Colonial academic control in Palestine and Israel

Institute of Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, “Taking action for Palestine in Academic and Cultural Institutions”, 11 April 2024 

Last month, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem suspended Professor Nadera Shalhoub Kevorkian, of the Faculty of Law and Institute of Criminology and the School of Social Work for denouncing the Gaza genocide and casting doubts on the Hamas rape allegations. The university justified the suspension by saying it would “preserve a safe climate on campus.” Shalhoub Kevorkian, a world-renowned Palestinian scholar and author of numerous books, whose research focuses on trauma, state crimes, surveillance, gender violence, law and society, said in a recent podcast on Makdisi Street that she would never allow anyone to touch a baby, kidnap a child, or rape a woman: “not in my name; I would never accept it as a Palestinian.”  Shalhoub Kevorkian had been in trouble before. After a paper she presented in 2019 claiming Israel tests weapons on Palestinian prisoners and Palestinian children to boost its international arms sales, and that “Palestinian spaces are laboratories for the Israeli security industry,” the Minister for Education called for her dismissal. And last October she was under pressure to resign her position when she signed a call for immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

According to Bhambra et al, Western universities are key sites through which colonialism, colonial knowledge, and theories of racism have been produced, institutionalised and naturalised, and universities in the global north were founded and financed through the spoils of colonial plunder, enslavement and dispossession. 

As an imperialist, colonial, race-making European project, Zionism has always relied on academic knowledge to deepen its hold on Palestine and racialize the Palestinians. Since the early days of the Zionist movement Jewish universities in Palestine were used as a state-building instrument, and were key to enabling the colonization of Palestine and the racialization of the Palestinians.  University education in Israel and occupied Palestine actually takes place in areas from which Palestinians were expelled. Thus Ben Gurion University in the Naqab is located in Be’er Sheva, the renamed Palestinian Bir Saba occupied by the Zionists on October 21 1948; 5,000 Palestinian were driven out at gunpoint to Hebron and many were shot; Tel Aviv University stands on the grounds of the depopulated Palestinian village Sheikh Muwannis, one of whose houses is the faculty club; the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus is on Palestinian land occupied in 1967 – HUJI  benefits from settlement infrastructure, transport lines and access roads in the occupied territory, some of them on privately-owned Palestinian land; and most infamously, Ariel University is built in the illegal Israeli colony-settlement Ariel in the occupied West Bank. 

There are several historical and current aspects of the Israeli academy’s complicity with the colonisation of Palestine. According to Israeli sociologist Uri Ram, Israeli universities were always central to Zionism’s statist approach and Zionist academics have always maintained white European Jewish supremacy, and produced policies of colonization, of the racialization of the Palestinians as racially inferior to Israeli Jews, Jewish immigration, forging Jewish identity and denigrating “Israeli Arab” identity, the 1948-1966 military government regime, and  Zionist land ownership. Since the 1967 occupation, academics have been ever more central to policies of occupation and settlement, segregation and apartheid, domination and military prowess.  

According to the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), the current Gaza genocide, in which between 40,000 and 50,000 Palestinians were murdered and 80 per cent of Gaza has been rendered inhabitable, has elicited the support of most Israeli universities. Universities offer faculty and student reserve soldiers actively involved in the killing fields of Gaza various perks and privileges as rewards for their contribution to the war effort and the state’s “security.” This discriminates against Palestinian students, most of whom are not conscripted to the IDF and are thus not eligible for university grants and deferred exam dates available to serving Israeli student soldiers. Israeli academics are no different from the rest of Jewish-Israeli society, where 95% justify the bloody assault on the Palestinian people in Gaza, according to a recent poll.

The complicity of the Israeli academy is evidenced in several ways. Israeli universities and third level institutes of science and technology are central to developing and manufacturing Israel’s weapons and security systems, training military and security personnel, and providing theoretical backing for the Israeli occupation. At the same time, Israel exercises control and surveillance over academic institutions in occupied Palestine, curtailing students’ and academics’ freedom of movement and the actual freedom to educate Palestinians at all levels. Having successfully recruited Israeli academics as active collaborators in the colonisation of Palestine, Israel stymies free debate on the Israeli colonization of Palestine. In highlighting the importance of the academic boycott of Israeli institutions, I want to debunk the belief that Israeli academics are “progressive,” and should not be boycotted.

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Genocide is not a metaphor: reflections on Gaza and genocide denial

I recently published a blog post on the Identities blog on the Gaza genocide. Read it below or visit the Idenities blog.

