30 May 2024

Maya Wind, author of Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom, carefully describes the role of Insraeli universities in the Israeli settler-colonial project in this interview in Jewish Currents.

The Complicity of Israeli Academia

Scholar Maya Wind discusses Israeli universities’ longstanding role in Palestinian subjugation.

Raphael Magarik

May 23, 2024

Over the past two months, students protesting Israel’s war on Gaza across the United States have called on their universities to divest from Israel and from weapons manufacturers involved in the assault. In many cases, students have also demanded that their schools respect the Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israel. While some university administrations have agreed to negotiate with protesters over divestment, most have refused to consider a boycott. When Sonoma State University president Mike Lee, in a notable exception, announced that “SSU will not pursue or engage in any study abroad programs, faculty exchanges, or other formal collaborations that are sponsored by, or represent, the Israeli state academic and research institutions,” he was put on leave the next day for what the California State University chancellor called “insubordination.” Lee’s critics have echoed broader opposition to a boycott of Israeli universities. “President Lee sacrificed freedoms that are core to the mission of a university,” said Stephen Bittner, chair of the school’s history department, “namely the free and unfettered exchange of ideas.” Arguments like Bittner’s posit an abstract ideal, curiously disconnected from the material realities of Israeli academia, like its relation to the state—and especially the military—or its role in Palestinian subjugation and the massacre unfolding in Gaza.

In Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom, scholar Maya Wind investigates precisely those material realities, showing how Israeli academia is deeply embedded in the state and implicated in decades of Palestinian dispossession. From their very inception, schools like the Hebrew University served as outposts in the Jewish settlement of historic Palestine, provided material support and ideological cover to the Israeli military, and excluded or mistreated their relatively few Palestinian students. By examining universities’ links to the long history of settler colonialism, Wind indicts the Israeli academy both for its own complicity and for its silence on the state’s attack on Palestinian higher education—which includes the repression of political mobilization inside Israeli institutions, raids and restrictions on universities in the occupied West Bank, and now the total destruction of Palestinian academia in the Gaza Strip.

I spoke with Wind—currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia—about Israeli universities’ relationship to the crimes of the Israeli state and the limits of academic freedom at these institutions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Raphael Magarik: Why did you decide to write a book about Israeli universities?

Maya Wind: I study how settler societies reproduce themselves through violence—not only through militaries and the security state, but also through ostensibly civilian institutions. Israeli universities are sometimes thought of as independent of the state, but they are actually central to sustaining it. I’m a Jewish Israeli, but for over a decade I’ve been based in the North American higher education system, where I’ve witnessed how Israeli universities are often understood in the West as bastions of liberalism, democracy, and freedom. I was struck by the gap between this narrative about Israeli universities and what Palestinian scholars and activists have been saying for decades. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, formed in 2004, has called for a boycott of Israeli universities, which [PACBI founding committee member] Omar Barghouti claims are “one of the pillars of [Israel’s] oppressive order.” I wrote this book to research this question posed by Palestinians: How are Israeli universities complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights?

RM: Towers of Ivory and Steel argues that Israeli universities were planned and built as settlements in a project of “Judaization.” Can you explain that claim?

MW: As in other settler colonial states—like the United States, Australia, or South Africa—Israeli universities were founded as “land grab” universities. They were part and parcel of the process of “Judaization,” the Israeli state’s official terminology for the replacement of indigenous Palestinians with Jewish Israelis. It’s a program of demographic engineering: expanding Jewish settlement across historic Palestine, shrinking Palestinian land ownership, and interrupting Palestinian territorial contiguity.

In 1918, the Hebrew University was intentionally placed in a militarized location: on the apex of Mount Scopus, overlooking the city of Jerusalem and symbolically staking a claim to it. Over the last century, Israeli higher education has followed the Hebrew University’s lead. The University of Haifa was established in 1972, in the largest city in the Galilee, the only region under Israeli governance after 1948 with a Palestinian majority. Its campus was established at the apex of Mount Carmel, on the ruins of Palestinian villages depopulated in 1948. The university played an important role in planning the mitzpim, Jewish outposts established across the Galilee to interrupt Palestinian territorial contiguity and to transfer land ownership from Palestinians to the Israeli state and to Jewish Israelis. Most recently, Ariel University was built in the heart of an illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank. Its founders imagined marketing this settlement to secular Israelis as a suburb of Tel Aviv. Across multiple campuses, Israeli universities were built on Palestinian lands, and they continue to facilitate this ongoing dispossession through their programs.

