/ 27 April 2024

The settler university: Israeli academia has always been part of Israel’s territorial objectives in Palestine

Tel Aviv Students Hold Alternative Naqba Day Commemoration
The stated mission of the Zionist movement was to settle in historic Palestine and establish a Jewish majority as the basis for a Jewish state. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

This is part one of three excerpts from Maya Wind’s book Towers of Ivory and Steel. Based on research, the book is a gamechanger in the conversation about Israeli academic institutions.

Read part two and part three

Settler-colonial states are founded through foreign invasion, with the objective of eliminating native inhabitants and establishing a settler nation on native land. Settlers seek to replace the natives and claim the territory as their own. Settler colonialism is therefore understood as a distinct form of colonial governance, because it centres domination over land, which, in effect, becomes domination over life. To maintain their settler state and make the place their home, settlers must continually reassert their exclusive claim to the land, making the violent campaign to disappear the land’s indigenous peoples into an ongoing process of invasion and dispossession rather than a single or historical event. As Audra Simpson illuminates, this settling of land and of consciousness continually builds “moral and political worlds,” as well as physical ones, “atop the worlds of others.”

The logic of elimination and replacement that typifies settler-colonial states is constitutive of the Zionist movement and the Israeli state. The stated mission of the Zionist movement was to settle in historic Palestine and establish a Jewish majority as the basis for a Jewish state. From the dawn of the movement and for decades afterward, Zionist leaders, organisations, and institutions openly called their project the “colonisation” of Palestine. For Zionist leaders and later for the Israeli government, this has entailed pursuing a deliberate strategy of Jewish migration and settlement, with the aim of expelling the indigenous Palestinians and altering the land’s racial composition. The planned and incremental dispossession of Palestinians by the Zionist movement over half a century was consolidated and accelerated with the 1948 mass expulsion during the establishment of Israel, what Palestinians call the Nakba (catastrophe). With Israel’s founding, the state continued this territorial and demographic program of replacement, officially terming it “Judaisation.” In the decades since, Israel has worked to maintain a demographic superiority and population distribution, so as to undermine Palestinian claims to their lands and to self-determination.

From the start, Israeli academia has been entangled in this territorial project of replacement central to Israeli state building. Indeed, before even the founding of Israel, the Zionist movement founded three universities, which were explicitly to serve the movement’s territorial objectives in Palestine. First, in 1918, Hebrew University was established as a comprehensive university and centre for the formation of a new collective Jewish-Zionist identity and nation. Founded at the apex of Mt Scopus, it was also built as a strategic outpost for the Zionist movement to stake symbolic and political claim to Jerusalem. Likewise, the Technion in Haifa and the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot were established to advance the scientific and technological development of Israel as a Jewish state in historic Palestine.

In the lead-up to the 1948 war, these three institutions of higher education were directly recruited to support the violent dispossession required for Zionist territorial expansion. The leading Zionist militia, the Haganah, established a Science Corps, which opened bases on all three campuses to research and refine military capabilities. Throughout the 1948 war, the universities helped sustain the Haganah and other militias in their mass expulsion of Palestinians to establish the state of Israel. Faculty and students developed and manufactured weapons, as their campuses, equipment, and expertise were put to the service of Zionist militias. With the establishment of Israel, the Technion and the Weizmann Institute came to anchor the state’s scientific-military capabilities.

Over the state’s first two decades, prominent academics further aligned with political leaders, and the government consolidated its power over higher education. By the late 1960s, Israel’s “Judaisation” programme had expanded on multiple frontiers. Now, new Israeli universities were built to anchor this territorial and demographic project, their campuses constructed as strategic regional outposts that impelled both Palestinian enclosure and Jewish settlement expansion.

In the largest city of the Palestinian-majority Galilee, Israel developed and granted full accreditation to the University of Haifa in 1972. That same year, Israel built Ben-Gurion University in the centre of the Naqab (Negev), the region most sparsely populated by Jewish-Israelis. Israeli universities created facts on the ground in the form of permanent Jewish settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) after 1967. Hebrew University expanded its Mt Scopus campus into occupied East Jerusalem, while Ariel University received full accreditation in 2012 as the newest Israeli university in the occupied West Bank. Across their localities, these universities were planned and built to serve as pillars of regional demographic engineering.

The 1967 occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem, further entrenched how academia produced expertise on behalf of Israeli military governance. Claiming new territory while differentially ruling Jewish and Palestinian citizens, as well as Palestinian subjects living under military occupation, required new and expanded capabilities. Diverse academic disciplines immediately stepped in to produce this knowledge for use by the Israeli state, and in so doing expanded their own scholarly frontiers. Archaeology, legal studies, and Middle East studies, among other fields in Israeli academia, continue to serve the state and its maintenance of a regime of apartheid.

