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Colby lecturer parses history of Israel and Palestine conflict from 1917–1948

December 1, 2023

Amira Oguntoyinbo
HISTORY AND TODAY: Lauren Cohen Fisher presents her focus questions for her lecture entitled, “The Politics of History: Israel/Palestine 1917–1948” in Kresge Auditorium. Her lecture focused on five key historical moments that impacted Israel-Palestine relations today.

Bowdoin Hillel and the Department of Government and Legal Studies collaborated to bring lecturer in Jewish Studies and director of Jewish Student Life at Colby College Lauren Cohen Fisher to Kresge Auditorium on Tuesday evening. Fisher illuminated historical events occurring from 1917 to 1948 that have shaped the political dynamic between Israel and Palestine and contextualized present violence in the region.

Before Fisher delved into the focus of her lecture, she acknowledged that while her particular lecture viewed historical elements of the violence occurring in Israel and Palestine through an intellectual lens, there is an emotional aspect to the tragedy.

“I also want to name really explicitly that we’re in an intellectual space here, and while this talk has been designed with an academic and intellectual hat on, we’re still in a deeply raw emotional moment,” Fisher said. “Even though there’s currently a ceasefire between the Israeli army and Hamas, Palestinians and Israelis are still living in this wartime. There’s still a lot of mourning happening; there’s been an unprecedented amount of death and destruction.”

Fisher opened with two framing questions for her discussion of historical events: Who has power in these moments and how do resulting power dynamics shape historical events, and what are the “rules of the game”—or expectations by which stakeholders are expected to abide by—and are these rules legitimate?

With these questions established as the analytical framework for her talk, Fisher introduced the five moments between 1917 and 1948 she considers pivotal to existing Israeli and Palestinian political dynamics: the Balfour Declaration, the White Papers of 1922, the Partition Plan of 1947, Plan D and the Declaration of the State of Israel. Fisher emphasized that the moments she chose to highlight are not the only important historical events that have impacted modern day Israel-Palestine relations.

Fisher chose the Balfour Declaration as her first historical event because it is a statement from the United Kingdom publicizing that it “would favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” She explained how the document lacks clarity in regards to how much Palestine land the Jewish state would require and whether or not the political rights of non-Jewish communities living on that land would be protected.

According to Fisher, the Jewish and Palestinian communities have framed the Balfour Declaration—among the other key historical events in her talk—in their histories in different ways.

“The Balfour Declaration, within the Jewish historical narrative, is the moment of legitimizing the project of building the state of Israel. It’s understood within the Palestinian dominant narrative as the real concretizing of the settler colonial project of Zionism,” Fisher said.

Fisher went on to explain that the White Papers of 1922 were supposed to clarify some of the ambiguity in the Balfour Declaration and ease Palestinian concerns. The White Papers were an effort from the British government to state that though a Jewish home should be established in part of Palestine, it should not encompass all of Palestine. Though the British intended to appease Palestinian dissent, Palestinians were still frustrated with the dispossession of their land and with the British backing away from their earlier promises. The Jewish population also began to grow frustrated with Britain.

“Jews [were] going to need to be in control of their own fate. They [could] work with the British where there was a convergence of interests, but outside of that, the British should [have] been seen as a group that [couldn’t] necessarily be relied on,” Fisher said.

An important part of Fisher’s analysis of Israeli-Palestinian relations was the role of Western influence, particularly that of the United Kingdom and later the United Nations, on the ever-escalating tensions between the two nation states. As evidenced by the Balfour Declaration and White Papers, the British had a strong presence in the early creation of the Israeli state. The U.K. then transferred governance responsibility to the U.N., in which they still had outsized influence. The U.N. drew up the existing map allotting land between Israel and Palestine in the Partition Plan of 1947, which was approved by Israel and rejected by Palestine.

Though the U.K. and the U.N. mediated the conflict between the two, Fisher believes it was not done out of a desire for peace. According to Fisher, the U.K. was motivated by self-interest and hoped to gain influence and control of the region.

“The goal of the British at that time was to maintain quiet, not necessarily to maintain peace. It was not even necessarily to support explicitly any national project so much as it was to maintain peace, so that they could continue their sphere of influence and [could continue] the mandate system that would create a buffer with the French so that they could keep the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran open,” Fisher said.

Fisher moved deeper into the 1947–48 civil war between Israel and Palestine, in which Israeli forces seized swathes of Palestinian land to formally establish the modern-day Israeli state. As part of the seizure, the Haganah—what is now the Israeli Defence Forces—drew up various plans for its troops, including Plan D. Plan D called on Israeli troops to surround Palestinian villages, and if the village didn’t surrender, to “depopulate the village.” This led to a mass displacement of Palestinians from their land, recalled in Palestinian history as the Nakba.

Fisher juxtaposed images of Palestinian exodus from their homes during the civil war to images of Palestinians forcibly leaving Northern Gaza today. She noted that the depopulation of Palestinian land from the 1947–48 civil war still sits at the forefront of Palestinian memories, while the same is not necessarily true within the Jewish narrative.

“This image here of Palestinians walking with all their stuff feels like a recreation of the image [from 1948], whereas through the Jewish-Israeli narrative, it’s not seen as a continuation of 1948 or a continuation of the depopulation of Palestinian areas, but it’s seen as an example of Jewish Israelis, again, playing by the rules that are set and wanting to seek validation for doing so,” Fisher said.

The lecture ended with a question and answer session moderated by Associate Professor of Government Jeffrey Selinger. Selinger believed the talk was valuable to informing community members about the long history of the conflict and its impact on violence today.

“Bowdoin students and Mainers are not any different from the rest of the general public in that there is very limited knowledge of the history, not just the relatively recent history of this conflict but the subject of her talk, pre-state history, which [Fisher] convincingly explained is mission critical in understanding the real key points of tension, which are interpretive disputes, about a handful of specific historical episodes,” Selinger said.

Hillel board member Julia Starck ’26, who introduced Fisher at the event, thought this lecture was an important component to the discussion of Israel and Palestine relations happening on campus, especially through the historical lens that Fisher offered. Starck emphasized that her opinions do not represent those of the Hillel board but are purely her sentiments.

“We just felt like the campus events that happened didn’t really leave a lot of room for nuance in discussion. What Lauren Cohen Fisher offered us was nuance and a lecture [where] obviously you can’t speak without your biases affecting what you say, but I was very proud to have a speaker who … [put] the most possible care into presenting a history that was mindful of both Palestinian and Israeli perspectives, and that as much as possible was devoid of her personal opinion,” Starck said.


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