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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