On Wednesday night, the Middle Eastern and North African Studies (MENA) program hosted a talk titled “Difficult Terms in the Israel/Palestine Conflict” in Kresge Auditorium. Students, Bowdoin faculty and community members filled the seats to hear three professors give context to the violence occurring in Israel and Palestine. Associate Professor of Government Barbara Elias, Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern and North African Studies Nasser Abourahme and Professor of Religion and Director of the Middle Eastern and North African Studies Program Robert G. Morrison spoke at the event.
Over the course of the talk, the speakers unpacked three “difficult terms” associated with the ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine. Professor Morrison spoke on the term “Zionism,” Professor Abourahme on “settler colonialism” and Professor Elias on “defense.” Presentations were followed by a Q&A session with the audience. By opening the discussion on these “difficult terms,” the MENA program hoped to clarify community members’ uncertainties surrounding these complex topics.
Professor Elias remarked on the intent of Wednesday’s event, seeing it as an opportunity for collective learning and discourse.
“The purpose of today’s teach-in is to gather our collective knowledge and deep concern over the violence in Israel and Palestine and reach collective learning, focusing on these keywords that serve as turning points in our discussion. It is to serve as a reminder of the power of language and the importance of discourse and the role that institutions like Bowdoin have by offering spaces and taking time together,” Elias said.
Morrison opened the discussion with the history of Zionism, how it emerged and Israel’s multifaceted significance to a larger Jewish diaspora, 50 percent of whom live in the United States.
“In the diaspora, Israel can represent the pole of attachment, a cultural center. In a multi-ethnic country like the United States, emotional ties of American Jews to Israel can parallel the ties other Americans feel to the country of their heritage. And it’s not just about politics and ethnicity. Hebrew is the most important Jewish language, and Zionists invented modern Hebrew.”
Morrison also touched on how the early Zionist project divided Jews based on racial hierarchies and emphasized the lasting effects of these historical divisions.
“This othering of the Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin by the Zionists has led to a significant division in modern Israeli society between Jews of European origin and those of Middle Eastern and North African origin,” Morrison said.
Expanding on the effects of the early Zionist project, Professor Abourahme next presented the term “settler colonialism” as a critical part of recent and historical violence in Palestine. After highlighting several explicit calls for the displacement of Palestinians by Israeli state leaders and recognizing the intentionality of current violence against Palestinians, Abourahme discussed what scholar Patrick Wolfe claims is a key term of settler colonialism: elimination.
“Settler colonialism comes to be based on elimination because it is a land-based project,” Abourahme said.
Abourahme explained Wolfe’s consideration of genocide as one of many forms of elimination in settler colonialism.
“Elimination is meant to capture the negation of a group as a people. It’s meant to capture the negation of peoplehood, and its capacity to make land claims. So elimination is continuous with genocide, but it’s also continuous with a whole other host of tools: assimilation can lead to elimination, miscegenation can lead to elimination, forced displacement and ethnic cleansing can be tools of elimination,” Abourahme said.
Abourahme then discussed Zionism in the context of elimination and settler colonialism.
“When it comes to the history of Zionism and the history of Zionism in Palestine, it takes only a very cursory reading of the historical record to see how central the idea of the elimination and removal of the native population was to the thinkers, ideologues, practitioners who developed this state, this project,” Abourahme said. “This is textbook settler colonialism.”
Abourahme emphasized that understanding the presence of settler colonialism in this conflict is essential to moving forward.
“I think what’s needed really is an honest reckoning with the histories, the structures and the political realities that have brought us to this point. What’s needed now is a recognition that if there’s any possibility in this place of genuine cohabitation and of a genuine mutual liberation, then it begins with a rejection of the racial order, a rejection of the racial hierarchies of settler colonialism,” Abourahme said.
Elias framed her discussion of defense through two meanings of the word: “Defense” as physical protection and reference to a specific state military, or “defense” as a justification of violence.
Elias highlighted that many conflicting forces of defense are at play in this conflict, whether that be the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Hamas or the U.S. Department of Defense. She emphasized that without statehood, Palestinian civilians uniquely lack a fundamental source of protection.
“For Israel, the [IDF] defends the idea of the nation of Israel, a homeland for Jewish people, people persecuted for thousands of years. The IDF also provides physical support and security for the citizens of Israel, now manifesting in a severe bombing campaign against and within a densely populated area. While Hamas forces are often protected underground, Gazan civilians are not. For Palestine, Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank defend the idea of the Palestinian nation with the persistent but never fulfilled call for statehood, liberation or independence, but not any physical security in any real reliable sense for Palestinian civilians. No one provides meaningful physical security for Palestinian civilians,” Elias said.
At the end of her presentation, Elias entreated audience members to consider their own mechanisms of defense in conversation.
“These are very difficult conversations because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a violent conversation between two traumatized people. There’s a lot at stake,” she said. “You surrender no territory by genuinely exploring a different perspective or different set of ideas or trusting yourself and others, as you hear things you disagree with, to pull up curiosity instead of disdain. It is easy to shut down ideas in the name of defending something you hold dear, it makes you feel powerful, and righteous even, in a powerless moment. But be careful who you might be silencing. I am not saying here that listening and understanding will solve this conflict, because it probably won’t, but I know for sure that killing will also not solve this conflict.”
After attending the event, Sophia Blaha ’24 reflected on the importance of holding these spaces for learning on campus.
“I think a lot of people right now want to know more about what’s happening in Palestine and really we want to know what to do next,” Blaha said. “I think political education is always a good tool and a first step to get people involved. Now isn’t the time for hopelessness or powerlessness, it’s the time for action.”