The question to be asked is… how long are we going to deny that the cries of the people of Gaza… are directly connected to the policies of the Israeli government and not to the cries of the victims of Nazism? (Edward Said, 1994)

What we are experiencing here in Gaza is not a war, but a genocide… War is between countries that have militaries, weapons, and air forces. War is not waged against 2.3 million civilians who live in an area of 360 square km and have been under siege for more than seventeen years (Ruwaida Amer, 2 November 2023)

A month into the Israeli genocidal attack on Gaza, junior minister Amichai Eliahu called for dropping a nuclear bomb on Gaza, saying “Gaza has to stop existing… (Gazans) cannot live on this earth”. He later retracted, saying it was “only metaphorical.” But genocide is not a metaphor, to borrow from Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang’s essay, “Decolonization is not a metaphor”. 

Genocide is a reality. We are witnessing it in the horrible images of death and destruction, of hospitals being ruthlessly bombed, and of Gazans struggling to stay alive amidst huge shortages of water, electricity, food, hospital care and basic necessities. All the while, Israeli commentators call for “flattening Gaza” and annihilating all Gazans, all Palestinians. UN Human Rights Office Director Craig Mokhiber called the Gaza attack “a text-book case of genocide”, adding that “the European, ethno-nationalist, settler colonial project in Palestine has entered its final phase toward the expedited destruction of the last remnants of indigenous Palestine life in Palestine”. The attack was clearly termed genocide by Palestinians and their supporters, although the International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan has been criticized for failing to issue arrest warrants for Israeli war criminals for committing genocide, a term fiercely denied by Zionists and their supporters across the political divide. I propose that there will be no way back from the clear divide between those who admit that the assault on Gaza is genocidal and those who deny it.

Patrick Wolfe calls the elimination of native societies integral to settler colonialism “structured genocide”. This illustrates the concrete links between the removal of populations from their land and mass killings. Israeli Holocaust historian Raz Segal argues that Israel’s lethal assault on Gaza is a textbook case of genocide. In doing so he refers to both Israel’s explicit intentions to displace Gazans and potentially expel them into Egypt, and the UN Genocide Conventioncriterion: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.

Yet beyond these definitions, and against its government’s argument that if Israel wanted to commit genocide it would have killed “all Gazans” (which it allegedly chose not to do for “humanitarian reasons”) stands the very word itself. Genocide in Hebrew translates as “the murder of a nation”, retzach am. In contrast, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls genocide “categorial murder”, as people are killed for belonging to a category, not a “nation”. Zionism and the state of Israel racializes and dehumanizes the Palestinians and constructs Jews as a superior race. While denying Palestinian nationhood, Zionist thinking constructs Jews as a nation, although the historical veracity of this has been debunked by scholars such as Israeli historian Shlomo Sand.

Defining genocide entails intentionality and, as Segal shows, the intention to liquidate and deport Gaza’s population and destroy the Strip was clearly stated. Israel’s President supported the attack, stating “there are no innocent civilians in Gaza”; Defence Minister General Yoav Gallant declared “we are fighting against human animals”, announcing a “complete siege” on Gaza; agriculture minister and former Shin Bet head Avi Dichter speaking of the expulsion of the population of the northern Gaza Strip: “we are executing now the Gaza Nakba 2023”; and an IDF rabbi expressed his messianic joy that “the whole country is now ours, including Gaza and Lebanon, with the help of God”. Of the three options listed in an Intelligence Ministry report for “dealing with the Gaza Strip” after the IDF occupies it, the third – expelling the Gaza population (2.2 million men, women, elderly and children) – was the “option most strategically positive and long term for the state of Israel”.

This report thus coldly plans a colossal crime against humanity, detailing the means needed to execute it. This report came days after a paper by the Israeli think tank the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy argued that the Hamas attack provided a “unique and rare opportunity to evacuate the entire Gaza Strip”. Intentionality, then, has been explicitly stated, despite the absurd claims, in the face of the high number of civilian casualties, that “Israel is not targeting civilians in Gaza”.

More disturbing, because less expected, than Israeli politicians’ and generals’ explicitly stated intentions to “flatten Gaza” and deport its population, is the rush by Zionist human rights lawyers, journalists and academics to criticize anyone who does not condemn Hamas outright.  

