Universities as tools of apartheid

In his new book Boycott Theory and the Struggle for Palestine: Universities, Intellectualism and Liberation (Rowman and Littlefield, 2023), Nick Riemer mounts a comprehensive argument for the institutional academic boycott of Israel. This edited extract outlines the central rationale for the boycott—Israeli universities’ institutional role in enabling apartheid, occupation and anti-Palestinianism.


In its institutional support for the Zionist project, more than simply being complicit with anti-Palestinianism, Israeli higher education is a central instrument of it. This is a role Israeli universities have played from the outset. Like Palestinian ones, Jewish universities in Palestine were created in an explicit state-building perspective, and the 1948 Zionist takeover of historic Palestine means that university education in Israel takes place in areas from which Palestinians have been expelled, or where they are second-class citizens: Ben Gurion University is located in Beersheba, occupied by Israel on October 21, 1948, with the population of five thousand being driven out at gunpoint to Hebron and many of them shot; the University of Tel Aviv lies on the ground of the destroyed Palestinian village of Al-Shaykh Muwannis, one of whose last remaining houses is now the faculty club; most famously, the Mount Scopus campus of HUJ is on expropriated Palestinian land just beyond the Green Line.

A common narrative today stresses HUJ’s status as ‘a pioneer in establishing contacts with Palestinian scholars’ and a contributor to ‘the political movement towards peace.’ But the very existence of HUJ in Jerusalem, whether beyond or within the Green Line, derives from a project of Palestinian educational dispossession: in 1922, a proposal by the British governor of Jerusalem for an English university intended for a mixed student body of Arabs and Jews alike fell foul of the Zionist movement, which refused to participate on the grounds that it ‘constituted a threat to Hebrew culture in Palestine’ and to the future Hebrew University in particular. Zionists’ preference for exclusivity in education regularly obstructed the creation of mixed Jewish-Arab institutions, creating an obstacle to educational opportunity for Palestinian students by requiring them to go abroad if they wanted to pursue university study. Even today, most Israeli universities lack Arabic signage, and Arabic is largely missing from university websites. Use of Arabic has sometimes even been forbidden on campus, as have displays of the Palestinian flag. Historically, HUJ enacted Palestinian dispossession in other ways, too: after 1948, books plundered from Palestinian households became the core of the Hebrew University’s collection.

Institutional Zionism is matched by intellectual. The scientific and ideological service to the Zionist project provided by disciplines like history, archaeology, sociology and Middle Eastern studies has been documented in detail by many researchers. Archaeology in particular has been identified as central to the ongoing construction of Israel’s origin myth, with pro-settlement organizations regularly funding digs, including in the West Bank, in contravention of international law. The Israeli NGO Emek Shaveh opposes the politicization of Israeli archaeology, campaigning against the use of ‘the ruins of the past … [as] … a political tool in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ and the fact that, despite the frequent involvement of Israeli universities, ‘archeology in the West Bank is treated as a military activity and not as academic research.’

Criticisms of the Israeli academy’s silence in the face of attacks on Palestinians are frequent: the Israeli academic Chen Misgav reports that ‘it seems oppression and the egregious violation of the freedom of Palestinian academics produce mainly yawns’ from his colleagues. ‘Faculty members,’ a Haaretz journalist commented in 2017, ‘rarely involve themselves in issues not directly related to their employment conditions and responsibilities.’ When the Committee of University Heads in Israel was asked in 2019 by thirty-three academics at the University of Haifa to protest against Israel’s denial of visas to lecturers wanting to visit West Bank universities, it refused.

