What have we learned from the Rudy Rochman meeting?

By Barbara Kuza-Tarkowska.

A campus takeaway on inviting controversial speakers

The Facebook post announcing the meeting with Rudy Rochman, organized by the Union des Etudiants Juifs de France (UEJF) Sciences Po, sparked a debate in the comment section within minutes. While these types of comment fights are typical for Facebook in general, it was rather out of the ordinary for Menton’s campus group, with the post receiving a total of 75 comments. Rudy Rochman, an Israeli-Jewish rights activist — as it reads from his Instagram bio — was invited by the Menton branch of UEJF to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. While the Israel-Palestine conflict in general often sparks in-depth discussions or debates on campus, what attracted attention this time was Rochman’s history. In particular, Rochman’s voluntary enrollment in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) ignited the heated debate. 

During the meeting itself, Rochman began by talking about a traumatic experience in London where he and his mother were removed from a bus by a neo-nazi driver when Rudy was just seven years old. As Rochman said during the meeting, this experience taught him who he was — a Jew, part of a people and not necessarily a religion, and this indirectly led to his activism nowadays. During the UEJF’s meeting, Rochman also equated Anti-Zionism to Anti-Semitism, asserted that Zionism is a decolonial movement, and stated that Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel. Furthermore, he said that the exile of Palestinians was caused by the wars between Israel and Arab countries. Several of those who attended the meeting edited their Zoom names to express their identities or opinions as they related to Rudy’s message. More specifically, two participants renamed themselves as “anti-Zionist” whereas three other participants referred to either Palestine (“Free Palestine”) or themselves as Palestinian in their names. The speaker visibly stirred up controversy during the Zoom call, let alone the Facebook post that had also done so well before it. Therefore, the question comes to mind: should we invite controversial speakers to spread their message on campus?

To answer this question, four students of the Menton campus were interviewed: Cécile, a Jewish-French 1A who co-organised the meeting on behalf of the UEJF; Maryam, a 1A American of Palestinian and Syrian descent; Ysabella, 2A who is the President of Sciences Palestine; and Jaeli, a Jewish-American 2A, who also sits on the board of Sciences Palestine and identifies as a Jewish anti-Zionist.

Why did you invite Rudy Rochman to speak?

Cécile: I was always very interested by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and… I had heard of Rudy Rochman three years ago. I saw that he was a Jewish and Israeli rights activist and I thought that he really changed my mind about the conflict. The fact that he was an Israeli activist who is very, very proud of his Jewish heritage and his Jewish identity was very interesting for me because we often hear about Jews… that are anti-Zionist or that negate the connection to the land of Israel and he was offering a completely different perspective on the conflict. I like the fact that he was very proud of his identity, but also that he was willing to talk to Palestinians and… he was against the fact they were antagonizing each other in the conflict. His opinion is that… the people should be the ones who find a common ground and build something together, and that the government doesn’t represent the people — Netanyahu doesn’t represent every Israeli, and the PA or Hamas doesn’t represent Palestinians, obviously. For him, we really should come together and build peace together. I really like this perspective and, for me, he was a very peaceful activist. I saw his videos and it was always about bringing Israelis and Palestinians together, talking to Jews, going on campus in a very peaceful way and never getting mad or never yelling at other people. Just trying to understand other people’s perspective, while explaining his perspective and his opinion. 

What were your feelings after leaving the meeting? Do you think the meeting with Rochman changed the opinions of people on campus?

Cécile: After the meeting I got some very, very positive messages of people telling me that they learned a lot. I think the good thing about this meeting… is that [students] learned more about the Jewish connection to the land of Israel and learned that Zionism was and is a concept that was kind of manipulated.

Maryam: I thought I would be upset leaving it [the meeting] but just seeing the solidarity from everyone on campus and everyone recognizing that what he was saying was not okay or not factual made me feel better. I felt like, you’re not alone. One good thing that came out of it was that there’s this one person who [I had been] kind of been clashing with before regarding this topic, but afterwards, we bonded over the fact that what [Rochman] was saying was so radical, so now we’re actually friends. 

Jaeli: I hope so. Mostly because I think that the questions posed by the student body, I don’t think they necessarily stumped [Rochman] in any way, I think that they’re questions he’s pretty used to getting, but I think that it at least somewhat brought his hypocrisy to light and I hope that students who perhaps were not super sure about Israel and Palestine, or still believe in the idea of Jewish self-determination… got to see a lot of the destruction that has gone on. I don’t think [Rochman] necessarily convinced anyone. This is an issue where people who already have opinions… are not very likely to change them.

Ysabella: I was really visibly upset because I think he said so many fallacies, as if they were factual statements. He tended to ignore a lot of the questions that were asked. I think in the end he’s really good at being almost a political figure in which he’s able to wrap around what you’re saying and not actually answer questions. There are not a lot of Palestinians on this campus there’s only three of us and we’re all half so we make one and a half in total. [Bella laughs] It’s problematic because… we’re choosing to listen to fallacies which go completely against the lived experiences. At least what he said was a complete opposite of my family’s experience and how they were exiled. For him to say that this is the problem of Arab countries is just completely falsified and I think he had so many other fallacies that are important for us to bring up. I just think it’s problematic, especially on this campus, that we’re choosing to promote such a voice.

