Tribute to Herbert C. Kelman

Herbert C. Kelman, 1927–2022

By Cassandra de Alba

Portrait of Herbert KelmanHerbert Chanoch Kelman, the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Emeritus, passed away peacefully on March 1, 2022, at age ninety-four. His commitment to peace and the alleviation of human suffering inspired generations of students, academics, and diplomats who have benefited from his mentorship and been influenced by his ideas. 

Professor Kelman was born in Vienna in 1927; his family fled Nazi persecution to Belgium and then the United States. As a Holocaust survivor, he spent his life and career acutely aware of the dangers of dehumanization and discrimination. In the 1940s, he became involved in the civil rights movement, and was one of the cofounders of the Baltimore chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality, along with his wife Rose, who was his partner in life and work for more than sixty years.

Among his many professional accomplishments were the founding of the Research Exchange on the Prevention of War; the Journal of Conflict Resolution; and the book International Behavior: A Social-Psychological Analysis, which is widely accepted as the definitive presentation of the social-psychological dimensions of international conflict. 

In addition to his work on the ethics of social research, conformity and obedience, and nationalism and national identity, much of Professor Kelman’s career was spent on international conflict and its resolution, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. His interactive problem-solving methodology—a Track II diplomatic approach to resolving conflict—continues to be used today. For over three decades, he organized and led problem-solving worThe Journal of Conflict Resolution coverkshops for politically influential Israelis and Palestinians. In 1993, he and his graduate students founded the Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution (PICAR), which became a model of his scholar-practitioner approach. In 2003, Professor Kelman formally retired after more than five decades at Harvard. 

Professor Kelman was the recipient of over thirty prestigious awards during his academic career, including the Socio-Psychological Prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Psychological Association's Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest, the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order, the Austrian Medal of Honor for Science and Art, and the Grand Medal of Honor for Meritorious Contributions to the Republic of Austria. In 2011, Vienna’s Institute for Integrative Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding was renamed the Herbert C. Kelman Institute for Interactive Conflict Transformation.

There will be a memorial for Herbert Kelman on September 16, 2022, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at Memorial Church. To read more about Herbert Kelman and his lifetime pursuit of peace, read our 2017 Centerpiece interview, In Conversation with Herbert C. Kelman


Herb Kelman blows out candles at his 91st birthday celebrationWhen I try to explain who Herb was as a person, I often return to my memory of his ninetieth birthday celebration, which coincided with a conference held at Harvard. As his assistant, I had spent several days running around attending to details, and after lunch on his birthday I was cleaning up after the attendees. That’s when I noticed Herb across the room, carefully throwing away his own trash and recycling his soda can. Even at an event held in his honor, he was never too busy or too important to consider his impact on the world around him. He was truly a scholar-practitioner in every sense, and while he may have been a giant in the fields of social psychology and international conflict resolution, to me he was the person who often ended our phone calls with “Stay out of trouble—unless it’s of your own making.”

—Cassandra de Alba
Assistant to Professor Herbert C. Kelman, Weatherhead Center 

In the late 1990s, Herb and I took a trip to Havana, Cuba to give several lectures at the University of Havana and to meet with a select group of  government officials. We were delighted to be two of the few American academics to visit Cuba. Those of you who knew Herb, know that he was a performer. He loved talking about the interactive problem-solving methodology that he developed to work with Palestinians and Israelis. Our hope was that we would lay the groundwork for a US–Cuba dialogue, which eventually happened. The most memorable part of the trip was when we were walking the streets of Havana after a lovely dinner with our hosts, and he heard music playing in the background. He looked at our host and said, “Let’s follow the music!” We did just that, and when we arrived at the dance floor, Herb grabbed my hand and started twirling me around, then proceeded to do a mean salsa! We all cheered him on while he was surrounded by fellow Cubans. When he was done, he took a deep bow and said to me, “I just love to dance.” That was my Herb.  

—Donna Hicks
Associate, Weatherhead Center 

Book cover for Crimes of ObedienceOn February 24 of this year, I was the last speaker at the Herbert C. Kelman Seminar on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution, where Herb could pop in at any time in the talk with all his unparalleled energy. It was such an honor for me to present my book at the seminar and come back to my WCFIA family—albeit virtually. As an alumna, it was thanks to the many WCFIA resources that allowed me to finish my book. I had the immense honor of meeting Herb in 2017 and was already impressed by his work on psychological approaches to conflict resolution that are, of course, seminal in the field but also particularly inspiring to me in their push for interdisciplinarity in international relations—something I really value as a scholar and educator. Herb’s book, Crimes of Obedience, had such an impact on me because it is an insightful read with rich examples of different governments’ blatant violations of human rights, but also because it is meaningful to think about how much harm has been done in the name of doing the “right” thing for the state. 

