/ 29 April 2024

Hebrew University a pillar of Israeli colonialism

Middle East History: Lord Balfour's Visit Protested To By Arabs In Jerusalem. Arab Protest; Black Flags Displayed Location: Jerusalem Ca. 1925
Hebrew University and Lord Balfour's visit. Arab protest; black flags displayed Location: Jerusalem ca. 1925. (Photo by: HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

This is part three 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 two

On June 28, 1967—just two weeks after Israel invaded East Jerusalem and brought the entire city under its rule — Hebrew University held a ceremony at its Mt. Scopus amphitheatre, overlooking the newly occupied Palestinian neighbourhoods below. State and military leaders joined university administrators for the festive occasion, in which Hebrew University awarded Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin an honorary doctorate. Celebrating the reopening of its campus in occupied East Jerusalem, the University Senate thanked Rabin for “returning the entirety of Jerusalem to the state of Israel and returning Mt Scopus to Hebrew University.” Rabin, in turn, commended the university on behalf of the Israeli military for the opportunity to stand at Mt. Scopus with the view of “our eternal capital.” Not to be outdone, the military bestowed upon the university an honour of its own. At another celebratory ceremony at the campus that shortly followed, the Israeli military commander of Mt Scopus, Lieutenant Colonel Menachem Sherfman, awarded the university’s president the “Six Day War Decoration” for the institution’s contribution to the Israeli war effort.

These military-academic entanglements at Hebrew University reveal how crucial a role its campus has played in the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. The story of Hebrew University, the first and leading university of the Zionist movement, is the story of how Israeli institutions of higher education were designed to serve Zionist territorial conquest and the expansion of Jewish settlement across historic Palestine.

What early Zionist leaders before 1948 called the “colonisation of Palestine,” Israeli leaders after the state’s founding called “Judaisation.” A platform shared by both Israel’s right and left parties, “Judaization” has always been a national policy publicly pursued by every Israeli government. Since its establishment in 1948 and the mass expulsion of Palestinians in the Nakba, Israel has continuously deployed, across multiple frontiers, the twinned methods of Palestinian land confiscation and strategic Jewish settlement. All Zionist modes of settlement have been based on the logic of Jewish replacement of indigenous Palestinians, and all have sought to establish Jewish-Israeli citizen presence on the ground to secure effective control of Palestinian land. Following the 1948 war, Israel’s targeting of Palestinian lands continued inside the newly established state borders. After the 1967 military occupation, such targeting occurred across the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem. 

With Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem just days into the war in 1967, the university administration immediately lobbied to reopen its original campus. Two days before the ceasefire, Hebrew University officials declaratively raised the university flag atop a high building to demonstrate that the “exile from Mt Scopus was over” and narrated their “return” to the “liberated summit.” Both university administrators and the Israeli government understood the location of the campus to have a functional role, marking the frontier of the “unification” of the new “Jewish capital.”

Working with Hebrew University administrators, the Israeli government planned to rebuild the campus on Mt. Scopus as part of its efforts to “Judaize” occupied East Jerusalem after 1967. City planners were instructed to cover the recently occupied lands with “facts on the ground.” Rebuilding the Mt. Scopus campus naturalised the development of new Jewish settlements on expropriated Palestinian lands, which linked the university to West Jerusalem’s city centre. The university’s senate-appointed rehabilitation planning committee, created just one day after the ceasefire, similarly argued that — from both a university and a national perspective — expropriating Palestinian lands for the new campus was justified, despite its clear violation of international law. The committee echoed government rhetoric, stating that “empty space in Mt Scopus and its surroundings must be filled. If we will not fill it, someone else will do it.” The committee acknowledged that expanding the campus would entail land expropriation, necessitating “state intervention” to seize the potential “available land” from the Palestinian village of Issawiyeh, located on the slopes of Mt Scopus and right beneath the campus. 

With Israel’s occupation and annexation of East Jerusalem and the reopening of the Mt. Scopus campus in 1967, Issawiyeh came entirely under Israeli rule. But Israel included only one-quarter of Issawiyeh’s original lands within what became the annexed neighbourhood’s borders, confiscating its lands, first to expand Hebrew University and later to build adjacent Jewish settlements. Over the five decades since annexation, Israel has incrementally expropriated over 90 percent of Issawiyeh’s lands and subjecting it to conditions of underdevelopment by design.