Israeli academic knowledge production developed through ties to the Israeli government and military in the OPT and was often itself steered toward direct military applications. Israeli universities designed — and continue to run — tailored academic programmes to train soldiers and security forces to carry out their work and to enhance their operations. The development of Israeli higher education was imbricated with the rise of Israeli military industries, and Israeli universities still sustain them. Rafael and Israeli Aerospace Industries, two of Israel’s largest weapons producers, developed out of infrastructure laid by the Weizmann Institute and the Technion. Today, Israeli universities collaborate with Israeli weapons corporations to research and develop technology that is used by the Israeli military and security state in the OPT. This technology is later sold abroad as field-tested or “battle proven.” 

The institutional commitment of Israeli universities to the state have profoundly shaped the opportunities and experiences of their Palestinian faculty and junior scholars. After decades where critical research was foreclosed, in the 1980s and 1990s, Palestinian and some Jewish-Israeli scholars created new openings to explore the histories and structures of violence and oppression of the Israeli state. This scholarship and the foundational debates it instigated were immediately marked as out of bounds, with researchers and faculty facing harassment and silencing campaigns. This backlash has escalated over the past two decades, as university administrations aligned with the state and Israeli far-right groups to more narrowly define permissible research, teaching, and discourse on their campuses.

Palestinian students, too, are deeply affected. From its founding, Israel has limited Palestinian citizen access to education, and universities have restrained and conditioned Palestinian enrollment. University administrations continue to curtail Palestinian presence and learning on their campuses, and persistently collaborate with the Israeli government in repressing their Palestinian students, and particularly student organisers. Israeli universities violate the foundational academic freedoms of their Palestinian and critical Jewish-Israeli faculty and students, excluding knowledge production, pedagogies, and expression that challenge the systems of oppression unfolding daily just beyond and within their campuses.

In the OPT, Palestinian higher education has long been under Israeli siege and, currently, is under escalating attack. Since their establishment, Palestinian universities have been governed by the Israeli military, subjugated by the state to prevent them from becoming sites of Palestinian resistance. In the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Palestinian universities are subjected to bureaucratic restrictions that isolate and obstruct them, as well as recurrent military closures and raids, and the abduction, detention, and torture of faculty and students. In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian universities have been subject to Israeli aerial bombardment and remain suffocated under an illegal blockade. Far from defending the academic freedoms of faculty and students in the OPT, Israeli universities continue to sustain the military system that rules them and to subdue Palestinian student mobilisation for liberation and true equality on their own campuses. 

Israeli universities actively sustain Israeli settler colonialism, military occupation, and apartheid, as well as their own complicity in the ongoing violation of Palestinian rights as recognized under international law. It is on the basis of these universities’ collaboration with the Israeli state that Palestinian civil society, including the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees, has called for the international community to enact the academic boycott.

Israeli academics are frequently incensed at the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement’s call for accountability. They refuse to accept that Palestinian scholars and civil society leaders are making demands on them and consistently foreclose the very conversations that the Israeli academy should instead be undertaking: how to remake their universities as institutions working against — and not in service of — Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid.

These are undoubtedly challenging conversations to initiate, as is always the case when grappling with accountability for violence committed onto others. But as Eve Tuck and K. Wang Yang argue, “decolonization is not a metaphor.” The decolonisation of universities is and should be unsettling. In the face of the boycott, Israeli academics consistently make “settler moves to innocence” — that is, actions that preserve the structure of the settler state and the violence that sustains it — while denying that they bear any responsibility for their universities’ role in violating Palestinian rights. But as Indigenous and other scholars of settler  colonialism  have  shown,  colonial  education  systems  are structurally sustained by the scholars who work within them. Inhabiting the settler university, Suriamurthee Moonsamy Maistry argues, is a “state of complicity by default.” As scholars of education demonstrate, academics are not “innocent of power” nor exterior to the conditions that make their institutions. They are implicated in perpetuating the coloniality of their universities and cannot simply opt out of this complicity.

Israeli scholars, then, bear structural individual responsibility for their universities. Even so, the Palestinian call for boycott is directed only at institutions. The BDS call has, in fact, extended an “unambiguous invitation” to conscientious Israeli academics to become active participants and partners in the struggle for Palestinian liberation.

In the tradition of the ANC in South Africa and other indigenous movements across the world, Palestinians are holding Israeli universities accountable for sustaining the violent settler regime that rules, dispossesses, and subjugates them. In South Africa, some white faculty and students heeded the call from the ANC — echoed by the international community — and demanded that their universities sever their ties with the apartheid regime and take meaningful steps toward decolonisation. Palestinians are calling on scholars across the world to guide Israeli academics to demand the same.

Maya Wind is a scholar of Israeli expertise and militarism. She is a Killam Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.