The role Israeli universities have played in Zionist settlement and territorial expansion also manifests in their militarized architecture. Even though Israel’s major universities are public, they operate like fortresses: They are gated, entry is securitized, and they are manned by armed guards, who are usually former soldiers. Palestinian students and faculty often observe parallels between the university entry points and military checkpoints.

RM: In the book, you point out that beyond these structural parallels, there is literally a military base on the campus of the Hebrew University. How else do Israeli universities cooperate with the military and help arm it?

MW: Universities have always worked closely with Israeli military industries. For example, Rafael, one of Israel’s leading state-owned weapons corporations, was created by the Technion and the Weizmann Institute [science- and engineering-focused research universities]. Before 1948, the Haganah, the main Zionist militia, operated a science corps, which developed bases on the campuses of the Hebrew University, the Weizmann Institute, and the Technion. The science corps was eventually brought under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense, and this directorate became known as the Authority for the Development of Armaments—the Hebrew acronym of which is “Rafael.” The Israeli military deploys the weapons and technologies produced by these corporations in occupied Palestinian territory to enforce apartheid and commit war crimes—and now genocide.

Israeli universities also offer over 50 tailored degree programs for soldiers and security-state personnel. Soldiers trained at the Hebrew University often serve in Unit 8200, which surveils Palestinians to collect their most intimate information: sexual orientation, medical treatments needed by a loved one, financial difficulties, and so on. This information is used to extort Palestinians into collaborating. Moreover, in the past seven months, soldiers from Unit 8200 have participated in the genocide by creating “target banks,” which direct Israeli military fire in Gaza.

RM: The book tells the story of one of those programs—Havatzalot, an officer training program at the Hebrew University—and an attempt to organize a panel to examine it critically. I think that episode sheds light on the perception abroad that Israeli universities are havens of liberal protest and critique.

MW: Havatzalot is a program for soldiers housed in the Department of Islamic and Middle East Studies, which thus puts its scholars’ linguistic and regional expertise in the service of Israeli military training. Soldiers’ academic training is entangled with military training in intelligence gathering, in preparation for officers’ extended service in the Intelligence Corps.

In October of 2019, when this program was relocated from the University of Haifa to the Hebrew University, the move was celebrated by university administration and by most of the faculty. But there were also voices of dissent, both in Islamic and Middle East Studies and in some other participating departments. I attended the central public event organized to express that dissent. It was scheduled to occur on campus, but the administration called it an “internal terrorist attack” and made it clear that it was totally unacceptable to hold it there, so the organizers complied and moved it elsewhere. The organizers wanted to include both a military and a Palestinian perspective, but Palestinians who they asked thought it should be a civilian academic discussion. The organizers prioritized having a military representative, so no Palestinian participated—but then the military pulled out and sent no one. The panel ended up being entirely Jewish Israeli social scientists. There was discussion about academic freedom, but there was no critique of the university training soldiers to maintain a regime of apartheid and no discussion of the fact that the university’s facilities and departments are directly aiding egregious violations of international law.

RM: In addition to these material links between Israeli academia and oppression of Palestinians, you also point to its role in providing ideological cover for Israel. How do universities contribute to Israel’s hasbara project?

MW: Israel operates an elaborate and well-funded propaganda apparatus, which relies in no small part on its universities. One center of this programming is the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University. For instance, in 2018, Palestinians in Gaza protested against their enclosure and for the right of return, in what was known as the Great March of Return. The Israeli military met them with snipers, who wounded over 35,000 Palestinians; nearly 200 protesters were killed. Shortly after, the United Nations and other international human rights bodies accused Israel of committing war crimes. The INSS understood this as a public-relations crisis, and immediately organized a conference to discuss how to spin the unlawful targeting of Palestinian civilians. They suggested framing these grassroots protests as a Hamas ploy. The INSS and other such centers at Israeli universities work on behalf of the Israeli state to counter international grassroots organizing for Palestinian rights and enable Israel to violate international law with impunity.

More recently, in response to South Africa’s petition to the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza, the INSS held a series of strategy sessions to discuss how Israel might best defend itself in this case. Israeli legal scholars came together with members of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs—not to discuss whether or not Israel was committing genocide, but instead, leveraging their expertise to preserve Israeli impunity.

RM: How does Israeli universities’ relationship with the state put limits on academic freedom, even for Jewish Israelis, especially concerning the Nakba—when Zionist expelled about 750,000 Palestinians from their homes during Israel’s founding?

