What are academic boycotts for?

Far from democratic institutions, a study of Israeli universities reveals that they are, in fact, directly and actively complicit in Israeli apartheid and racial rule.

Photo by Taylor Brandon on Unsplash.

In 2004, academics and intellectuals launched the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and called on international scholars to initiate a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. They explained their call to target Israeli universities on the grounds of decades of ongoing institutional complicity in Israel’s “regime of oppression” against Palestinians. Israeli institutions of higher education, PACBI contends, “have played a key role in planning, implementing and justifying Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies.” 

With rare exceptions, Israeli academics have responded to PACBI’s campaign with overwhelming and often indignant opposition. From across the Israeli political spectrum, faculty have formed well-coordinated counter-campaigns to any initiative to support the boycott, often backed by funding and talking points provided by the Israeli state itself. These Israeli scholars—representing Israeli state arguments in international academia’s court of public opinion—have by and large converged on a similar refrain: “Injustices committed against Palestinians may or may not exist; but even if they did, this has nothing to do with us.” Israeli academics not only claim bystander status, but argue that their universities must be institutionally distinguished from the Israeli state. 

Yet a study of Israeli universities reveals that they are, in fact, directly and actively complicit in Israeli apartheid and racial rule. Israeli university campuses were designed and built as anchors of Palestinian land expropriation and dispossession. They continue to put their facilities, resources, and departments in service of the Israeli state through producing expertise for military governance, training soldiers and security state personnel to hone their operations, and developing technologies and weapons used against Palestinians. This is why, for PACBI, the academic boycott is not merely a means to an end but rather a strategic targeting of the Israeli academy as “one of the pillars of this oppressive order.”

The Military-Academic Industrial Complex

The development of Israeli universities is imbricated with the rise of Israeli military industries. Designed as state-building institutions, they were recruited to support its apparatuses of violence soon after their founding. Following the establishment of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1918, the Zionist movement founded two additional institutions of higher education in Palestine: the Technion opened in Haifa in 1925, and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot in 1934. Hebrew University was the Zionist movement’s first comprehensive university dedicated to research and teaching across disciplines; the Technion was designed as the center of engineering; and the Weizmann Institute was committed to scientific research for state-building. During the intensifying military campaigns leading up to the founding of Israel in 1948, the Zionist movement officially enlisted its three universities.

In 1946, the Haganah Zionist militia established HEMED, the Science Corps, which opened bases on all three campuses. Universities soon became central to the development and manufacture of weapons. In February 1948, a Hebrew University doctoral student in microbiology initiated and headed the biological department at HEMED. By April 1948, the department prepared typhoid-dysentery bacteria to be used as a biological weapon.

Throughout the spring of 1948, the Haganah and other Zionist militias led military campaigns to expel Palestinians and claim their lands. HEMED supported these efforts through departments that focused on chemical, biological, and nuclear research and warfare capabilities, aided by university students and researchers.

HEMED’s biological department typhoid-dysentery bacteria was used in the Haganah’s Cast Thy Bread operation to poison Palestinian water sources. This operation was personally overseen by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and planned as a mechanism to prevent Palestinian return to the villages from which they were expelled by Zionist militias. On May 13, 1948, just before the war, Cast Thy Bread was implemented in the recently depopulated Palestinian village of Bayt Mahsir.

As part of the Haganah campaigns to depopulate major Palestinian cities in the weeks leading up to the 1948 war, typhoid-dysentery was used to poison Palestinian communities where they were still living. In early May, the Haganah poisoned water sources in Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem and the Kabri aqueduct that fed Acre. The poisoning caused a disease outbreak in the targeted Palestinian communities but did not have the debilitating effect its proponents had hoped for.

Moreover, when the operation was expanded to target Egyptian and other Arab forces, Zionist operatives were caught and Arab states brought reports of the poisoning to the UN Security Council. The representative of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, Abba Eban, vehemently denied the operation and worked to prevent further probes into the poisoning by accusing the Arab states of peddling in “antisemitic incitement.” A few months later, by December of 1948, Cast Thy Bread was discontinued by the Zionist leadership and military establishment in Palestine. Despite this, the operation proved to be only the beginning for the Science Corps.