I think that an outlook that I did change is that in the beginning of the year, I really didn’t take initiative in Sciences Palestine, because I was so scared of being viewed as political or to get backlash. But if there’s one thing that this event has taught me it’s that being vocal about Palestine is something that is necessary on this campus and it’s actually very needed and I should not be scared about someone telling me that my experience or my family’s experience is political. I think that the entire being of a Palestinian is something that is inherently politicized because you know, we are people without a state. I think… it changed my opinion on how I’m going to go about the second semester.

Do you think given the specialisation of our campus, we should be giving speakers like him a platform? 

Cécile: Definitely. First of all, for me, [Rochman is] not as controversial as people think, even though I really thought that when meeting him people would understand that he’s not controversial. I don’t think it was totally the case, but I still think that even speakers that are very controversial and way more than him should be given a platform to express their opinions because that’s why we’re here for, right? We’re here to learn… I think we should learn about every opinion… and everybody should have the right to express themselves. We’re Sciences Po students we’re supposed to have an esprit critique, to be able to criticize others’ opinions, and I think it was the case for [Rochman]. I think anyone should be given a platform to express themselves. 

Maryam: I think it’s okay to give him a platform as long as we counter it appropriately.  I don’t think it’s okay to just have an Israeli talk about what Palestinians want, but I think we can have his point of view, as long as it’s more like a discussion or both sides are presented. For our campus I think it’s important that we educate ourselves on these things.  

Jaeli: Definitely. I think that there should be an opportunity here from all sides, but I also think that speakers should be contextualized in the movements of which they are a part of. [Rochman] is a  part of a  Zionist expansionist movement that is present on US college campuses… and PACs. I also think the organization that brought him [to campus]  should be responsible for bringing other speakers who don’t agree with him. 

Would you say that his message was propaganda? Would you designate Rochman as a reliable source?

Cécile: I wouldn’t say he’s a completely reliable source, because of course he’s a normal human being, so he doesn’t know all the facts. Of course he advocates for Jews and Israel and… in his message, he tries to show the Jewish connection through the land and to advocate for Israel. What I like about his videos is that even… during his debates when he states facts, sometimes you can see on the video him stop and return to say “oh that was actually not true, this is the exact data,” so I think he also has a self-critique. 

Jaeli: I think that any language about Israel, about Zionism really, that fails to acknowledge everything that has happened to Palestinians, everything that’s happened to Palestine, is not a result of some unfortunate nationalists issue. It’s not two nations opposing one another, two different nationalisms, this is obviously a settler colonial regime and an incredibly oppressive one. Any discussion of Israel that does not acknowledge this history of oppression and domination I view as propaganda, because it’s not really talking about history in any open and honest way. 

Maryam: One hundred percent. He’s part of an organization, he won’t… say that out right, but the whole goal [of the organization] is to preach to young Palestinians and especially Zionists who are more progressive, and they’re trying to help them reconcile the progressive ideology with Zionism. They’re kind of distorting reality and  making it seem like it’s okay to want Jewish majority state in all of Israel, even though that means kicking out Palestinians. 

Ysabella: I was particularly struck by the fact that he blamed Palestinian injustice and the clear human rights violations, he blamed it on other Arab countries and on Britain, but never really would mention that there are human rights violations by Israel and the Israeli occupation. Obviously there are injustices in other Arab countries and Britain obviously had a large effect on this, however, to completely ignore the human rights violations of Israel and instead blame states that aren’t Israel, I think, is problematic. 

Do you think not allowing Rudy to speak would set a precedent for inviting future speakers?

Cécile: Yeah definitely. I guess that not allowing him to speak just because he offers a different opinion and different perspective would be wrong. Everybody has opinions so if… you’re going to invite speakers, there will always be the possibility that people will disagree with him. If you don’t allow him to speak then who are you going to allow to speak? 

Maryam: Yeah that’s actually part of the reason that I do think that he should be allowed to speak. If we say that he can’t speak then who gets to decide that? I think it was Nour [Aljowaily],  he was saying that we should have some sort of committee or something that would… look into their [speakers’] backgrounds. Even if we can’t say that they can’t speak, we can at least make that information about their background public. Who draws the line? Because it is propaganda, yes, but he’s not perpetuating hate speech or anything inherently violent or dangerous.

Jaeli: Certainly. I would take issue with anyone who said he couldn’t speak. 

Do you think that the background of a speaker should be contextualized before the meeting?

Ysabella: “I think that if you’re going to invite someone for a specific issue, especially on an issue like this, in which we know that what he’s going to say is incredibly opinionated, I think that [contextualizing the speaker] would have been important, because I think that, if other people who didn’t share the same viewpoint as him… didn’t go to that conference, it easily could have been an hour of him speaking his opinion.”

“Despite it being the Middle Eastern campus, there is not a lot of people who take the 2A Israeli-Palestinian course. There’s only one 2A course and how many people are in there? Like 20 something? So, 20 something people in the whole campus take a course on this and so I think that it’s important because some people can go [to the Rochman meeting] and that’s their main source of information, and I think that that’s problematic.”

Whether or not you agree with Rudy Rochman’s message, it can be said that inviting him was a learning experience for our campus, be it by widening one’s outlook on either the Isreli-Palestinian conflict, the place of controversial figures on campus, or on the freedom of speech. Extending invitations to controversial speakers to the Menton campus, certainly provoked thought in the student body. Did it provoke change? Only the second semester will tell.

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