Posters for the student-professor teach-in on the recent conflict in Gaza and Israel advertised Ladd Living Room as the venue, but by the time the event was set to start on Wednesday, it was clear that a much bigger space would be needed. The audience got up from their spots on the floor, along the cramped hallway and in the line spilling out the door and headed over to Kresge Auditorium, where they overflowed out of the 300 seats into the aisles and onto the sides of the stage.
The teach-in was hosted by the student group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and the cast of speakers, both students and professors, touched on the history of the conflict, the current bloodshed, media portrayal of the issue, U.S. involvement and more.
After the Hamas attack on October 7 and the following Israeli bombing in Gaza, SJP members and other student organizers wanted to educate the campus community, create a dialogue and stimulate opposition to the violence. The event was put together quickly, with most of the planning taking place just days before.
The event opened with a historical lens, as Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern and North African Studies Nasser Abourahme presented the issue from 1948 to the present.
“This didn’t start last week. What we are seeing, in my opinion, is, in effect, a return to the original moment of conquest and colonization,” Abourahme said to the audience.
The choice to start with Abourahme was intentional on the part of SJP organizers.
“[Abourahme] is unflinchingly honest in a way that is just incontestable, and thus he doesn’t necessarily alienate people on the other side [of this issue],” Ahmad Abdulwadood ’24, one of the organizers, said.
Abourahme used the term genocide to characterize the Israeli state’s current violence towards Palestinians. He went on to emphasize that this assessment is not his alone, but that of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Lemkin Center for Genocide Prevention and magazine “Jewish Currents.”
“I think there is nowhere to begin other than trying to directly and very squarely call a spade a spade and to look at what’s happening today and call it genocidal,” Abourahme said in his talk. “You don’t need a PhD in Middle Eastern History to oppose genocide. You really don’t.”
At times, the program took a step away from history and statistics to acknowledge the emotional and human facet of this issue. Visiting Assistant Professor of English Zahir Janmohamed followed Abourahme and shared two personal anecdotes about his time visiting Israel and working in the U.S. Congress.
Paige Milligan, a postdoctoral fellow in Arabic at the College, spoke on the importance of humanizing Palestinians and the political repression that Palestinians face in the West Bank. After Milligan, the rest of the nearly two hour talk consisted entirely of student speakers. This balance between professors and students was intentional on the part of SJP.
“We wanted to use professors and their knowledge, expertise and personal investment, but it was important to us that students were also involved,” Abdulwadood said.
By the end of the event, speakers touched on topics including U.S. intervention in the conflict, misinformation in Western media and ways in which language is weaponized in order to dehumanize Palestinians.
After the doxxing of Harvard students who signed a letter criticizing the Israeli government last week, SJP organizers took precautionary measures to protect speakers and attendees. Only those authorized were permitted to photograph or record the event, and audience members were told to keep the identities of speakers off of social media.
“We all know that there are risks that are inherent with involving oneself in this topic,” Abdulwadood said. “Ultimately, we think there is a moral calling here that supersedes that risk.”
SJP hopes that audience members walked away from the event feeling more confident in their ability to discuss the issues with their peers.
“When we don’t have a conversation, of course it’s scary to speak. But it doesn’t have to be that way,” organizer Eisa Rafat ’25 said. “It felt like these conversations were happening in people’s small bubbles, but I think the part that was missing was Bowdoin as a whole. It becomes isolating and very lonely feeling that much sadness.”
The teach-in, beyond its educational purpose, also functioned as a call-to-action, as SJP aimed to inspire others to take a personal stake in the crisis.
“There is a civilian population right now that is being denied access to electricity, food, fuel and water and are facing a relentless bombing campaign,” Abdulwadood said. “It’s incumbent on us to do something and to force our government to apply pressure to stop the criminal elimination of human life.”
For at least one attendee, Asher Feiles ’27, the message was heard loud and clear.
“I find so much value in finding people here who I can relate to and who give other students the bravery to speak on things that aren’t easy to speak about,” Feiles said. “It really just takes one person to stand up and make a difference. This was really powerful.”
Organizers saw the overwhelming turn-out as a testament to how much students care about the issue.
“We were like, this is it. This is what we’ve been working for,” Rafat said. “We had to move because there were so many people there. That’s a great problem to have. I think that it was a really big display of interest.”
Later on Wednesday evening, after the teach-in, Bowdoin Student Government held a meeting where students and faculty, including President Safa Zaki, discussed the College’s response to the conflict. On Thursday afternoon, Zaki sent out a school-wide email expressing her sympathy and hesitation to release an official statement.
“I write to you with a heavy heart, weighed down by the brutal acts of terrorism committed by Hamas, by the tragic loss of innocent life in Israel and Gaza, by the rise of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic rhetoric and actions, by worry about what is to come, and by the pain that so many of us are feeling and that some of you have shared with me,” Zaki wrote.
Senior Vice President for Inclusion and Diversity Benje Douglas sent an email detailing programming and resources for students and faculty.
Editor’s Note 10/20/2023 at 12:00 p.m.: A direct quote from President Safa Zaki’s email to the College was added to the online version of this article for clarity.