Throughout the remainder of the 1948 war, all HEMED departments were activated, and the faculty and students of the three universities were recruited to conduct military research and experimentation. The Weizmann Institute officially put its equipment and campus buildings at the disposal of the Haganah and, later, the newly formed Israeli military. For its part, the nascent Israeli government’s central recruitment committee released all institute researchers and employees from their military duties and designated them as soldiers by virtue of their work. Senior researchers, employees, and students sustained the institute’s activities 24/7 in rotating shifts. Faculty and students across the three institutions began developing and manufacturing diverse weaponry, including plastic explosives, rockets based on synthetic propellant compounds, shells for mortars and cannons, and ignition mechanisms for Napalm, tear gasses, and mines.

By the end of the war, the Weizmann Institute had come to anchor the Military Science Corps and, together with the Technion, became the military-scientific center of the Israeli state. The 1948 war marked the beginning, not the end, of university militarization.

Senior administrators and faculty at the Weizmann Institute and the Technion later led the development of Israeli military industries. They advocated establishing Israeli science as the basis of Israeli military power by developing and manufacturing Israeli advanced weaponry. In so doing, these scientists even went against the Israeli military leadership, which often espoused a more conservative approach to military research and development and favored purchasing weapons from other states. Ultimately, the scientists won. As Israeli research and development of weapons became institutionalized, the Science Corps was detached from the military. In 1952, HEMED was brought under the Ministry of Defense, where university scientists wielded more influence. It became the Research and Design Directorate, led by David Bergman, one of the founders and senior administrators of the Weizmann Institute. In 1958, the directorate became the Authority for the Development of Armaments (Harashut Haleumit Lepituach Emtzaei Lehima), best known by its Hebrew acronym, Rafael.

One of Israel’s leading state-owned weapons corporations, Rafael is now a major supplier to the Israeli military. It is particularly known for its development and production of missiles, and armor and weapon systems for tanks, jet aircraft, and naval forces. Rafael technology and weapons are deployed in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and, on this basis, exported internationally. True to its origins at the facilities of the Weizmann Institute and the Technion, Rafael still calls itself “the national laboratory of Israel.”

Rafael was not the only weapons company birthed by Israeli academia. With support from the state, the Technion opened a Department of Aeronautical Engineering in 1954. The department tailored specialized courses based on Israeli military needs, and its faculty and students spearheaded the development of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), transforming it into a company that produced Israeli-designed and manufactured fighter jets and missiles. Today, IAI is one of Israel’s leading weapons corporations, supplying the Israeli military with jets, drones, and weapons systems, and exporting them worldwide as “battle-proven.”

Since the establishment of these military industries, they have remained embedded in the Technion and are often difficult to distinguish from the university. Scientists and engineers regularly moved back and forth between the university and the weapons companies and have sent their students to join them as employees. The companies, for their part, have funded the establishment of major Technion laboratories, and a network of Technion faculty dedicated to military research and development have functioned as their shadow employees. Technion researchers have developed a wide range of technologies—including new missiles and drones—which have gone into production by Rafael, IAI, and other Israeli weapons corporations, and then gone on to be used by the Israeli military.

Though an industry leader, the Technion is not alone. Israeli universities support the Israeli military, not only by supplying it with weapons but by training its soldiers. All public universities offer their facilities, faculty, and expertise for Israeli military training, advancing the career development of soldiers and security state personnel through specialized degree-granting programs. Atuda (academic reserve) is a specialized academic program for soldiers—run by the Israeli military and Ministry of Defense, in collaboration with weapons manufacturers and the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure—that is administered through the Israeli university system. The Atuda program was developed to offer the Israeli military a cadre of highly educated and specialized soldiers, amid a national draft of high school seniors.

Through Atuda, the Israeli military offers 50-degree programs across all public Israeli universities, covering soldiers’ tuition and granting needs-based stipends in exchange for extended military service as commanders and officers. The wide-ranging disciplines include languages, humanities, law, life sciences, data sciences, and engineering. Through Atuda, soldiers are drafted and then sent to complete academic degrees and basic training, followed by a minimum six years of military service. This elite academic-military track has long operated as a pipeline to both military leadership and academia, as well as to Israel’s military and tech industries.

