21 March 2024

The following review by Mike Phipps of Maya’s Wind’s important new book, Towers of Ivory and Steel, is reprinted courtesy of Labour Hub.

Israel’s ivory towers of oppression

Mike Phipps reviews Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom, by Maya Wind, published by Verso.

In January 2022 undercover Israeli soldiers entered the campus of Birzeit University on the occupied West Bank and opened fire. Ismail Barghouti was shot in the leg and subsequently detained for several weeks, one of dozens of Palestinian university students who are routinely abducted and held by the state every year for activity in, or membership of, one of over 400 student associations Israel deems “unlawful”. Peaceful protests against such practices have also led to beatings and arrests at the hands of Israeli state forces.

At Tel Aviv University, armed, uniformed Israeli soldiers study alongside civilian students. According to a 53-page list of conditions, the teaching faculty must operate in accordance with military restrictions. It’s in this context that the nature of Israeli universities is raised: are they liberal bastions of freedom and democracy or pillars of oppression of the Palestinian people?

The Israeli war machine is integrated into academia in other ways. In December 2008, an Israeli targeted airstrike killed 89 police cadets during their graduation ceremony in the Gaza Strip. The strike was approved by the Department of International Law under the leadership of Colonel Sharvit Baruch, which argued that such cadets could be considered combatants, so the strike was in accordance with international law.

A few weeks later, Tel Aviv University appointed the same colonel to teach a course on international law. In her new role, she applies the Israeli state’s central principle: “What we do becomes the law,” and helps construct “innovative legal interpretations to shield Israel from accountability, often indirect response to international condemnations.” Moreover, classified  data collected on Palestinians by the Israeli police and Shin Bet through illegal interrogation methods and torture are used in university-based research, a practice which would fall foul of an ethics review elsewhere.

Other faculties are similarly complicit. The discipline of archaeology constructs evidence in support of Israeli land claims through the erasure of Arab and Muslim history. This is often done quite crudely: “Israeli excavations in the occupied Old City of Jerusalem quickly came under criticism by Palestinians and international scholars for their use of bulldozers to dig straight through strata from Arab-Islamic periods, removing findings from Islamic periods and levelling Islamic monuments.” Worse, archaeological research is frequently the pretext for expanding Israeli land settlements.

In the field of Middle East Studies, some scholars hold senior positions in elite military units and departments routinely offer training in regional expertise to the Israeli security state. Attempts to challenge such practices have been branded by university administrations as nothing less than an “internal terrorist attack.”

The author argues that, from its inception, Israel used the construction of universities to cement its territorial conquest of historic Palestine. Moreover, their research advances the work of the Israeli military, with companies like Elbit Systems, which makes warhead-carrying drones, having a very close relationship with the country’s universities. Some of these have developed programmes to enable students to become ‘unofficial ambassadors’ for the country abroad, to challenge the growing Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement. Other universities train IDF soldiers directly.

Israeli universities also “systematically disallow critical academic research, teaching and discussion of Israeli settler colonialism.” When Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a respected Palestinian professor at Hebrew University, gave at talk at America’s Columbia University on how Israel uses occupied Palestinian neighbourhoods to test policing, surveillance technologies and weapons before marketing them abroad as combat-proven – a phenomenon Labour Hub explored last year –  her employer responded to the subsequent media uproar by dismissing her scholarly research as “personal opinions.”

In another, more famous case, a student wrote a highly marked master’s thesis on a 1948 massacre of Palestinians. When he was sued for libel by a veterans’ organisation, his university withdrew all legal support and responsibility, forcing him to assemble his own court defence. Since then, the Israeli state is busily reclassifying documents about the forcible expulsion and massacre of Palestinians which accompanied its foundation, precisely so they are not accessible to academic researchers.

But Israeli universities are party to far more physical repression. In 2022, two Palestinian students at Hebrew University, who were sitting on the campus lawn and singing in Arabic, were forcefully escorted off campus by a group of Israeli students, who were also off-duty police officers, handed over to the police for interrogation and subsequently banned from campus for six days.

Elsewhere, Palestinian students allege routine racial profiling and discriminatory practices by campus security guards. Evidence also abounds of unofficial caps on the numbers of Palestinian students admitted, notwithstanding their qualifications. When Palestinian students peacefully protest, universities regularly allow the police onto campus to arrest them and use their own internal disciplinary processes to suppress dissent.

On Palestinian campuses, Israeli military incursions, including the use of live ammunition, are routine. In Israel, peaceful protests by Palestinians are often met by violent counter-protests by Jewish-Israeli students, aided by the police. It’s against this backdrop that the call for an academic boycott is made – not as an abstraction – but as a basis for fundamental change in the way Israel’s universities work.

The repression identified against Palestinian students in this book has obviously intensified since October 2023. During the current onslaught, Israel bombed every single university in Gaza.

On the West Bank, hundreds of students and academics have been arrested for suspected political activities. A number of West Bank universities have announced the deaths of students and academics as a result of Israeli attacks. West Bank academic institutions have been stormed by the Israeli military, including Birzeit University which was vandalized. Restrictions on movement mean many students have lost the right to study on campus and Israel’s periodic shutting down of the internet limits their ability to study remotely.

Maya Wind has done an excellent job of assembling a range of material that should cut through the hogwash about Israel’s universities being somehow above and beyond the political fray. They are clearly vital to the Israeli war machine and ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people.