Sarah Sakha (and others)
The Electronic Intifada / July 29, 2020
Israel boasts a coastal strip of technology startups – concentrated around Tel Aviv – known to many as “Silicon Wadi.”
It’s a play on California’s Silicon Valley. “Wadi” in Arabic roughly translates as “valley” – just one example of the Zionist practice of co-opting and appropriating the Arabic language to erase Palestinian identity and claims to the land.
Israel has long been praised by the Western media and governments as the “startup nation,” despite growing evidence of civil and human rights abuses by makers of weapons and surveillance technology against Palestinians.
The Shin Bet, the Israeli secret police with a well-documented record of torture, tracks Palestinians with these technologies, which were designed for “security” purposes but have been used for surveillance during the COVID-19 pandemic after the Israeli government changed its laws to accommodate their use.
Despite evidence of Israel’s abuses of technology, universities such as Princeton – our alma mater – continue to celebrate the Israeli startup scene and Israel’s pandemic response.
Princeton’s Keller Center recently hosted an online conference to promote Israel’s health care system. It featured Mitchell Schwaber, director of the National Center for Infection Control in Israel’s health ministry.
Schwaber is also a reserve officer in the Israeli military.
Profiting from apartheid
As an institution, Princeton has always maintained close ties with Israel in education and promotion, and has historically profited from apartheid in South Africa.
Back in 1969, students at Princeton demanded that the university divest from almost 40 companies doing business with South Africa.
In reality, Princeton never did fully divest from companies that supported South African apartheid. White minority rule had already ended in South Africa by the time Princeton’s board of trustees finally reconsidered its divestment policies in 1994.
The prospects of divestment from companies that profit from Israeli apartheid and occupation, such as HP and Caterpillar, seem even bleaker.
A referendum on divesting from such firms was held at Princeton five years ago. Opponents of the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions won that vote marginally.
Princeton’s support for Israel has continued since then.
Princeton’s student-led “TigerTreks” – short trips to learn about technological innovation – began in Silicon Valley in 2012. The first such trip outside the US went to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; it took place earlier this year.
Twenty students took part.
Princeton promoted the trip and had participants post photos, gushing about their transformative experience learning about technology and its ability to benefit people. The students did not appear to learn about how the Israeli military uses its awe-inspiring technology to promote the racist screening of Palestinians at checkpoints in the occupied West Bank.
This is in addition to the Princeton Startup Immersion Program, which sends students to intern at firms in Tel Aviv, Shanghai and New York, with stipends of up to $5,000 each.
Princeton is not alone or unique. It is part of a wider landscape of educational institutions extolling Israeli tech and entrepreneurship – without any acknowledgment of the wider political or historical context – and thus sanitizing the reality of occupation.
This is part of a larger, widely entrenched strategy of US universities partnering with Israeli tech startups and universities to attract hundreds of students each year to travel to and work in Israel, using tourism and technology to sell Israel as an innovator and erase its role as an occupier.
Public institutions are not exempt. The University of California signed an agreement with Israel’s National Technological Innovation Authority in 2017 to identify potential areas of cooperation.
Across the board, US higher education institutions foster connections with the Israeli tech and startup scene and, by extension, colonial violence.
Take, for example, Cornell Tech – Cornell University’s multi-billion-dollar campus in New York focused on applied sciences and engineering. Cornell Tech is partnered with Israel’s Technion, which has been repeatedly targeted by BDS campaigns due to its implication in Israeli war crimes.
The Technion’s complicity in racist violence spans from developing a bulldozer used to demolish Palestinian houses to working with Elbit Systems, an Israeli weapons manufacturer that has also profited from the militarization of the US-Mexico border.
Cornell and the Technion partnered to create the Jacobs Institute from a $133 million gift, which serves as an incubator for tech startups. Cornell Tech uses the language of “entrepreneurship,” “innovation” and “societal impact” to whitewash its involvement with the Israeli arms industry.
Schools such as Cornell promote Israeli technology under the guise of education, and in the process, cover up the reality that these very same institutions actively profit from violence in Palestine and around the world.
The School of International and Public Affairs in New York’s Columbia University arranges student-led delegations to Israel. The trips involve meeting entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv and – judging by the itineraries – without engaging in any discussion of tech’s role in the occupation.
The nearby Columbia Business School features one course on Israel’s “innovation ecosystem,” another on Silicon Wadi and yet another is an immersion course on Israel’s “unique circumstances and achievements.”
This obsession with Israel’s tech scene can also be found in the South – as a trip to Louisiana will show.
Tulane University in New Orleans has been exploring how it can work more closely with Israeli colleges. Tulane’s president visited Israel in 2018 to discuss a partnership modelled on that between the Technion and Cornell.
According to a university statement, the president explored “bilateral cooperation” through discussions focused on technology, entrepreneurship, “diversity in Israeli society and Israel’s approach to global humanitarian aid.”
The Tulane delegation reportedly visited Ramallah in the West Bank as well to meet the Palestinian Authority, but did not extend a partnership to any Palestinian universities.
As we see in the current moment, marked by a global mobilization against anti-Black racism, US universities will often issue broad commitments to racial and social justice.
In doing so, the universities manifest the utmost hypocrisy. They denounce police violence and anti-Black racism at the same time that they promote, profit from and legitimize the apartheid state of Israel.
The issues relating to technology and entrepreneurship are part of a much bigger problem – the US military-industrial complex and the ways in which the US directs funds to the Israeli government for its forces of occupation.
Elite universities like Princeton, Columbia, Tulane, Cornell and many others play an active role in this system, contributing to the Israeli economy by continuing to platform government affiliates and send students on funded trips to Tel Aviv.
Israel’s technology is highly advanced – that is particularly so for its facial recognition technology and biometric screening tools at checkpoints in the West Bank.
Those technologies are also often produced by or with the support of US companies, like Microsoft.
Let us not forget the technology used to raze Palestinians’ homes – using equipment made by Caterpillar – and plow Palestinian land in the Jordan Valley. Palestinian farmers there have been forced off their ancestral land and now must work on the farms of Israeli settlers, at low wages and in horrible conditions, in a system akin to sharecropping.
There is no doubt that Israeli firms and universities have made advancements in health care, energy and technology. But lauding their advancements – without learning about, calling out and drawing attention to who can access these technologies or how they are used by the Israeli police and military – is neglectful at best, nefarious at worst.
These advancements come at a significant cost that is largely absent from the narratives upheld in US universities. Israel uses Silicon Wadi to establish a veneer of progressiveness designed to distract from its system of apartheid and its occupation of Palestinian land.
By accepting that veneer, our universities are complicit in Israel’s crimes. It is vital that we hold them accountable.
Sarah Sakha is a writer and graduate student at Columbia University; Nourhan Ibrahim is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania; Majida Halaweh is a Palestinian American writer and Venture for America fellow based in New Orleans; Somi Jun is a writer and designer based in Los Angeles.