By the accounts of senior military personnel and academics, the program outputs are consequential. They claim that Atuda is central to Israel’s technological capabilities and competitive edge in the global market. Knowledge and ideas developed through Atuda are not patented by the military, allowing for a “knowledge spillover” into the Israeli private sector. Graduates of Atuda degree programs in physics, math, and computer science have frequently assumed key positions in Israeli military research and development; some later established their own security sector companies worth millions of dollars.

Israeli military industries and its universities have always been co-constituted. Universities continue to offer their campuses, resources, students, and faculty to aid in the development of technology and weaponry deployed against Palestinians and then sold worldwide. By collaborating with state apparatuses and weapons corporations that enforce Israeli apartheid, Israeli universities function as an academic arm of the Israeli security state and are complicit in its crimes.

Israeli universities as pillars of settler colonialism

On June 28, 1967—just two weeks after Israel invaded East Jerusalem and brought the entire city under its rule—Hebrew University held a ceremony at its Mt. Scopus amphitheater, overlooking the newly occupied Palestinian neighborhoods below. State and military leaders joined university administrators for the festive occasion, in which Hebrew University awarded Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin an honorary doctorate. Celebrating the reopening of its campus in occupied East Jerusalem, the University Senate thanked Rabin for “returning the entirety of Jerusalem to the state of Israel and returning Mt. Scopus to Hebrew University.” Rabin, in turn, commended the university on behalf of the Israeli military for the opportunity to stand at Mt. Scopus with the view of “our eternal capital.” Not to be outdone, the military bestowed upon the university an honor of its own. At another celebratory ceremony at the campus that shortly followed, the Israeli military commander of Mt. Scopus, Lieutenant Colonel Menachem Sherfman, awarded the university’s president the “Six Day War Decoration” for the institution’s contribution to the Israeli war effort.

These military-academic entanglements at Hebrew University reveal how crucial a role its campus has played in the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. The story of Hebrew University, the first and leading university of the Zionist movement, is the story of how Israeli institutions of higher education were designed to serve Zionist territorial conquest and the expansion of Jewish settlement across historic Palestine.

What early Zionist leaders before 1948 called the “colonization of Palestine,” Israeli leaders after the state’s founding called “Judaization.” A platform shared by both Israel’s right and left parties, “Judaization” has always been a national policy publicly pursued by every Israeli government. Since its establishment in 1948 and the mass expulsion of Palestinians in the Nakba, Israel has continuously deployed, across multiple frontiers, the twinned methods of Palestinian land confiscation and strategic Jewish settlement. All Zionist modes of settlement have been based on the logic of Jewish replacement of Indigenous Palestinians, and all have sought to establish Jewish-Israeli citizen presence on the ground to secure effective control of Palestinian land. Following the 1948 war, Israel’s targeting of Palestinian lands continued inside the newly established state borders. After the 1967 military occupation, such targeting occurred across the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem. 

With Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem just days into the war in 1967, the university administration immediately lobbied to reopen its original campus. Two days before the ceasefire, Hebrew University officials declaratively raised the university flag atop a high building to demonstrate the “exile from Mt. Scopus was over” and narrated their “return” to the “liberated summit.” Both university administrators and the Israeli government understood the location of the campus to have a functional role, marking the frontier of the “unification” of the new “Jewish capital.”

Working with Hebrew University administrators, the Israeli government planned to rebuild the campus on Mt. Scopus as part of its efforts to “Judaize” occupied East Jerusalem after 1967. City planners were instructed to cover the recently occupied lands with “facts on the ground.” Rebuilding the Mt. Scopus campus naturalized the development of new Jewish settlements on expropriated Palestinian lands, which linked the university to West Jerusalem’s city center. The university’s senate-appointed rehabilitation planning committee, created just one day after the ceasefire, similarly argued that from both a university and a national perspective expropriating Palestinian lands for the new campus was justified, despite its clear violation of international law. The committee echoed government rhetoric, stating that “empty space in Mt. Scopus and its surroundings must be filled. If we will not fill it, someone else will do it.” The committee acknowledged that expanding the campus would entail land expropriation, necessitating “state intervention” to seize the potential “available land” from the Palestinian village of Issawiyeh, located on the slopes of Mt. Scopus and right beneath the campus. 

