, he and other members of the group continued to carry their picket signs and were arrested for "parading without a permit."

In 1947, Kelman began graduate work in the Psychology Department at Yale. His doctoral research focused on social influence and attitude change and he firmly established himself as an experimental social psychologist. However, he never forgot his reasons for going into the field. While still in graduate school, he and Arthur Gladstone—a colleague at Yale—were instrumental in starting the Research Exchange on the Prevention of War, the first peace research organization in North America.

After earning his PhD in 1951, he moved to Baltimore for a postdoc at Johns Hopkins, and during this time met his future wife and longtime collaborator, Rose. Both became active in the nascent civil rights movement in that city.

“Baltimore was my first direct experience of racial segregation in the United States on a daily basis. In 1951, the city was completely segregated. There was no place other than the airport where blacks and whites could sit down together to have a  meal or a cup of coffee. I could not live there without doing something about this,” Kelman remembers.

The following year, he co-founded the Baltimore chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), whose efforts led to the desegregation of lunch counters in the five-and-ten cent stores in downtown Baltimore, a key experience in his life as an activist.

“Even though the founders of the CORE chapter were a group of white men with a pacifist background, we were successful in reaching into the black community, largely through three avenues: people—mostly women—affiliated with the black churches; upwardly mobile black women belonging to the ILGWU; and faculty members at Morgan State College, an all-black school at the time,” says Kelman.

Via picket lines, sit-ins, negotiations with store owners, and presentations at stockholder meetings of the parent companies, the group prevailed, and barriers at lunch counters came down across the city. The experience was proof that change could indeed happen, but you had to work hard for it, “one discussion, one lunch counter at a time,” as Kelman puts it.

“It was the most exciting experience. Baltimore was ready for change. The Supreme Court had just ruled on desegregating schools. But it needed people to work on it,” Kelman recalls.

A Career as an Interdisciplinary Scholar-Practitioner

In 1954, after three years in Baltimore, Kelman was invited as one of the first group of fellows at the newly established Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Science at Stanford. There he convened a group of the fellows—many of whom were senior scholars in various disciplines—to tell them about the Research Exchange on the Prevention of War and solicit their advice on how to advance its agenda. These discussions led to the decision to launch the first journal in the interdisciplinary field of peace research, called the Journal of Conflict Resolution, and to publish that journal out of the University of Michigan. The editorial work on the journal at the University of Michigan soon led to the decision to form an interdisciplinary Center for Research on Conflict Resolution.  

In the meantime, Kelman finished his year at the Stanford Center fully committed to his role as an interdisciplinary social scientist. From 1995 to 1957, he was a research psychologist at the National Institute for Mental Health, where he completed a manuscript reporting his theoretical and experimental work on processes of social influence, which earned him the Socio-Psychological Prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1956. In 1957, he joined Harvard’s then Department of Social Relations as a Lecturer on Social Psychology. In 1962, he moved to the University of Michigan as a professor of social psychology and research psychologist at the Center for Research on Conflict Resolution. During the seven years he spent at Michigan, he completed work and published an interdisciplinary volume entitled International Behavior: A Social-Psychological Analysis (1965). The book was more widely read by IR scholars and students than by social psychologists and no doubt helped to give him the credentials that led to his appointment to the Center for International Affairs in 1976 and his election as President of the International Studies Association in 1977.

In 1966, while still at the University of Michigan, Kelman met John Burton, a former Australian diplomat who had established a Center for the Analysis of Conflict at the University of London—a meeting that marked a major turning point in his career. When Burton told him about his experiments in unofficial diplomacy, which brought together influential members of conflicting societies in an academic setting, to explore each other's perspective under the guidance of  a third party of social scientists, Kelman immediately saw it as a way of putting into practice the social-psychological approach to international conflict that he had been thinking and writing about. Burton invited Kelman to London to join the third party in an exercise on the Cyprus conflict. Soon thereafter, Kelman began thinking about building on Burton's model and applying it to the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

In the meantime, Kelman returned to Harvard for good in 1969, as the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics. His first experiment in building on Burton's model was the pilot workshop in 1971. At the time of the Middle East war in 1973, he decided to put this work at the top of his agenda. Initially, with a “balanced” team that included two Jewish-American and three Arab-American social scientists—as well as Rose—he traveled throughout the Middle East and organized a variety of workshops and related events. With different partners and different formats, he continued these activities until 2013. 

