/ 28 April 2024

The Israeli scholarly security state

Right Wing Activists Protest Against Arab Terror Attacks, In Front Of Tel Aviv University
Right wing activists protest in front of Tel-Aviv University, on November 20, 2014. (Photo by NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

This is part two 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 one and part three

The development of Israeli universities is imbricated with the rise of Israeli military industries. Designed as state-building institutions, they were recruited to support its apparatuses of violence soon after their founding. Following the establishment of Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1918, the Zionist movement founded two additional institutions of higher education in Palestine: the Technion opened in Haifa in 1925, and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot in 1934. Hebrew University was the Zionist movement’s first comprehensive university dedicated to research and teaching across disciplines; the Technion was designed as the centre of engineering; and the Weizmann Institute was committed to scientific research for state-building. During the intensifying military campaigns leading up to the founding of Israel in 1948, the Zionist movement officially enlisted its three universities.

In 1946, the Haganah Zionist militia established HEMED, the Science Corps, which opened bases on all three campuses. Universities soon became central to the development and manufacture of weapons. In February 1948, a Hebrew University doctoral student in microbiology initiated and headed the biological department at HEMED. By April 1948, the department prepared typhoid-dysentery bacteria to be used as a biological weapon.

Throughout the spring of 1948, the Haganah and other Zionist militias led military campaigns to expel Palestinians and claim their lands. HEMED supported these efforts through departments that focused on chemical, biological, and nuclear research and warfare capabilities, aided by university students and researchers.

HEMED’s biological department typhoid-dysentery bacteria was used in the Haganah’s Cast Thy Bread operation to poison Palestinian water sources. This operation was personally overseen by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and planned as a mechanism to prevent Palestinian return to the villages from which they were expelled by Zionist militias. On May 13, 1948, just before the war, Cast Thy Bread was implemented in the recently depopulated Palestinian village of Bayt Mahsir.

As part of the Haganah campaigns to depopulate major Palestinian cities in the weeks leading up to the 1948 war, typhoid-dysentery was used to poison Palestinian communities where they were still living. In early May, the Haganah poisoned water sources in Palestinian neighbourhoods in Jerusalem and the Kabri aqueduct that fed Acre. The poisoning caused a disease outbreak in the targeted Palestinian communities but did not have the debilitating effect its proponents had hoped for.

Moreover, when the operation was expanded to target Egyptian and other Arab forces, Zionist operatives were caught and Arab states brought reports of the poisoning to the UN Security Council. The representative of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, Abba Eban, vehemently denied the operation and worked to prevent further probes into the poisoning by accusing the Arab states of peddling in “antisemitic incitement.” A few months later, by December of 1948, Cast Thy Bread was discontinued by the Zionist leadership and military establishment in Palestine. Despite this, the operation proved to be only the beginning for the Science Corps.

Throughout the remainder of the 1948 war, all HEMED departments were activated, and the faculty and students of the three universities were recruited to conduct military research and experimentation. The Weizmann Institute officially put its equipment and campus buildings at the disposal of the Haganah and, later, the newly formed Israeli military. For its part, the nascent Israeli government’s central recruitment commit- tee released all institute researchers and employees from their military duties and designated them as soldiers by virtue of their work. Senior researchers, employees, and students sustained the institute’s activities 24/7 in rotating shifts. Faculty and students across the three institutions began developing and manufacturing diverse weaponry, including plastic explosives, rockets based on synthetic propellant compounds, shells for mortars and cannons, and ignition mechanisms for Napalm, tear gases, and mines.

By the end of the war, the Weizmann Institute had come to anchor the Military Science Corps and, together with the Technion, became the military-scientific centre of the Israeli state. The 1948 war marked the beginning, not the end, of university militarisation.

