Israeli apartheid on campus

A man blows a horn as others wave Israeli flags during a demonstration supporting soldiers in Israel's military operation in Gaza, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2012 (Ammar Awad - Reuters)

Somdeep Sen

Al-Jazeera  / June 29, 2021

Israeli universities not only discriminate against their Palestinians students, but are also complicit in apartheid.

 On May 13, the United States-based online outlet Mondoweiss posted a video on Twitter that showed Palestinian students who were peacefully protesting at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba being attacked by Israeli police. The students were protesting against the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem. As Palestinian students faced similar attacks at Israeli universities across the country, many of them fled campus and returned home.

Member of the Knesset Sami Abu Shehadeh and leader of Balad Party called on the Council of Higher Education and Minister of Education Yoav Galant to protect Palestinian students in Israeli universities. He said, “The protection of our students is a major and important demand for us due to the ongoing circumstances as they feel the loss of safety and security inside Israeli universities and school residencies.”

It would be easy to describe the attacks on university campuses as an exceptional occurrence, in a period of heightened political tensions, but Israeli universities have long been complicit in the victimization of Palestinians by the Israeli occupation. In the research I conducted between 2013 and 2016 in Israel, I found that Israeli universities systematically discriminate against Palestinian students and communities, engage with the Israeli military industrial complex and fully support the state’s apartheid policies.

‘New Jerusalem upon the hill’

After visiting several universities in Israel, I found the history and campus of Hebrew University on Mount Scopus (HUJI) in occupied Jerusalem to be a great example of how higher education institutions became complicit in the Israeli settler-colonial project.

Founded in 1918, three decades before the establishment of Israel, the university was a marque initiative of Zionist activists in Europe. It was a place of refuge for exiled Jewish academics and students from Europe. But the building of the university was also considered synonymous with the remaking of Jewish nationhood. This symbolism was written into the design of the campus.

Standing atop Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus, the university has an unhindered view of Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount. In fact, during the planning phases, it was called the Third Temple, signifying the re-establishment of the severed connection between the Jewish people and what they perceive as their divinely ordained homeland.

Aesthetically, the buildings of the original campus were inspired by Arab architecture as a way of ensuring that they seem indigenous to the surrounding landscape. However, as was pointed out to me by an Israeli architect, the grand Arab architecture-inspired domes and arches were meant to also “symbolize the muscularity of Zionism and the Jewish nation”.

The designers of the original master plan, Patrick Geddes and Frank Mears, chose to incorporate an Arab style of architecture, but they did so with a sense of contempt for the Palestinian population.

In a letter, Geddes wrote, “… any Western eye can see that the Arabs are dirty, untidy, in many ways degenerate, and is all too likely to overlook, or have difficulty in seeing, the qualities of their buildings”. He then went on to claim that it was the responsibility of the Zionists and HUJI to build a campus atop Mount Scopus that would symbolize the “New Jerusalem upon the hill”.

The contemporary campus is also dotted with Jewish nationalist iconography. A sign on a wall on campus dedicated by the American Friends of Hebrew University declares HUJI a “university of the Jewish people”. Another sign says that research and teaching at the university is conducted for “the benefit of Israel [and] the Jewish people”.

Expectedly, Palestinian students feel alienated by the campus and by what they consider an attempt to de-Palestinize a landscape that is integral to the Palestinian national territorial home.

A Palestinian alumnus said to me, “The university wants to show that this campus is only for Israelis. Part of the problem are all the Israeli flags, signs and statues on campus. It is also not allowed to do any political action or demonstrations supporting Palestinians.”

Of course, the antagonism of the university towards Palestinians is most evident in its relationship to the Palestinian communities in its vicinity. One such neighbourhood, Issawiya, is located in the valley on the eastern edge of the campus and has come to symbolize the disparity that exists between Israeli and Palestinian spaces.

Unmistakably, the well-maintained and carefully curated aesthetics of the campus stand in stark contrast to Issawiya’s congested and garbage-filled alleyways that are neglected by Israel’s Jerusalem municipality. For more than a decade, vehicles from Issawiya have also been unable to drive out of the village in the direction of Mount Scopus because of an army checkpoint. Palestinian students and the university-contracted workers from Issawiya are often frisked at this checkpoint before they are allowed to enter the campus.

Describing the relationship between HUJI and Issawiya, a Palestinian student said, “If you look at the campus, it stands above us. From Issawiya we have to look up to the campus on Mount Scopus. This means we look up, but they look down on us. This is the historic relationship we have with Hebrew University. It is a relationship between the colonizer and us. The goal is to make us disappear.”

Another student said, “I am lucky to be studying here but we are treated mostly as inferior to the Israeli students … Most people [from Issawiya] work here as cleaners, serve the food on campus, do all the dirty work. So, of course, they live on top of the hill and we are at the bottom.”