With Israel’s occupation and annexation of East Jerusalem and the reopening of the Mt. Scopus campus in 1967, Issawiyeh came entirely under Israeli rule. But Israel included only one-quarter of Issawiyeh’s original lands within what became the annexed neighborhood’s borders, confiscating its lands, first to expand Hebrew University and later to build adjacent Jewish settlements. Over the five decades since annexation, Israel has incrementally expropriated over 90 percent of Issawiyeh’s lands and subjected it to conditions of underdevelopment by design.

But the residents of Issawiyeh have never accepted their status as occupied subjects. Issawiyeh has long been known as a center of Palestinian resistance and organizing, with residents regularly holding demonstrations against the illegal annexation of their neighborhood and their governance by Israeli occupation. This sustained mobilization has caused the Israeli National Police (INP) to label it an “extremist village” and to target the neighborhood with physical closures and violent repression. Since the Second Palestinian Intifada, the Israeli police have regularly closed the neighborhood’s exit toward the university with checkpoints and placed large cement blocks to bar access to Jerusalem through the road adjacent to the campus and Hadassah, one of only three entrances to the neighborhood. In their streets and homes, Issawiyeh residents have faced regular invasions by Israeli security forces; mass and arbitrary arrests of residents, including children; and particularly heavy use of tear gas and other weapons to disperse demonstrations, which has caused several Palestinian deaths and dozens of severe injuries.

In April 2019, Israel’s targeting of Issawiyeh significantly escalated, with the launch of a new police operation in the neighborhood. Israeli police officers, special patrol unit officers, and border police forces began to routinely raid the neighborhood and disrupt everyday life, imposing a permanent regime of collective punishment. Israeli forces set up checkpoints, ambushes, and roadblocks, randomly closing off main streets during the day and setting off patrol car loudspeakers at night. Forces began conducting drone surveillance and patrols in full riot gear and with weapons drawn, as well as enforcing a policy of stopping and searching vehicles and issuing tickets with hefty fines for minor infractions as a means to discipline residents. The campaign included routinely sweeping up dozens of residents, with most released afterward with no charges. Israeli forces repeatedly and violently targeted the neighborhood’s leading activists in particular, arresting and threatening local leaders with punitive house demolitions. Raids by fully armed units with dogs were conducted in residents’ homes, often in the middle of the night.

It is no coincidence that the most targeted Palestinian neighborhood in Jerusalem is the one right beneath Mt. Scopus and the Hebrew University campus. The Hebrew University administration has long collaborated with the repression of Issawiyeh, carried out with the overwhelming support of its Jewish-Israeli students. Over the last decade, student union chairpersons and leaders of student groups have demanded increased policing of the neighborhood. Some even deployed racialized tropes to allege that Palestinian men pose a danger to Jewish-Israeli women as a basis to call for further segregation and for the university to build an additional separation wall between the campus and Issawiyeh. In the face of the recent escalated campaign to repress Issawiyeh, the Hebrew University administration again supported the work of Israeli forces in the neighborhood. 

In December 2019, the INP was documented conducting surveillance of Issawiyeh atop one of the Hebrew University campus buildings. Palestinian and progressive joint Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli student and faculty groups demanded that Hebrew University push to reopen the entrance to Issawiyeh adjacent to campus and prohibit the INP from using its campus as a lookout. In response, Rector Barak Medina refused to acknowledge the institution’s role in the occupation of Issawiyeh, stating: “The responsibility for protecting human life and property lies with the police. The university plays no role in determining the police’s modes of action, in Issawiyeh or anywhere else.” Yet Medina himself affirmed that the police outpost was conducted in coordination with campus security. Members of the Issawiyeh popular committee were further informed by the police that their neighborhood entrance was in fact closed at the request of the university, and that it would be reopened were the university to inform the police that it no longer had a “security need” for the closure.