But the residents of Issawiyeh have never accepted their status as occupied subjects. Issawiyeh has long been known as a centre of Palestinian resistance and organising, with residents regularly holding demonstrations against the illegal annexation of their neighbourhood and their governance by Israeli occupation. This sustained mobilisation has caused the Israeli National Police (INP) to label it an “extremist village” and to target the neighbourhood with physical closures and violent repression. Since the Second Palestinian Intifada, the Israeli police have regularly closed the neighbourhood’s exit toward the university with checkpoints and placed large cement blocks to bar access to Jerusalem through the road adjacent to the campus and Hadassah, one of only three entrances to the neighbourhood. In their streets and homes, Issawiyeh residents have faced regular invasion of Israeli security forces; mass and arbitrary arrests of residents, including children; and a particularly heavy use of tear gas and other weapons to disperse demonstrations, which has caused several Palestinian deaths and dozens of severe injuries.

Yet in April 2019, Israel’s targeting of Issawiyeh significantly escalated, with the launch of a new police operation in the neighbourhood. Israeli police officers, special patrol unit officers, and border police forces began to routinely raid the neighbourhood and disrupt everyday life, imposing a permanent regime of collective punishment. Israeli forces set up checkpoints, ambushes, and roadblocks, randomly closing off main streets during the day and setting off patrol car loudspeakers at night. Forces began conducting drone surveillance and patrols in full riot gear and with weapons drawn as well as enforcing a policy of stopping and searching vehicles and issuing tickets with hefty fines for minor infractions as a means to discipline residents. The campaign included routinely sweeping up dozens of residents, with most released afterward with no charges. Israeli forces repeatedly and violently targeted the neighbourhood’s leading activists in particular, arresting and threatening local leaders with punitive house demolitions. Raids by fully armed units with dogs were conducted in residents’ homes, often in the middle of the night.

It is no coincidence that the most targeted Palestinian neighbourhood in Jerusalem is the one right beneath Mt. Scopus and the Hebrew University campus. The Hebrew University administration has long collaborated with the repression of Issawiyeh, carried out with the over- whelming support of its Jewish-Israeli students. Over the last decade, student union chairpersons and leaders of student groups have demanded increased policing of the neighbourhood. Some even deployed racialized tropes to allege that Palestinian men pose a danger to Jewish-Israeli women as a basis to call for further segregation and for the university to build an additional separation wall between the campus and Issawiyeh. In the face of the recent escalated campaign to repress Issawiyeh, the Hebrew University administration again supported the work of Israeli forces in the neighbourhood. In December 2019, the INP was documented conducting surveillance of Issawiyeh atop one of the Hebrew University  campus  buildings.  Palestinian  and  progressive  joint Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli student and faculty groups demanded that Hebrew University push to reopen the entrance to Issawiyeh adjacent to campus and prohibit the INP from using its campus as a lookout. In response, Rector Barak Medina refused to acknowledge the institution’s role in the occupation of Issawiyeh, stating: “The responsibility for protecting human life and property lies with the police. The university plays no role in determining the police’s modes of action, in Issawiyeh or anywhere else.” Yet Medina himself affirmed that the police outpost was conducted in coordination with campus security. Members of the Issawiyeh popular committee were further informed by the police that their neighbourhood entrance was in fact closed at the request of the university, and that it would be reopened were the university to inform the police that it no longer had a “security need” for the closure.

The intensified policing campaign against Issawiyeh continues unabated, as does the crackdown on neighbourhood activists. Most recently, in January 2023, police dispersed the neighbourhood parents’ committee meeting, convened to address the shortage of classrooms for their children as a result of discriminatory Israeli planning and budgetary policy. The “Judaization” of Jerusalem, Israel makes clear, requires the continued shrinking of Palestinian lands, as well as limiting opportunities for Palestinian education. Ignoring Issawiyeh resident mobilisation and the dissent among its faculty and students, Hebrew University institutionally supports ongoing escalation tactics by the INP and the violent occupation of the Palestinian neighbourhood right below its campus.

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.