Human rights lawyer Eitay Mack is generally a relentless opponent of the Israeli international arms trade. Yet he echoes the Israeli Hasbara machine when he writes of “false claims that Israel is committing genocide” and claims that there is no evidence of intent as “civilians in Gaza were killed, not because Israel specifically targets them, but because of the extensive Hamas military infrastructures that are located nearby, inside civilian buildings and in the tunnels beneath them”. Mack’s opinion piece is not a legal document. It is essentially a cherry-picked broadside against the fashionable bogeyman of “the global left”. Another human rights lawyer, Michael Sfard (the grandson of Zygmunt Bauman), goes further, clothing his opposition to the naming of genocide in concern for the human rights of occupied Palestinians. In line with several Israeli human rights organizations, Sfard writes, “it’s not easy for Israelis to think about Gazans’ rights in a week when Hamas committed crimes that are still impossible to digest and our whole society is mourning and crying. But Gaza’s catastrophe won’t wait for the end of our shiva”.

Likewise, journalists writing in the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz lambast “deranged leftists” who, in seeking to contextualize the Hamas attack, justify it as a “legitimate Palestinian act of resistance” (Lilach Wallach), and “sickeningly” presenting Hamas’s Israeli victims as “part of the oppressive Zionist rule over the Palestinian Natives” (Iris La’al). Another Haaretz writer, Ofer Aderet, criticizes Raz Segal’s article on the Gaza genocide, arguing that Segal “does not write history but rather uses his tenured job to further a political agenda… joining other Israeli and former Israeli intellectuals whose behaviour will be judged by history”. Sociologist Eva Illouzattacks “lazy left intellectuals” for insisting on setting the Hamas attack in the context of the Israeli colonization of Palestine, absurdly insisting that the colonial context must be suspended. And Israeli historian David Witztum condemns “Jewish intellectuals in Germany” for a letter protesting the prohibition to demonstrate for Palestine, and opposing Israel’s Gaza attack but not condemning Hamas – the main genocide denial tactic in the Zionists toolkit.

However, the support of global civil society for the Palestinian resistance is growing. Israel will not succeed in eliminating all of Gaza’s population, just as it has not succeeded to do so since 1948, when Plan Dalet was executed with the intent of ethnically cleansing the Palestinian population, resulting in many being herded into the Gaza Strip as refugees. Although Israel enjoys the support of western states in the Islamophobic Global North in carrying out genocide, we will not forget those Israeli “leftists” who refused to see genocide as it was happening in full view. 

‘Gaza in context. The duty of solidarity in the West’: BDS group forum at Sydney University, 20 October 2023

I was born in Haifa, British-occupied Palestine, and grew up in occupied Palestine, a.k.a. the state of Israel. Throughout my childhood and youth, I have been indoctrinated by the Zionist regime and told to de-humanise Palestinians and regard their country as ‘ours.’ This was done through the education system, everyday discourses, popular songs, literature, youth movement activities, cultural activities, family talk, in short – everything.

A few weeks after the 1967 war, having met a group of members of Matzpen, the Socialist Organisation in Israel – I learnt the truth about Zionist colonisation, imperialism, and racial capitalism, though these were terms I got to know many years later.

Two years after the war I moved to Ireland; I was a late comer to academia and my interest in race and racism led me to understand racism, according to African American abolition scholar Ruthie Wilson Gilmore as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” This, and my work on race and racism in Ireland and elsewhere led me to put race front and centre in thinking and writing about Zionism.

Zionism constructed ‘the Jews’ as racially superior in contrast to the supposed racial inferiority of ‘the Arabs’ (Palestinian is a concept employed by Israelis only much later) – see Zionist leaders such as Theodor HerzlMax NordauArthur Ruppin, David Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin and members of Netanyahu’s cabinet among others… even though ‘the Jews’ is a construct based on biblical myths and stories, as argued by Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, and Israeli biblical scholar Yigal Bin Nun. Once you see race you cannot unsee it – it is everywhere in Israel’s citizenship and migration regimes, in unequal resource allocations to Israeli Jews and Palestinians (in the fields of education, health, municipal funds, labour market, judicial systems and incarceration, media representation, among other things). Crucially, Zionism is the child of Europe – European (Ashkenazi) Jews racialized not only Palestinians but also Oriental, black and Arab Jews, and non-Jewish, non-white labour migrants and asylum seekers. We see the continued racialisation of the Palestinians by Israel and also by western politicians and media that speak of the Gaza based organisation Hamas as ‘terrorists’, of Palestinian resistance as acts of cruelty and terrorism, and of Israel as victims of ‘Arab violence.’ 

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