As the Bowdoin community attempts to educate themselves on the ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine, six professors shared their thoughts through the lenses of their areas of expertise.
Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern and North African Studies Nasser Abourahme researches migration, race, anticolonialism and Palestine. Abourahme emphasized how important historical context is to the conflict.
“This is a historical injustice that starts with the colonization of this country and the ethnic cleansing of its native inhabitants in 1948 and the near total destruction of a society. Then, it is continuously reproduced in military occupation and further displacement,” Abourahme said.
Abourahme said that the historical context, in his view, made the current bloodshed inevitable.
“I would say it is entirely inevitable given the apartheid system that exists,” Abourahme said. “Violence is not only inevitable; violence is a daily feature of this system. There is nothing that was surprising about the events of the last couple of weeks.”
Abourahme believes the current conflict will be drawn out for some time. However, as more attention is drawn to Israel’s motives, he thinks its campaign may become more difficult to carry out.
“I have to hope and believe that the full extent of [Israel’s] campaign now will not be realized. I think it’s abundantly clear what those aims are—given the discourse, the genocidal incitement across the Israeli political system and the very explicit desire to conduct some sort of population transfer or some sort of forced displacement,” Abourahme said.
Abourahme said the United States is complicit in the conflict and has given the Israeli government a blank check. He attributes the U.S.’s involvement to its attempt to gain control of the region.
“In my reading, [the involvement] is because for large parts of the U.S., the Israeli state is a sort of central pillar in their management of [the Middle East]. They view it, along with Saudi Arabia, as their ability to control the general patterns in that region,” Abourahme said.
Abourahme takes solace in the strength of the people both in Gaza and in the protests occurring around the world.
“I have faith in people’s ordinary capacity around the world to mobilize against [Israel’s campaign]. We are seeing a whole host of some of the biggest street demonstrations, mobilizations and forms of activism here, in Europe, across the Arab world, in the Middle East and [in] Latin America,” Abourahme said.
Associate Professor of Government & Legal Studies Barbara Elias specializes in insurgency warfare and U.S. foreign policy. Before coming to the College, she was the director of the Afghanistan/Pakistan/Taliban Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C.
“This current moment is not a counterinsurgency so much as an attempted regime change, as Israel aims to decimate and overthrow Hamas as the governing authority in Gaza, or at least expel them from parts of northern Gaza,” Elias wrote in an email to the Orient.
Elias contextualized Israel’s bombing of Gaza with scholarship on this kind of warfare.
“Counterinsurgencies are always brutal for the population because insurgents typically hide in civilian areas as a survival strategy. But there is wide variation in how much violence on civilians counterinsurgents are willing to impose,” Elias wrote. “Democracies, like Israel, are typically not able to sustain military campaigns where there are significant risks to civilians because of domestic and international political pressures.”
In her email, Elias touched on the term “terrorism” and its use within the discourse around the October 7 Hamas attack and subsequent media coverage.
“There is no universally agreed upon definition of terrorism in political science because it is a pejorative term…. However, political scientists nevertheless extensively study terrorist tactics, methods of politically motivated violence undertaken by a variety of non-state groups, typically targeting civilians, and often utilizing spectacular violence,” Elias wrote. “On October 7, Hamas committed a substantial and gruesome campaign against southern Israelis, including civilians and children, using terrorist tactics. I characterize that as terrorism. Hamas is a terrorist group, as well as a political party, a set of governing institutions in Gaza and an international ally to other groups in the region.”
Elias then spoke on the diversity of opinion that exists at Bowdoin surrounding the complex crisis.
“Palestinians and Israelis are diverse national and international communities, and there are lots of disparate opinions within each group about the path forward. We too, in our communities can embrace diverse opinions, and can be willing to update our positions, even as we hold fast to our principles,” Elias wrote.
Visiting Assistant Professor of English Zahir Janmohamed previously worked at Amnesty International, where he focused on advocacy in the Middle East and North Africa. He also served as a senior foreign policy aide in the U.S. Congress. Janmohamed believes that Israel’s motives are clear.
