Mideast war sparks disruption at Deval Patrick-led tech incubator

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

An incubator for Israeli-Palestinian startups chaired by former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is facing turmoil as Israel’s war with Hamas intensifies.

Our Generation Speaks — a Boston-based nonprofit housed at Brandeis University — was founded in 2014 to educate and train entrepreneurs who are “committed to shaping a peaceful Israeli-Palestinian future built on trust,” according to its website. It's backed by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

Days after Hamas launched the surprise attack that killed at least 1,200 civilians, nearly four dozen of OGS's Israeli graduates submitted a letter to the organization’s leadership saying it had failed to take a “decisive stance” against other alums who they claimed had made statements in support of the attacks.

Separately, some Palestinian alums have requested that the organization put out a formal statement that expresses concern for “the impact of this crisis on innocent lives, including their own lives and families,” Patrick told POLITICO in an email. Palestinian authorities estimate that at least 2,750 people have been killed in Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip since Oct. 7.

The dispute unfolding at OGS is emblematic of similar challenges that political leaders, Wall Street executives and university administrators are facing as the conflict intensifies.

When asked about the OGS’s future, Patrick said Sunday that the “horrific war has and will continue to test whether the personal bonds of trust and shared experience we have worked so hard to build will hold up under the current crisis. I am confident that they will endure.”

He added: "I believe in the power of this organization and its members now more than ever. But it is a question they should not have to answer under the extreme stress of this moment."

Following Hamas’s attack, a WhatsApp chat that graduates have described as a key communication channel for the business and networking group deteriorated into heated exchanges between Israeli and Palestinian alums, according to screenshots shared with POLITICO.

While OGS CEO Lobna Agbaria urged participants to “put our humanity in the centre and support each other as individuals and as a community,” different factions fought over the extent to which the recent violence has echoed earlier clashes.

As the dispute escalated, some Israelis accused Palestinian members of posting content that was antisemitic or supportive of Hamas. Agbaria told POLITICO that the organization would “expel any alumni who expresses support for Hamas or any act of terrorism.”

Meanwhile, some Palestinian members have asked to withdraw from the organization’s alumni network as the situation in Gaza grew more dangerous.

“Our efforts always place people’s well-being at the forefront, and we painfully understand their situation,” Agbaria said.

OGS was designed as a training ground for young Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs, connecting them with venture capitalists, U.S. industry leaders and academics in an environment where they could work together on their startups.

In conversations and texts, four alums described their time at the incubator as a valuable period that contributed to frank but constructive communication between Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs about their backgrounds and the conflict. Now, they have doubts about whether the program can continue.

“Up until now, I had huge appreciation towards OGS. I felt it was one of the most effective Israeli-Palestinian organizations in the field,” Eyal Akerman, a Tel Aviv city councilman who was part of the program’s 2019 class, said in a text message to POLITICO. “Unfortunately — at the moment of truth — OGS has failed me and my Israeli [colleagues] in taking a strong stand against antisemitism and terrorism.”

Patrick, a Democrat who served as governor from 2007 to 2015, has focused on social impact investment programs since leaving office, and Kraft — a former Trump donor and criminal justice advocate — has funded several projects through his family foundation to bridge religious divides.

On Sunday, Patrick sent an email to the organization’s alums saying that OGS would stand by its mission statement — “To create an entrepreneurial community of leaders committed to shaping a peaceful Israeli-Palestinian future built on trust” — rather than putting out a specific response to recent events.

“Any response from our organization can place our alums' safety across the border at great risk due to their affiliation with OGS,” he wrote. “This is especially important during an active war. These are terrible times, and the unimaginable can happen, as we have already witnessed. Our approach is to protect all involved and support future connections.”