Kelman tells a story that encapsulates the process of change his program was designed to evoke:

We were in a workshop and things weren’t getting anywhere. The Israelis were, in a sense, asking the Palestinians for help for something and Palestinians were just not giving. And then at one point an Israeli participant, who happened to be a woman—probably not a coincidence—acknowledged some of the wrongdoings of Israelis toward Palestinians. She showed some understanding, you might say sympathy, for the Palestinian situation with the implication of partial Israeli responsibility for it. And, all of a sudden, the atmosphere completely changed. In the next session there was a real give and take. This was a dramatic case; it wasn’t always dramatic. It's usually more cumulative. But this was a dramatic case where you could feel a real shift from an unwillingness to cooperate to a readiness to cooperate, at least in this process of generating ideas.

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A Pioneer in the Field

“He was brave,” Hicks says of Kelman. “It wasn't fashionable in those early days when power politics defined the rules of the game in international conflicts. Psychology was thought of as a soft subject, because back then we didn’t have the sophisticated data that we have today. But in those days, he just knew in his soul that this was something that had to be examined.”

“Having my program affiliated with the Center for International Affairs made a world of difference. It would be very hard for me to have done all the work that I’ve done coming out of a psychology department,” says Kelman. “It gave my program legitimacy and also, through the Center, I developed important international contacts.”

Hicks, who has worked in international conflict negotiation for more than twenty-five years, and is the author of the book Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict, credits Kelman for the profound effect he had on her intellectual life. “I call him my moral giant,” she says. “He’s inspired so many young people and contemporaries, and he does it quietly. He’s not the kind of person to go and shout his wisdom.”

“He's a person of immense goodwill and great warmth,” says Steve Bloomfield. “He brings people into his presence, makes them feel comfortable and then shines his wisdom on them. I have always felt my relationship with him to be a very fortunate and blessed one.”

Kelman’s warmth belies living through a difficult time in history. “My interest in civil rights and the pursuit of peaceful resolution of conflicts is a direct result of my own experience as a Jewish boy in Austria,” Kelman explains. Thanks to the remarkable foresight of his parents, Kelman and his family were able to escape Vienna a year after the Anschluss—the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany—by using illegal Belgian visas. His parents had applied for US visas shortly after the Anschluss but, because of the quota system at the time, it took two years for the visas to arrive. In the meantime, Belgium offered them asylum. Kelman and his family left for the United States just a few weeks before the Nazis invaded Belgium.

Herb Kelman turned ninety this year. From an eleven-year old boy who witnessed the pogroms of Kristallnacht, to a dedicated peace activist, to a scholar who has seen more failures than successes in the Middle East, Kelman remains hopeful.

“I call myself a strategic optimist,” he clarifies. “A ‘strategic optimist’ will use optimism essentially as a strategy to look for all possible openings and pursue them vigorously. That doesn't mean that you assume everything will turn out all right, but rather that you have to find those openings for peace and work hard to take advantage of them.”

Not only did Kelman work for it; he continues to live it. “Herb Kelman is one of our faculty members most committed to bringing practice to theory,” says Steve Bloomfield. “He’s still very much involved in these issues. There is no past tense with Herb.”

Now a professor emeritus, Kelman regularly participates in events at the Center, including the Herbert C. Kelman Seminar on International Conflict and the Middle East Seminar. It’s easy to find the likeness of Herb Kelman through the years in the group portraits lining the Center’s hallways, standing in the front row, arms crossed, as if ready for the next opening.

Photo Captions

  1. Herbert Kelman at a farewell party for Steve Bloomfield. Photo credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University
  2. Herbert Kelman, co-chair of the CMES/WCFIA Middle East Seminar, gives a lecture entitled "Is a Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Still Possible? The Perspective of a Strategic Optimist." Co-chair Lenore Martin is in background. Photo credit: Johanna Bodnyk