Senior administrators and faculty at the Weizmann Institute and the Technion later led the development of Israeli military industries. They advocated establishing Israeli science as the basis of Israeli military power by developing and manufacturing Israeli advanced weaponry. In so doing, these scientists even went against the Israeli military leadership, which often espoused a more conservative approach to military research and development and favoured purchasing weaponry from other states. Ultimately, the scientists won. As Israeli research and development of weapons became institutionalised, the Science Corps was detached from the military. In 1952, HEMED was brought under the Ministry of Defense, where university scientists wielded more influence. It became the Research and Design Directorate, led by David Bergman, one of the founders and senior administrators of the Weizmann Institute. In 1958, the directorate became the Authority for the Development of Armaments (Harashut Haleumit Lepituach Emtzaei Lehima), best known by its Hebrew acronym, Rafael.

One of Israel’s leading state-owned weapons corporations, Rafael is now a major supplier to the Israeli military. It is particularly known for its development and production of missiles, and armour and weapon systems for tanks, jet aircraft, and naval forces. Rafael technology and weapons are deployed in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and, on this basis, exported internationally. True to its origins at the facilities of the Weizmann Institute and the Technion, Rafael still calls itself “the national laboratory of Israel.”

Rafael was not the only weapons company birthed by Israeli academia. With support from the state, the Technion opened a Department of Aeronautical Engineering in 1954. The department tailored specialised courses based on Israeli military needs, and its faculty and students spearheaded the development of Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI), transforming it into a company that produced Israeli-designed and manufactured fighter jets and missiles. Today, IAI is one of Israel’s leading weapons corporations, supplying the Israeli military with jets, drones, and weapons systems, and exporting them worldwide as “battle proven.”

Since the establishment of these military industries, they have remained embedded in the Technion and are often difficult to distinguish from the university. Scientists and engineers regularly moved back and forth between the university and the weapons companies and have sent their students to join them as employees. The companies, for their part, have funded the establishment of major Technion laboratories, and a network of Technion faculty dedicated to military research and development  have  functioned  as  their  shadow  employees.  Technion researchers have developed a wide range of technologies — including new missiles and drones—which have gone into production by Rafael, IAI, and other Israeli weapons corporations, and then gone on to be used by the Israeli military.

Though an industry leader, the Technion is not alone. Israeli universities support the Israeli military, not only by supplying it with weapons, but by training its soldiers. All public universities offer their facilities, faculty, and expertise for Israeli military training, advancing the career development of soldiers and security state personnel through specialised degree-granting programs. Atuda (academic reserve) is a specialised academic program for soldiers—run by the Israeli military and Ministry of Defense, in collaboration with weapons manufacturers and the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure—that is administered through the Israeli university system. The Atuda program was developed to offer the Israeli military a cadre of highly educated and specialised soldiers, amid a national draft of high school seniors.

Through Atuda, the Israeli military offers fifty degree programs across all public Israeli universities, covering soldiers’ tuition and granting needs-based stipends in exchange for extended military service as commanders and officers. The wide-ranging disciplines include languages, humanities, law, life sciences, data sciences, and engineering. Through Atuda, soldiers are drafted and then sent to complete academic degrees and basic training, followed by a minimum six years of military service. This elite academic-military track has long operated as a pipeline to both military leadership and academia, as well as to Israel’s military and tech industries.

By the accounts of senior military personnel and academics, the program outputs are consequential. They claim that Atuda is central to Israel’s technological capabilities and competitive edge in the global market. Knowledge and ideas developed through Atuda are not patented by the military, allowing for a “knowledge spillover” into the Israeli private sector. Graduates of Atuda degree programs in physics, maths, and computer science have frequently assumed key positions in Israeli military research and development; some later established their own security sector companies worth millions of dollars.

Israeli military industries and its universities have always been co-constituted. Universities still offer their campuses, resources, students, and faculty to aid in the development of technology and weaponry deployed against Palestinians and then sold worldwide as “battle-proven.” By collaborating with state apparatuses and weapons corporations that enforce Israel’s military occupation and apartheid, Israeli universities function as an academic arm of the Israeli security state and are complicit in its crimes.

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.