Israeli universities play a vital role in the development of the material and intellectual supports of Palestinian oppression. In 1963, the occupation of the West Bank was planned at the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus. Following the 1967 invasion of the West Bank, eminent Israeli political scientists, sociologists and anthropologists contributed to a large-scale study of the newly occupied territories, designed to provide accurate information on the characteristics of their population with objectives that were ‘not academic but rather aimed to serve state interests,’ such as suppression of resistance and the departure of Palestinians to neighboring Arab countries. Today, research cooperation between universities and weapons manufacturers binds Israeli higher education tightly into the state’s military-industrial complex: Israeli universities are reliant for much of their income on IDF training and research funding. The Technion, for instance, has close institutional links with Elbit Systems and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Israel’s biggest arms manufacturers, and developed the remote-controlled bulldozer used to destroy Palestinians’ houses. The university’s aerospace faculty maintains ‘exceptionally close ties’ with these firms, as well as with Ministry of Defense research agencies and army and air force units. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the Technion raised half a million dollars for those of its students involved in combat. Ben Gurion University cooperates closely with IDF logistics, cyber-defense, air force technology and computing units, and trains IDF soldiers in engineering and exact sciences. Its robotics lab has the IDF as an important ‘client and stimulus to research.’ The Hebrew University’s technology transfer company, Yissum, takes part in a long-term collaboration with Lockheed Martin, which supplies a very wide range of material, including fighter jets and artillery support, to the IDF. Tel Aviv University facilitates the recruitment of its students by weapons companies, cooperates closely with Elbit Systems and, in 2022, established the Elrom Center, a joint venture with the Israeli Air Force to advance air and space power in Israel. Given that Palestinians are privileged targets of IDF operations – Israel launched full-scale wars against Gaza in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2021 – Israeli universities’ ties with the military translate directly into attacks on Palestinians.

Universities also train students in the rehabilitation of Israel’s tarnished reputation: the University of Haifa’s ‘Ambassadors Online’ course is aimed at the promotion of Israel’s online international image. The program provides students with training in combatting ‘delegitimization’ efforts online, in collaboration with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the private Reichmann University, students can study for credit in the ‘Public Diplomacy’ program, which provides training in online activism in favor of Israel and against BDS, in collaboration with Act.IL, an aggressive online hasbara organization which the university started. The Technion’s ‘Defense Strategy for International Markets’ course prepares students to sell the weapons systems tested on Palestinians to global buyers. Students at HUJ can get credit for volunteering with the Zionist organization Im Tirzu, which intimidates and discredits pro-Palestinian academics.

The University of Haifa educates ‘senior officials and high ranking officers’ through the National Security Studies Program and the National Security Studies Centre. Tel Aviv University established and hosts the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), which aims to shape Israeli national security policy. As at all such institutes in Israel, INSS staff are principally former senior IDF and other state security officers. The INSS’s 2018 ‘Plan’ sketches a proposal for dealing with the ‘Palestinian threat,’ predicated on a unilateral move to ‘serve Israeli interests.’ It recommends completion of the separation wall, ‘ongoing construction in settlement blocs and their definition as essential to Israel in any future situation,’ refusal of Palestinian refugees’ internationally-established right of return, and retention of IDF freedom of action throughout the West Bank – all presented as compatible with the aim of a ‘just’ Israeli state. Another senior INSS figure, Gabi Siboni, a former IDF colonel and a senior research fellow at the institute, is a proponent of the ‘Dahiya doctrine’ used to devastating effect in Lebanon and Gaza: the doctrine specifies that ‘with an outbreak of hostilities, the IDF will need to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy’s actions and the threat it poses.’ ‘Such a response,’ it continues, ‘aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes.’

The Moshe Dayan Center (MDC) at Tel Aviv University describes itself as ‘founded, in part, to bridge the gap between the Israeli intelligence apparatus and academia, and to provide research solutions to contemporary issues that the intelligence services did not have the time or capability to pursue.’ According to its website, it continues to ‘play a crucial role in safeguarding Israel’s future,’ undertaking activities that ‘are not merely academic in nature. Instead, the MDC attacks real-world problems and helps to achieve real-world solutions.’ Similarly, the BESA Center – the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University – produces policy recommendations for the Israeli political, military and foreign affairs communities, and ‘conducts specialized research on contract to the Israeli foreign affairs and defense establishment.’ Efraim Inbar, the center’s former long-term director, has acknowledged that ‘political neutrality’ is not an option for the center, which is Zionist in orientation. A paper released by the Center in 2018 argued that only ‘a fourth massive round of fighting against Hamas’ would make Hamas realize that ‘that the pain to be suffered is so great, and the chance of eliminating the Jewish state so slim, as to render further violence pointless.’ ‘Now, alas,’ the paper concluded, ‘is the time for war.’ After operation Guardian of the Walls in 2021, one BESA Center paper advocated boycotting Palestinians; another warned against any Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