The intensified policing campaign against Issawiyeh continues unabated, as does the crackdown on neighborhood activists. Most recently, in January 2023, police dispersed the neighborhood parents’ committee meeting, convened to address the shortage of classrooms for their children as a result of discriminatory Israeli planning and budgetary policy. The “Judaization” of Jerusalem, Israel makes clear, requires the continued shrinking of Palestinian lands, as well as limiting opportunities for Palestinian education. Ignoring Issawiyeh resident mobilization and the dissent among its faculty and students, Hebrew University institutionally supports ongoing escalation tactics by the INP and the violent occupation of the Palestinian neighborhood right below its campus.

On Apartheid and the Academic Boycott

After decades of sustained research and advocacy by Palestinian scholars, activists, and human rights and civil society organizations, there is growing worldwide recognition of the Israeli regime of apartheid imposed on the Palestinian people. In 2021, Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report concluding that the actions of the Israeli state—the systemic oppression of Palestinians across Israel and in the OPT, the inhumane acts committed against them, and the intent to maintain this domination—together constitute the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution. This was followed in 2022 by an Amnesty International report, which likewise determined that Israel operates a system of apartheid against the entire Palestinian people, including refugees, and called for pressure by the international community to dismantle it.

Leading Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq has documented an increase in discussions of Israeli apartheid in the United Nations Human Right Council (UNHRC), and growing official recognition of Israeli apartheid by state governments, such as South Africa and Namibia. Notably, the UNHRC Commission of Inquiry’s first report on Israeli discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians in the OPT, and Palestinian refugees and exiles abroad, also cited the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. 

In January 2023, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) joined the BDS Movement, the Palestinian NGO Network, the Palestinian Ministry of Justice, and the Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council to issue a historic anti-apartheid statement and call to action. This broad Palestinian coalition explained apartheid as both a tool and manifestation of Israeli settler colonialism, which must be dismantled so that Palestinians can exercise their inalienable rights, as stipulated in international law. They called on the international community to participate in the BDS movement, including the sanctioning of complicit Israeli academic institutions.

Palestinian civil society has thus drawn for Israeli universities a clear road map to decolonization. They have called on the international community to guide its implementation by at the very least “ending complicity” in the system of oppression.

Israeli academics are frequently incensed at the BDS movement’s call for accountability. They refuse to accept that Palestinian scholars and civil society leaders are making demands on them and consistently foreclose the very conversations that the Israeli academy should instead be undertaking: how to remake their universities as institutions working against—and not in service of—Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid.

These are undoubtedly challenging conversations to initiate, as is always the case when grappling with accountability for violence committed against others. But as Eve Tuck and K. Wang Yang argue, “decolonization is not a metaphor.” The decolonization of universities is and should be unsettling. In the face of the boycott, Israeli academics consistently make “settler moves to innocence”—that is, actions that preserve the structure of the settler state and the violence that sustains it—while denying that they bear any responsibility for their universities’ role in violating Palestinian rights. But as Indigenous and other scholars of settler colonialism have shown, colonial education systems are structurally sustained by the scholars who work within them. Inhabiting the settler university, Suriamurthee Moonsamy Maistry argues, is a “state of complicity by default.” As scholars of education demonstrate, academics are not “innocent of power” nor exterior to the conditions that make their institutions. They are implicated in perpetuating the coloniality of their universities and cannot simply opt out of this complicity.

Israeli scholars, then, bear structural individual responsibility for their universities. Even so, the Palestinian call for boycott is directed only at institutions. The BDS call has, in fact, extended an “unambiguous invitation” to conscientious Israeli academics to become active participants and partners in the struggle for Palestinian liberation.

In the tradition of the African National Congress in South Africa and other Indigenous movements across the world, Palestinians are holding Israeli universities accountable for sustaining the violent settler regime that rules, dispossesses, and subjugates them. In South Africa, some white faculty and students heeded the call from the ANC—echoed by the international community—and demanded that their universities sever their ties with the apartheid regime and take meaningful steps toward decolonization. Palestinians are calling on scholars across the world to guide Israeli academics to demand the same.

Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom (2024), by Maya Wind is available now from Verso Books.

About the Author

Maya Wind is a Killam Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and the author of Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom (2024).

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