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SJP sit-in challenges Michael Rubin’s rhetoric on Israel-Palestine violence

November 17, 2023

As students, faculty and community members entered the doors of Sills Hall on Monday night, they were asked: “sit-in or talk?” While a lecture from Dr. Michael Rubin discussing  the violence occuring in Israel and Palestine took place in Smith Auditorium, roughly 150 students participating in Bowdoin Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)’s silent sit-in lined the hall leading to the auditorium in protest of Rubin’s rhetoric and in support of a ceasefire.

Rubin was invited to the College by the Eisenhower Forum, a student-led political discussion group on campus. The group announced the talk, entitled “America’s Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process,” on Friday, November 10. Members of the Eisenhower Forum declined to comment on the lecture.

Following the announcement of the talk, SJP shared a series of quotes on Instagram from articles written by Rubin, asserting that Rubin’s language dehumanizes Palestinians. On Sunday night, the group officially announced that it would be holding a silent sit-in outside of the talk to call for a ceasefire and oppose Rubin’s rhetoric.

“Western depictions of Israeli violence matter. They dictate the force and character of Israeli aggression—affecting the ferocity of bombing campaigns, the status of humanitarian assistance, the persistence of internet access and the scale of settler violence in the West Bank,” SJP organizer Ahmad Abdulwadood ’24 said. “Even in a context as geographically far removed as Bowdoin, it’s imperative for us to respond to the discursive battles that occur here domestically. ”

SJP made it clear that the aim of the sit-in was not to protest the College’s hosting of Rubin. Rather, the organization wanted to use Rubin’s presence on campus as an opportunity to call for a ceasefire.

“We tried to be very careful in not framing this as a free speech issue, because we believe [Rubin] has the right to free speech. As we view this event … it is us calling for a ceasefire,” SJP organizer Rachel Klein ’24 said. “Because his voice is what became present on campus, we needed to make sure that our voices were present, too, in calling for a ceasefire, in calling for the humanization of Palestinians, in opposing his rhetoric.”

SJP members began to gather outside Smith Auditorium before the talk, many equipped with signs calling for a ceasefire or bringing attention to instances of Rubin’s rhetoric that they deemed dehumanizing. Forty-five minutes later, as protestors continued to sit in the hallway, Rubin started his talk about what he called the “Arab-Israeli conflict.”

“Let me begin by saying the obvious that when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, there is no magic formula,” Rubin said.

Rubin took a historical approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He started by discussing the nuances of defining terrorism, citing historical examples from Afghanistan, Turkey and Cambodia. He attributed the rise of terrorism in the Middle East to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. He then shared his views on the relationship between Islam and terrorism.

“People [in the Middle East] don’t pretend that the problem isn’t religious, they don’t pretend that the problem isn’t Islam. I’m not saying all of Islam is a problem. What I am saying is that people in the Middle East will talk about the religious debates within religion much more openly and recognize that a lot of the violence is rooted in a religious exegesis,” Rubin said.

During the latter half of the event, he shifted to the current conflict in Israel and Palestine, speaking on the applicability of the Geneva Conventions to Hamas.

“While collective punishment is never allowed, there are four-part tests to determine the applicability of Geneva Conventions to various people. The idea of that is to disincentivize abuse to civilians,” Rubin said. “What you have to do is fight in uniform with an organized structure. You can’t hide among civilian populations and so forth. If you do, then you don’t get the full applicability of the right bestowed upon others in the Geneva Conventions.”

Ultimately, he ended not with a solution but with what he saw as the crux of the problem.

“The issue is getting rid of Hamas. The best way to help the Palestinians would be to get rid of Hamas and allow Palestinian democracy, Palestinian economy and so forth to thrive,” Rubin said.

On the other side of Smith Auditorium’s doors, as the lecture unfolded, the silent portion of the SJP sit-in concluded, and several students stood to speak. They addressed topics including the need for a ceasefire, the power of rhetoric, and Rubin’s approach to the crisis in Israel and Gaza, which they condemned.

“[Rubin employs] a dangerous ideology that prioritizes American national interests and global hegemony. It is responsible for the lives of countless innocents,” sit-in attendee Jules Messitte ’26 said to the crowd. “We must condemn this ideology. It does not represent the people.”

Participants gave each speaker a round of applause, which could be heard from inside Smith Auditorium.

At the end of the lecture, Rubin opened the conversation up to the audience in a Q&A section, during which Associate Professor of Government Jeffrey Selinger asked why Rubin thinks the destruction of radicalism in Gaza is an attainable goal.

“There are many recent and geographically proximate examples where military occupations have failed, that is, geographically proximate in the Middle East,” Selinger said in an interview with the Orient. “Dr. Rubin went far afield [in answering the question], pointing to the successful elimination of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.”

Beyond the Q&A, Selinger noted that Rubin was more delicate with his words at the talk than he is in his writing.

“I’ve seen people who are deliberately anxious to provoke. That was not the case. He was not trying to provoke people. I think he toned down his rhetoric from what he typically writes,” Selinger said. “He dressed up his story and his presentation in a certain kind of moderation, and he avoided gratuitously racist and bigoted statements, which is not a practice that usually carries over to this commentary online.”

Audience member Matthew Audi ’24 said that Rubin’s lecture wasn’t what he expected, considering its title and its advertised focus on solutions for peace.

“He spent a lot of time talking about the ideological origins of Hamas,” Audi said. “But not as much time talking about the different aspects of what a peace deal would look like.”

Audi also expressed his appreciation for the sit-in.

“One thing I realize is that when you’re sitting there and he’s giving this speech, you can ask a question, but you can’t necessarily contest what he’s saying,” Audi said. “[The sit-in] is a good way to contest what he’s saying.”


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