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Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom

June 1, 2024 at 1:09 pm

Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom
  • Book Author(s): Maya Wind
  • Published Date: 2024
  • Publisher: Verso Books
  • ISBN-13: 9781804291740

“Israeli universities are not independent of the Israeli security state but, rather, serve as an extension of its violence.” Describing a raid by Shin Bet on Birzeit University in April 2022, Maya Wind sets the scene for her book Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom (Verso Books, 2024). Prior to Israel’s establishment, Zionism had already foreseen the role universities would play in shaping and maintaining the forthcoming settler colonial entity in Palestine.

Discussing the role of universities as strengthening settler outposts and later incorporating them into Israel’s state institutions, Wind describes early on how universities are not safe spaces for Palestinian students on several levels. From the courses offered, the approach towards military studies, the privilege of being Jewish, the links between universities and the paramilitary organisations linked to the Nakba, to Israel’s targeting of universities and students in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, the freedom attributed by the West to Israeli universities is erroneous. And yet, despite Israel’s settler colonial existence, its military rule and its apartheid practices, Israeli universities have enjoyed collaboration with their US and European counterparts.

Columbia University, for example, lauds Israeli universities as democratic, while the Varieties of Democracy Institute lists Israel as: “Among the top 10 percent of countries in the world for academic freedom.” It is, however, as Wind points out, the narrative that Israel has disseminated for itself and stands in contrast to the Palestinian assertions, notably the Palestine Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which makes the link between Israeli academia and the oppression of Palestinians.

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In Zionist colonial ideology, universities provided both space and physical presence for settler colonialism and violence to thrive. The Hebrew University, for example, was established in 1918, lending strategic and symbolic importance to the Zionist colonial project to lay claims to Jerusalem. Together with Haifa and Rehovot Universities, the Hebrew University was directly involved in the Nakba. Wind quotes Daniel Reisner: “What we do today is a revision of international law, and if you do something long enough, then the world will accept it.”

From this statement, the author expands on how academia in Israel provides the necessary frameworks to legitimise colonial violence against the Palestinian people – international law, archaeology, legal and criminology studies are all subjects that have been manipulated to serve the Zionist colonial ideology and Israel’s colonial expansion. The book details how archaeology is used not only to claim ownership of the land through the Zionist narrative but also to prevent Palestinians from working on their agricultural land. Roof knocking – Israel’s alleged warning before bombing buildings – also emerged from international law departments in Israeli universities. Tel Aviv University, Wind explains, strategises Israel’s counterterror doctrine, giving the example of “third population”, which was coined to describe Palestinians classified as non-combatants who might “potentially interfere with Israeli military operations.”

Looting, demographic changes and the Judaisation of Palestine are also linked to Israeli academia. Wind writes about how Judaisation replaced colonisation in the Zionist narrative and rhetoric. Retaining a Jewish majority, which is also linked to the dispossession of Palestinians and the appropriation of land, was facilitated by universities working in collaboration with the World Zionist Organisation (WZO) and the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The Hebrew University, Wind adds, was built on land purchased by the WZO. The same university was also involved in the looting of Palestinian libraries and educational institutions after the Nakba, a task fortified by Israel’s national library when it erased all names from books to dissolve ownership claims and classified the literature as “abandoned property”. Ben Gurion University, Wind writes, was established in 1969 with the aim of appropriating land in the Negev and facilitating the Israeli army’s setting up of its military bases in the area. Ariel University, founded in 1982, was involved in the Judaisation and settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.

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Wind’s research makes clear that Israeli universities were structured around colonial purposes and highlights Israel’s reliance on academia: “Israel would not exist without the universities.” A case in point is the purpose they served even before the establishment of Israel in 1946. When Jewish universities were contributing towards the eventual colonisation, Haganah was operating from campuses for the purpose of developing biological weapons to use during the 1948 Nakba.

Surveillance is another weapon that Israeli universities employ against Palestinian students, which is tied to subjugation and repression – both facilitating dispossession. In Palestinian universities, Palestinians are also targeted. Wind discusses Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank as a hub of anti-colonial resistance politics and discusses how the Israeli military targets Palestinian university students to eliminate indigenous Palestinians and their legitimate anti-colonial struggle. Israel has, in the past, targeted universities – now academia in Gaza is annihilated. This is in addition to the fact that Palestinians from Gaza are forbidden from studying in occupied East Jerusalem or pursuing studies abroad. Wind cites that over 411 Palestinian groups and associations have been declared illegal by Israel, and students affiliated with any of these organisations are targets for Israel.

The book concludes with an overview of how universities were used by colonialism for land expropriation and colonial settlements. Wind adds: “Where they stand apart, however, is in their explicit and ongoing role in sustaining a regime now overwhelmingly recognised by the international community as apartheid.” Ending Israeli academia’s complicity in colonialism – decolonising the universities – would be a step forward, in Wind’s view. And yet, as the genocide in Gaza rages on, academic freedom remains distant as academia remains embroiled in complacency and complicity.