“My human rights training at Amnesty International dissuades me from talking about motivations and instead to characterize actions. However, in this case, Israeli officials have, on numerous occasions, spoken about wanting to remove all Palestinians from Gaza. Israeli officials have also argued that there are no civilians in Gaza. This is a worrisome trend,” Janmohamed wrote in an email to the Orient.
Janmohamed also stressed the importance of focusing on the colonization of land rather than two opposing sides.
“This is not a Jewish-Muslim conflict, but a conflict between the occupier and the occupied,” Janmohamed wrote. “It is important, I would argue, that we normalize the word ‘occupation.’ The former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon himself acknowledged the occupation, and yet so many in America still refuse to say that word.”
He posited that America’s refusal to use the word occupation ties into a broader theme of deliberate ignorance about the conflict.
“We deal with this issue by avoiding it, or worse, by rubber-stamping everything Israel does,” Janmohamed wrote. “Right now, I see the U.S. committing this same blunder all over again: It is giving Israel no incentive to change, and it is sidelining Palestinian lives.”
Professor of Government and Asian Studies Henry Laurence studies public broadcasters, primarily the British Broadcasting Company and the Japanese Broadcasting Company. Laurence spoke about the media’s coverage of the conflict, laying out the standards that public broadcasters are expected to abide by.
“[Public broadcasters] need to be accurate; they need to be fair; they need to listen to as many different sides as possible, avoiding the temptation of thinking there’s only two. They need to provide context, being aware that what context you provide is itself a choice,” he said.
Laurence emphasized that even when sources are verified and facts are accurate, the way this information is portrayed affects public perception.
“What things do you call brutal, what do you call a retaliation? What’s a retaliatory strike?” Laurence said.
His suggestion is to read a wide variety of sources that are explicit about their views and procedures.
“News can be accurate but still misleading or still distorted, and that’s why trying to cross reference and read as much good stuff as possible is important, knowing that nothing’s going to be perfect,” Laurence said.
Paige Milligan, an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Arabic, spent two semesters in college studying at Birzeit University, located in the West Bank. After graduating, she returned to Palestine and worked at Al-Quds University, also located in the West Bank. Milligan said that she witnessed extensive repression and violence directed at Palestinians from the Israeli state and settlers during her time there.
Milligan was clear that the issue is not just isolated to Gaza, explaining that the increase in tension and violence has been visible across Israel and Palestine.
“Israel’s impunity in Gaza gives it more impunity in the West Bank,” she said.
Milligan used her experience in the West Bank to illustrate the inequality that persists there in terms of access to basic resources like water.
“If we didn’t have water to shower, we’d buy some bottled water and shower with that,” Milligan said. “[Israeli] settlements have swimming pools.”
In terms of her advice to Bowdoin students wanting to help, Milligan suggested calling representatives, going to protests and using care when reading the news.
“We really need to think about the news sources that we’re consuming and try to have a much more varied media diet,” Milligan said.
George Lincoln Skolfield, Jr. Professor of Religion and Middle Eastern and North African Studies Robert Morrison expounded upon the ways that religion is relevant to the conflict.
“Religion can be a way to make sense of violence,” Morrison said. He emphasized that while Hamas’s ideology is religious, it is a product of different contexts.
“[Hamas’s] ideology is coming out of Islam, but at the same time, the study of religion is teaching us that religion is politically, socially [and] historically constructed,” Morrison said. “It’s not like Islam is saying only one particular thing…. I don’t think groups like [Hamas] would be saying what they’re saying [if] the conditions [were] different.”
Morrison then touched on the religious aspects of Israel and Zionism.
“Nothing is inherent in religion…. Israelis disagree about Zionism—they have in the past, they still do…. There’s this idea that really, the only way Jews can really thrive is to have their own country…. There are some problematic aspects of Zionism. And it’s a product of a certain place and time,” Morrison said.
For those seeking out more opportunities to educate themselves, the Department of Middle East and North Africa Studies will be hosting a professor-led teach-in next week.