Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli universities undermine Palestinian freedom
Often it is claimed that Israeli universities are the last bastions of academic freedom in an increasingly oppressive state.
Yet a growing number of critical scholars — Maya Wind first among them — have shown us that the freedom that is claimed to flourish in Israeli universities is only available for supporters of the Israeli state.
Wind’s new book, Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom, entered production shortly before Israel’s latest onslaught in Gaza began in October 2023.
"Wind shows us how the university has advanced Israel’s demographic project of appropriating Palestinian land and replacing Palestinian inhabitants between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea with Israeli settlers"
Drawing heavily on Hebrew sources that have not been discussed in the English-language debate around Israel and Palestine, Wind documents a long history of collaboration by Israeli academic institutions in the occupation of Palestine and denial of Palestinian rights.
Wind documents, in painstaking detail how, from the beginning of the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 — if not earlier — Israeli universities have been designed as “regionally strategic outposts for the Israeli state’s territorial and demographic project.”
The locations, research focus, and academic hierarchies of Israeli universities all reflect this broader aim.
The occupation of knowledge
First and foremost among Israeli academia’s “regionally strategic outposts” is the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which was deliberately located in 1925 in “a remote enclave among Palestinian villages.”
As the Zionist expansion project grew, so too did the campus of Hebrew University. In more recent years, the university has been heavily involved in consolidating Israel’s illegal hold over East Jerusalem.
Wind documents how the administrators and staff of Hebrew University profited from the Nakba and later displacements of Palestinians from East Jerusalem throughout the 1960s and into the present.
As soon as Palestinians were expelled from Jerusalem in 1948, Israel’s National Library and Hebrew University embarked on a project to loot books from Palestinian homes and libraries.
As part of the Oriental Division of the National Library, these looted books currently form the core of the Middle Eastern studies collection at Hebrew University. The story of this criminal appropriation is also told by Benny Brunner and Arjan El Fassed, in their documentary The Great Book Robbery, which aired on Al Jazeera in 2012.
No Israeli university has managed to evade complicity in the occupation. Wind takes us through the history of Israel’s major public universities, including the University of Haifa, Tel Aviv University, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, the Technion in Haifa, the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Bar-Ilan University, Ariel University, and Hebrew University.
The only universities she does not mention are Reichman University, Israel’s only private university, and the Open University of Israel.
In each case, Wind shows us how the university has advanced Israel’s demographic project of appropriating Palestinian land and replacing Palestinian inhabitants between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea with Israeli settlers.
As Wind explains, drawing on the scholarship of Nadia Abu El-Haj, the aim has consistently been to “create facts on the ground” that make Israel’s demographic engineering and violations of international law much more difficult to reverse.
The incorporation of Ariel University into mainstream Israeli academia illustrates how effectively Israel has created irreversible “facts on the ground.”
Originally established as a college in 1982 under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University of the Negev, Ariel was named after an existing Israeli settlement that was strategically located to disrupt Palestinian territorial contiguity.
Wind documents the process through which Ariel University came to be officially recognised and treated as a legitimate university within Israel, notwithstanding its location in the occupied West Bank.
There was a brief campaign within Israel to prevent Ariel University from becoming accredited but, as Wind notes, this initiative lost its momentum once it became evident that the groundswell of international opposition that Israeli academics feared would result from Ariel’s accreditation never materialised.
"Wind’s timely expose of the struggle for power over Palestinian rights, Palestinian land, and ultimately over Palestinian lives that is currently taking place in Israeli universities will serve as a guide to everyone responding to the call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel"
In March 2021, over 500 academics signed an open letter calling on the European Commission to ensure that EU funds were not used to support Israeli research activities in the occupied West Bank.
And yet, only seven months later, the European Commission concluded formal negotiations with Israel that resulted in it becoming an associated country, a status that gives researchers based in Israeli universities access to prestigious and lucrative funding from the European Research Council.
Unfortunately, there is no sign that during these negotiations the European Commission raised the concerns voiced by the international scholarly community about Ariel University, whose very location is in violation of international law, or that the illegal activities of any other Israeli university were mentioned as a potential barrier to Israeli participation in EU funding schemes.
Exporting the Israeli psyche
Meanwhile, in the US, a ban that prohibited US taxpayer funding of academic research conducted in Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements, including Ariel University, was lifted in 2020.
A few months before the ban was lifted, Ariel University conferred an honorary fellowship on the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, a politician who has led the way in banning books promoting awareness of the US’s racist past, as well as in banning chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine across Florida university campuses.
The role that DeSantis has played in undermining academic freedom in Florida universities demonstrates that the tendency to look the other way while Israel violates its international obligations and oppresses Palestinians also affects academic freedom in North American and European universities.
The special status accorded by Western powers to Israeli universities makes Wind’s documentation of Israeli academia’s complicity in the denial of Palestinian freedom all the more urgent.
The book includes a preface from Nadia Abu El-Haj and an afterword from Robin D.G. Kelley that situates Wind’s project in mid-2023, just before the Gaza genocide.
In his caustic remarks, Kelley reminds us, not only why we must boycott Israeli universities and other academic institutions, but also why the struggle against Israeli apartheid in academic spaces matters for everyone.
As Kelley points out, although “universities are not necessarily bastions of democracy, equity, or inclusion,” they are “sites of power.”
Even those of us who doubt that universities matter in the broader struggle for collective liberation would do well to remember that “what appears to be a fight to secure intellectual freedom within the academy is fundamentally a struggle for power.”
Wind’s timely expose of the struggle for power over Palestinian rights, Palestinian land, and ultimately over Palestinian lives that is currently taking place in Israeli universities will serve as a guide to everyone responding to the call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
Initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2004, two decades of Israeli apartheid and an ongoing genocide have shown us that boycotting Israeli universities is an ethical as well as a strategic imperative.
Rebecca Ruth Gould is a Distinguished Professor of Comparative Poetics and Global Politics, at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She is the author of numerous works at the intersection of aesthetics and politics, including Erasing Palestine (2023), Writers and Rebels (2016) and The Persian Prison Poem (2021). With Malaka Shwaikh, she is the author of Prison Hunger Strikes in Palestine (2023). Her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books, Middle East Eye, and World Policy Journal and her writing has been translated into eleven languages
Follow her on Twitter: @rrgould