Herb embodied so much kindness that made me find his work even more resounding. At my first seminar at the WCFIA, I was so touched to have him attend an earlier presentation of my work. He came in early and quietly sat in the front row like an eager student with a notebook already cracked open. At the end of the talk, he shared with me his experience with the Palestine question, which was very thoughtful of him given that it is a key concern for my region. 

With Donna Hicks—my mentor at the WCFIA and a moral giant that I am so honored to call my dear friend now—we were hoping to celebrate Herb around the time of his ninety-fifth birthday on March 22 of this year. Donna and I have been sad about his passing, but we have also been sharing our memories of Herb and remembering how much love he exuded. He was our moral giant and has forever marked us as people and scholars.

—Zaynab El Bernoussi
Assistant Professor, Universite Internationale de Rabat

Herb and Rose Kelman dancing

One of my treasured memories of Herb involved my daughter, Annie. My husband, Jay, and I had just returned from China with Annie who was only six months old. It was December 1996, a couple of weeks before Christmas, and Boston/Cambridge was quite cold. Soon after arriving home, I called Herb and Rose and said I wanted to come by and introduce Annie. They were delighted and I remember Rose telling me to make sure Annie was dressed warmly. A few days later, off we went. This was one of Annie’s first excursions. Everything was new to her—sights, sounds, smells—and she seemed to take it all in, closely observing her new environment, especially people. In those first few weeks she didn’t smile too much. I think she was trying to understand where she was and what it all meant. 
As we entered the Kelman home, I wasn’t sure how Annie would react given how overwhelmed she was by so many new places and people. It was clear that Herb and Rose understood some tentativeness on Annie’s part and approached her gently and respectfully. As she became the center of attention—to which she had no difficulty adjusting—Annie seemed to light up and I was struck by her reaction. The love and warmth that soon surrounded her endeared her to Herb and Rose. And what I remember vividly was the big smile that came across her face, something I hadn’t really seen until that moment.
Rose asked if she could take photographs of Annie—black and white, of course—and after a few shots, Annie, to my great surprise, looked into the camera and appeared to be posing!  Herb then asked if he could hold her. I placed her on his lap where she sat for the remainder of our visit. Herb had his arms around Annie, and she was clearly content. It was as if she had a perch of authority from which to continue her observations. Periodically, Annie would turn her head to look at Herb and he would always meet her glance with a warm smile. At one point, while still on his lap, she turned toward me and unexpectedly let out a squeal of absolute delight as if to say, “I am having a great time!” Concerned that Herb might be getting tired of holding Annie, I walked over to pick her up and both he and she made it quite clear that my concern was unfounded.
Rose took many photos of Annie and Herb that day, some of which I have and treasure. I shall always remember how important and, I believe, transformative, that visit was for Annie and her sense of belonging and family of which Herb and Rose were a cherished part.

—Sara Roy
Associate, Center for Middle Eastern Studies

Herbert Kelman and Lenore Martin at the Middle East Seminar

When I think of the many times I watched Herb lead the Middle East Seminar, I marvel at the amazing decorum that reigned during those meetings. The Middle East often has a way of raising people’s emotions. Yet Herb was held in such respect, was so knowledgeable, and so fair, that participants around the table learned to hear each other. 

Those same “Herb gifts” carried over to the impactful interactive problem-solving workshops he developed to bring Palestinians and Israelis together to recognize each other’s life narratives and to work together toward peace. He began to do this when just being together could have landed the participants in jail—or worse. 

Herb’s mischievous sense of humor, his kindness, brilliance, inclusiveness, along with his indefatigable work for peace and justice permeated his life and the lives of those fortunate enough to work with him. This was epitomized when off to the side at one WCFIA event—and to Herb’s surprise—Sam Huntington looked at Herb and said to him: “You should get the Nobel Prize for peace.” On that…I think we would all agree with Professor Huntington!

—Lenore G. Martin
Associate, Weatherhead Center; Professor of Political Science and International Studies, Emmanuel College

Herb Kelman and Peter Zimmerman sitting at table in front of a large world map


  1. Herbert C. Kelman. Credit: Justin Ide, Harvard University
  2. Herb Kelman celebrating his ninety-first birthday in 2019. Courtesy of Lenore Martin
  3. Herb Kelman and his wife Rose dancing at the WCFIA fiftieth anniversary celebration held in November 2007. Credit: Martha Stewart
  4. Herbert Kelman, cochair of the CMES/WCFIA Middle East Seminar, gave a lecture titled “Is a Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Still Possible? The Perspective of a Strategic Optimist” on March 28, 2013. Cochair Lenore Martin is in the background. Credit: Johanna Bodnyk
  5. Herbert Kelman (left), Richard Clark Cabot Research Professor of Social Ethics, and Philip Heymann (right), James Barr Ames Professor of Law, participate in a discussion at 124 Mt. Auburn St. as members of the strategy committee for the Project on Justice in Times of Transition, a then-new interfaculty program at Harvard, on May 31, 2000. Credit: Kris Snibbe, Harvard News Office