The Israeli army and security apparatus supplies a significant proportion of universities’ senior academic leaders and administrators. IDF soldiers have privileged access to higher education throughout Israel thanks to the ‘Uniform to Studies’ scheme, which provides generous scholarships for discharged combat soldiers, with plans to extend the scheme to anyone who has served in any capacity. Since Palestinian Israelis do not serve in the IDF, they are ineligible for this significant reduction in the cost of university education. Reservists, too, gain automatic academic credit with every eighteen days of annual service. Tel Aviv university offered a year’s free tuition to students who participated in the 2014 Gaza war.

The formal instruction required for positions of responsibility in the IDF is dispensed through the university system, with the University of Haifa responsible for IDF officer-training since 2018. Even before this arrangement started, Haifa offered a Masters program in national security for members of the IDF, the police, Mossad, Shin Bet, and other security and intelligence services. Bar-Ilan University offers a bachelor’s degree for IDF and Shin Bet officers. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem hosts the Talpiot program, which supplies the IDF with elite expertise in technology, as well as the Military Medicine Program, applications for which are assessed by the army, with successful applicants’ tuition fees being waived. During the 2014 war on Gaza, HUJ declared that ‘the university is joining the war effort to support its warrior students, in order to minimize the financial burden’ on them. In 2019, the university took out a full-page newspaper advertisement to stress its commitment to its soldier students. Details of Israeli university graduates have been forwarded by universities to the Shin Bet, allegedly for recruitment purposes. In 2018, HUJ prompted further calls for boycott by hosting a day-long Shin Bet recruitment event for its students.

Israeli universities do not just supply the technical expertise on which the oppression of Palestinians depends, the training for the army that implements it, and the ideological firepower needed to justify it in the battle of world opinion: their own campuses are sites on which Palestinian oppression is enacted. The Hebrew University, for instance, lets its rooftops be used for police surveillance of Palestinians in the adjoining East Jerusalem suburb of Issawiya. Most significantly, this oppression is structural: Palestinian students, already subjected to significant discrimination in their schooling, are significantly under-represented in Israeli higher education, and are marginalized in many ways, including linguistically and in access to dormitories. Israeli Palestinian staff, too, are in a tiny minority: a 2018 appointment of an Arab Christian is thought to be the first Arabic Deanship in Israel ever. Political activity by Arab students on Israeli campuses has often been banned or obstructed, including by Zionist students, as have conferences on topics deemed excessively pro-Palestinian. In 2018, several Israeli universities voluntarily disrupted classes or otherwise supported protests against domestic violence, but nothing anywhere near such levels of institutional support for the Palestinian cause has ever been shown: on the contrary, Israeli universities have blocked prizes being awarded to pro-Palestinian organizations, and regularly suppress pro-Palestine and peace activism. Their heads and other senior officials defend Israeli society against charges of apartheid, discipline or fail to defend pro-Palestinian faculty members, and refuse to protest against violations of Palestinian academic freedom – instead denouncing BDS initiatives and initiating programs to counteract them. Israeli university authorities often criticize and resist government policy on other matters, such as the requirement for gender-segregated programs for ultra-Orthodox students. They have also sometimes asserted the independence of the Israeli faculty, including boycott supporters, against efforts by the state to interfere politically in university business through ethics codes or vetoes on appointments. But they have never officially objected to the overall militarization of Israeli higher education, or asserted the educational rights or academic freedom of Israel’s subject Palestinian population.


Image: View of Jerusalem from the Hebrew University, Flickr

Nick Riemer

Nick Riemer works in the English and linguistics departments at the University of Sydney. He is currently president of the Sydney University branch of the National Tertiary Education Union.

More by Nick Riemer ›

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