MW: Israeli universities have a history of censoring stories that the state finds inconvenient—for instance, in the case of Teddy Katz’s research on the Tantura massacre. Tantura was a Palestinian village near Haifa, which was ethnically cleansed in 1948. In May of that year, there was a massacre of Palestinian civilians there; it was well documented by Palestinian historians, through the collection of oral histories and testimony from survivors, but this wealth of research has been ignored in Israeli academia. In the late ’90s, Katz, a graduate student at the University of Haifa, dedicated his master’s thesis to exploring the Israeli campaign of what was called “coastal clearing,” which involved expelling Palestinians from the coast adjacent to Haifa. He interviewed soldiers from the Alexandroni Brigade of the Israeli military, which carried out the massacre in Tantura, as well as Palestinian survivors. He got high marks, and the thesis was filed away. But in 2000, a journalist published a story based on Katz’s thesis in a major Israeli paper, which prompted veterans of the Alexandroni Brigade to sue him for defamation. Katz was pressured to sign a document retracting allegations of a massacre in Tantura, following which the university disavowed his research and rescinded his degree.

In 2022, a Jewish Israeli filmmaker interviewed members of the Alexandroni Brigade, many of whom spoke openly about the atrocities that they had carried out. This film was an opportunity for the University of Haifa to course correct. Instead, the university doubled down on Nakba denialism. As you can imagine, Palestinian researchers face an even more severe backlash.

RM: Defenders of Israeli universities often point to Palestinian students as evidence of these institutions’ role in fostering coexistence. How have Israeli universities historically treated Palestinian citizens of Israel?

MW: From its establishment, Israel was concerned that Palestinian education would foment ideas of national liberation. Consequently, they tried to suppress that education. From the outset, Palestinian K-12 schools were surveilled and controlled by the Israeli state. Between 1948 and 1966, while Palestinian citizens of Israel were ruled by a military government, there were explicit debates in the Israeli government about whether granting Palestinians access to education would facilitate their assimilation into Israel, or whether it would further politicize them. Ultimately, the Israeli government decided to allow them to enroll in higher education, partly for demographic reasons; the understanding was that higher education would lower the Palestinian birth rate. Still, in the years of military rule, Israeli universities allowed few Palestinian students onto their campus, and when they did, the universities worked closely with the state to surveil Palestinian students; they were concerned about political mobilization.

Even with the end of the military government, as Palestinians were incrementally permitted to enter Israeli campuses, university administrations continued to collaborate with the Israeli state to manipulate admissions, limit access to dorms, and restrict the use of university space. Today, it is virtually impossible for Palestinian students to organize protests. The university administration works with police to arrest students when they mobilize for Palestinian rights.

RM: What has Israeli policy been toward Palestinian universities in the West Bank and Gaza?

MW: After 1967, Israel’s military government barred many Palestinians in the occupied territories from traveling, which prevented them from participating in the rich academic life in the Middle East—in Cairo, Damascus, and Beirut—or in the rest of the world. This spurred Palestinians to establish their own universities, and yet they also faced restrictions by the Israeli military. These included, for instance, how many and which international faculty and students can join these universities, and what kinds of books, journals, and equipment they can have. The Israeli military routinely raids Palestinian campuses, and abducts faculty and students, who are subjected to torture and held in administrative detention without charges for months. The Israeli military government has criminalized Palestinian student organizing. Since 1967, over 411 Palestinian student groups and associations have been declared unlawful by the Israeli military government. A Palestinian student active in any of these student groups is at risk of abduction, detention, and torture by the Israeli military.

In Gaza, Palestinian universities have been subjected to aerial bombardment in previous military operations: in 2014, for instance, and in 2021. Over the past seven months, Israel has decimated all 11 of the central Palestinian universities of the Strip, either by aerial bombardment or controlled detonation from the ground. This is explicit scholasticide, the intentional destruction of Palestinian centers of education.

RM: Opponents of boycotts defend universities around the world maintaining relationships with Israeli institutions on the grounds of preserving academic freedom. How should we understand this term in the context of Israel/Palestine?

MW: When we have just decimated Palestinian higher education and Gaza Strip and have left no single university standing, the argument that the academic boycott violates Israeli academic freedom rings particularly hollow. There is no academic freedom until it applies to all—until it applies to Palestinians. Only international pressure will bring the kind of change that we need to decolonize, rebuild, and remake these universities.