November 22, 2021  Princeton, New Jersey

IN MEMORIAM: Allen H. Kassof (1930-2021)

Dr. Allen H. Kassof, a friend, mentor, cherished colleague, and the founding President of the Princeton-based Project on Ethnic Relations (PER) died on November 22. The Council for Inclusive Governance is the successor organization to PER. Allen died peacefully at his home in Princeton, NJ where he lived with his family for many decades. He was an outstanding mediator in many interethnic conflicts in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. The many tributes that come from different corners of the world rightly celebrate Allen’s outstanding accomplishments and his unparalleled ability to combine profound knowledge and common sense. He was an excellent, sharp, and succinct writer. Allen was keenly interested in building peace and interethnic accord in the region of post-Communist Europe where he worked for so many decades. Until the very last months we consulted with him. Only the global pandemic stopped him from traveling and being an active part of facilitation efforts in Romania between the country’s Romanians and Hungarians. We feel privileged to have known him and be mentored by him.

Allen Kassof was born in 1930 in New York City, a son of Jewish immigrants from what was then Russian Empire. He studied sociology at Rutgers University and received his doctoral degree in sociology from Harvard University in 1960. Earlier in his career, he taught at Smith College and in 1961-1973 was a member of the sociology faculty at Princeton University. He also served as an assistant dean and directed the Critical Languages Program. The program brought women to study at Princeton before they were first admitted as undergraduates in 1969.

Following the Eisenhower-Khrushchev agreement on academic exchanges, in 1968, Dr. Kassof founded the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), which conducted exchanges with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In anticipation of the serious interethnic conflicts that were to erupt following the collapse of Communism, he established PER within IREX in 1991. Allen left IREX in 1992 to concentrate on PER where he presided over many negotiations and mediated ethnic conflicts in Europe. He was intensely involved in the establishment on multiethnic governance in Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and the countries of former Yugoslavia. He led PER until his retirement in 2005 but stayed on as a senior adviser and a board member.

Allen was always engaged, wise, and authoritative. He was a great story teller and had an outstanding sense of humor. A humble man, he was keenly interested in people who cherished his wise advice. And this is how we want to remember him, surrounded by friends and admirers who listened to his every word.

In a tribute to Allen Kassof, we publish here below a short piece he wrote in 2001 outlining his own five common-sense rules of interethnic relations.

We will miss him and will honor his memory by continuing his work.



by Dr. Allen H. Kassof

Why is it so difficult to manage or resolve ethnic conflicts? The literature on interethnic relations grows almost daily. Here, PER offers its own small contribution—five rules that reflect a decade’s experience inworking with the antagonists in a number of serious interethnic disputes. Originally devised as a bit of compensatory humor, in fact they look likely to stand the test of time.

  1. In interethnic conflicts, everyone is right. Assertions by ethnic groups, whether majority or minority, are emotion-based and therefore fundamentally irrational. There can be no persuasive proof of which group is right and which is wrong about historical claims or about who is to blame for the conflict. Definitions of “fair” or “just” are inevitably relative and subjective. The best that outsiders can do is to lead the sides to their own agreements and compromises since there are few objective standards in interethnic relations.
  2. In interethnic conflicts, bad behavior always displaces good behavior, but good behavior rarely discourages bad behavior. Typically, bad behavior wins. A current example is Macedonia: the behavior of a small group of determined Albanians has provoked a forceful response from the Macedonian military, resulting in a destructive cycle of attacks and counterattacks. The establishment of a brief truce, and the willingness of the interethnic governing coalition to consider constitutional changes, did not dissuade the rebels from renewing their attack, which provoked a new and more vigorous response from the Macedonian military. Restraint rarely invites restraint.
  3. In trying to resolve interethnic conflicts, the timing is always wrong. By the time the timing is right, it is usually too late. Because of the inherent difficulty of dealing with interethnic tensions, there is a tendency—especially on the part of the dominant or governing group—to deny that there is a problem or to put off consideration of claims by minorities. There is always a good reason at hand: the country has more pressing problems; the demands of the other ethnic group are unfair or excessive; giving in to minority demands will create a political backlash among the majority. Often, serious efforts to deal with the problem come only after a serious crisis has erupted. By then, positions have hardened and conflicts that might have ended in compromise before the crisis have escalated and are unmanageable.
  4. In resolving interethnic conflicts, the devil is in the details. Agreements in principle often break down when they are to be implemented. Real adjustments in interethnic relations often involve serious disruptions of extant behavior. One side must give up a traditional advantage, or some power, to accommodate the other, while the other side is likely to feel that whatever concessions were made are inadequate. Confronted with new realities, those who are affected by them and who must live with the daily consequences of agreements often reject them and try to disrupt their implementation.
  5. In every two-sided interethnic conflict there are at least four sides. The sides in interethnic conflicts are almost never homogeneous but are them-selves divided into factions, typically hawks and doves. The doves on each side usually have the worst of it: virtually any agreement that they reach with the doves on the other side will be attacked by hawks on both sides, who will try to prevent or undermine any agreement. (See Rule 2.)

Success in managing interethnic conflicts means finding ways around such obstacles, even while recognizing them.

Princeton, New Jersey

Summer 2001

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