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Rabbi Bachman talks Israel-Palestine violence, provokes student engagement and dissatisfaction

November 10, 2023

Cora Dow
TALKING ISRAEL-PALESTINE: Rabbi Andy Bachman speaks to a crowd in Kresge Auditorium. Bachman’s talk elicited many questions from the audience, and many students were dissatisfied with his comments on the violence in Israel and Palestine.

Rabbi Andy Bachman spoke on Israel and Palestine through the lens of his personal and educational experiences to a crowd of faculty, staff and students on Tuesday evening.

Bachman founded Water Over Rocks and the Center for Midwestern Jewish Communities. He recently moved to Portland, before which he was the director of the Jewish Community Project of Lower Manhattan and the senior rabbi at congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. He was brought to campus by Margaret Boyle, Jennifer Taback and Rachel Connelly, professors of romance languages and literatures, mathematics and economics, respectively. The talk was unaffiliated with Bowdoin College Hillel.

“[Taback, Connelly] and I met to talk about the complex experiences of Jewish students, faculty and staff following the October 7 attacks in Israel, the horrific loss of life over this last month in Gaza,” Boyle wrote in an email to the Orient. “Students have been sharing a variety of questions and emotions unlocked in these last weeks and looking to understand concrete information [about] the history of the region prior to 1948 and pathways to move out of violence.”

Connelly echoed Boyle’s sentiments on expanding campus conversation about the violence.

“There was a concern that not all sides were being heard and particularly that Jewish voices were missing from the conversation, and that would be useful for our campus conversation,” Connelly said.

Bachman defines himself as a Zionist, a believer in the existence of the Jewish state of Israel. His reasons for this identification include historical evidence of Jewish presence in the region since pre-modern times.

Given this part of his identity, Bachman views the slogan “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free” as an anti-semitic rallying cry, and characterized large protests against Israel across the U.S. as anti-semitic as well. He believes that the slogan implies the total eradication of the Jewish state and Jewish inhabitants there.

He cautioned against slogans that call for the eradication of Palestine as well, vehemently advocating for a two-state solution. Bachman strongly believes that peace is possible. He repeated the notion that the two peoples can and must live side by side, because neither of them are going anywhere. This is a notion he believes that most Israelis support during peacetime.

He criticized the current Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, calling it the most evil and racist Israeli government in the history of the country. Bachman noted that even before October 7, many Israelis took to the streets regularly to protest “Bibi’s government.” Bachman also echoed calls to “break the necks of Hamas,” meaning unequivocal defeat of the organization, which he claimed is a goal supported by leaders of neighboring Arab countries. He noted that he somewhat reluctantly signed a petition for a ceasefire for humanitarian reasons with around 700 rabbis, though he did not elaborate on his reluctance.

The following Q&A portion of the talk elicited multiple queries from the audience regarding a plan for Hamas’s defeat or for a two-state solution. Bachman reiterated points made earlier in the talk, such as the inauguration of a new Israeli government, but did not claim to have or know of a plan.

After the formal Q&A period, a group of students gathered around Bachman to ask more questions in an informal setting. Students expressed concerns at what they saw as the differentiated way that Bachman addressed Israeli and Palestinian civilian deaths. He was vocally against the use of the term genocide, as he does not belive this situation qualifies as such.

“I was very glad to see the 30 plus students staying after the Q&A to continue engaging with [Bachman] over hard questions about Palestine and Israel and expressing frustrations in an informed and respectful way,” Boyle wrote. “[Something] I also appreciated about his talk [was] the reminder to avoid silencing each other, simplifications and slogans—to engage in compassionate listening and critical conversation.”

Rachel Klein ’24 was dissatisfied with both Bachman’s presentation and the ensuing discussion.

“I think that he tried to frame himself as not being a historian, but he was also willing to present a very lopsided view of history that was disturbing,” Klein said. “He tried to present his facts, glibly calling the Six-Day War a ‘just war’ in which Israel had a right to defend itself and had a right to gain new territory to occupy. While it is one perspective, it’s not some historical fact.”

“I am Jewish, and I am a member of Students for Justice in Palestine…. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Jewish voices aren’t or haven’t been represented. As a Jew, I stand against the current genocide, against the occupation and against Israel’s long and violent settler colonial history. I think as Jews we have been talking on campus—it just isn’t the perspective certain people want to hear. And while I don’t speak for all Jews on campus, Rabbi Bachman certainly doesn’t either,” Klein said.

Julia Starck ’26 reflected on the tense atmosphere post-presentation and what she saw as the general dissatisfaction of students with how the rabbi handled himself, while grappling with the personal implications of discussions on campus.

“Rabbi Bachman’s event left me very anxious. And I don’t think it’s that simple, and I don’t think Rabbi Bachmann believes it’s that simple, which I respected,” Starck said. “But his refusal to condemn Israel for the murders of 10,000 Palestinians was unacceptable and really inflamed everyone at the lecture, rightfully so.”

Starck felt that the talk pushed her to reflect on her own relationship to Israel.

“Even if I don’t consider myself religious, I’ve said the prayers and celebrated Israel my entire life. And when I say ‘Israel,’ I mean an idea, not a set of borders…. So I think the question for me then is, ‘Am I allowed to dream of this radical future where everyone can live happily and peacefully?’ But I have no clue how to get there. Am I allowed to do that, or do I have to be pragmatic, and choose a side and think of a way forward?” Starck said.

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