Contributions to Israeli militarism

During episodes of violent escalations, Israeli universities do not hesitate to openly side with the Israeli army. During the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza, for example, HUJI – along with other Israeli universities – chose to publicly support the brutal assault. In a letter to friends and alumni, the university announced that it was joining the war effort. It called for donations and encouraged donors to earmark their financial contributions “for the ‘Protective Edge’ fund”, referring to the name the Israeli army gave to its operation in Gaza.

Yet, in response to a 2014 silent demonstration by Palestinian students on campus against the administrative detention of Palestinian activists, the university administration called campus security and the police.

But support for the Israeli army goes beyond slogans and letters. In fact, Israeli research and academic institutions play an active role in contributing to the Israeli state’s militarism. A prime example of this is the development of the “Dahiya Doctrine” – that entails the use of disproportionate force and the targeting of civilian infrastructure and buildings – at the Tel Aviv University (TAU)-affiliated think-tank Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). This principle of warfare has been applied in the successive Israeli military campaigns against Gaza.

University campuses also serve as a training ground for future military personnel. In 2019, HUJI won a tender to host the Havatzalot program – a three-year academic excellence program for future intelligence officers – taking over from Haifa University.

It was HUJI professors who also proposed and devised the elite Talpiot program in the aftermath of the 1973 October war in order to develop the Israeli armed forces’ technological edge. The highly secretive program has been hosted at HUJI since 1979.

There is also an intertwined relationship between the military-industrial complex and Israeli academia. Universities are often the sites of defence-related research and development, which in turn have contributed to Israel’s high-tech industry and its status as a “startup nation”.

For example, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa – makes the technology for detecting tunnels, developed the infamous “D9” bulldozer that is often used to destroy Palestinian homes and collaborates with Elbit Systems that produces surveillance technologies used for Israel’s illegal apartheid wall in the occupied West Bank. Technion also developed a three-month program titled “Defense Strategy for International Markets” that focuses on the global branding of Israel’s defence industry.

Similarly, Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan has also worked with the Israeli armed forces in order to develop artificial intelligence technology for unmanned combat vehicles. And Ben Gurion University hosts BGN Technologies – a technology transfer company that develops unmanned ground vehicles as well as climbing robots for military use.

Anti-BDS initiatives

In the aftermath of Israel’s war on Gaza in the summer of 2014, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) gained significant ground globally and found mainstream resonance.

By then, the Israeli government had already assigned the Ministry of Strategic Affairs the responsibility for coordinating its anti-BDS initiatives, which over the next few years rapidly expanded. In 2015, a task force with a budget of $25m was created to counter BDS. In 2017, some $72m were allocated to anti-BDS efforts.

Following the Israeli government’s lead, Israeli universities also got involved in an effort to counter the BDS campaign and enhance Israel’s global standing.

In January 2015, New York philanthropists Nirit Weiss Shaoul and Michael Shaoul established the Shaoul Family Fund at TAU for visiting scholars and fellows, with the specific aim of extending the university’s “network of international exchange and collaboration” and counteracting the threat of BDS.

Talking about the initiative, Michael Shaoul said, “We view this isolation as the second most serious threat to the country, after security, with the universities on the front lines. That’s why we created this seed fund – to which we hope others will contribute – to help stem the effects of marginalization.”

In February 2015, INSS organized a panel called “BDS Campaign against Israel: Why, How, and What Can be Done?”. The panelist included Amir Ofek from Israel’s foreign ministry, Ben-Dror Yemini from the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and Alan Johnson from the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM). In December 2015, the Truman Institute at HUJI organized a conference titled “BDS: Why Are They Boycotting Israel?” that, among other things, reflected on strategies for responding to the widening appeal of the BDS movement.

The leadership at various universities have also begun explicitly addressing the threat of boycott. The 2015 “Report of the President” of Technion specifically addressed BDS and noted that Professor Zvi Ziegler of the Faculty of Mathematics was coordinating with the Committee of Heads of Israel’s Universities in its efforts against BDS.

In 2016, TAU announced a $1bn Global Campaign to fundraise for the university. Among the goals of the campaign was to “help counter the BDS movement”. In the same year, the board of governors of the University of Haifa condemned the BDS campaign against Israeli universities, arguing that it “limits the progress of scientific growth and the exchange of ideas and knowledge, and it threatens the basic principles of academic freedom”. The board encouraged the university leadership to continue its efforts against BDS.

In 2016, the University of Haifa’s Division for External and Resource Development reported that faculty members were working towards strategic cooperation with the Israel Action Network against the boycott movement.

By actively engaging in anti-BDS initiatives, supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and the victimization of Palestinians by Israeli forces, Israeli universities have revealed themselves to be more than just institutions of higher learning. They are complicit in the affairs of the Israeli apartheid state.

As more and more academic institutions and scholars issue statements in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for liberation that explicitly state a commitment to BDS, an opportunity is arising to hold Israeli academic institutions accountable for their role in the upkeep of the apartheid regime.

Somdeep Sen is Associate Professor of International Development Studies at Roskilde University in Denmark; he is the author of Decolonizing Palestine: Hamas between the Anticolonial and the Postcolonial (Cornell University Press, 2020)