Israel’s Universities Are a Key Part of Its Apartheid Regime

Opponents of the academic boycott of Israel claim that its universities are havens of free inquiry. In fact, they supply vital support to Israel’s system of apartheid rule and are complicit in the violent suppression of Palestinian scholarship.

The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, on September 13, 2022. (Christophe Gateau / picture alliance via Getty Images)

In its current genocidal war on the Gaza Strip, Israel has destroyed every single Palestinian university in the enclave with aerial bombardment or controlled detonation. Medical and engineering laboratories, training courtrooms of faculties of law, assembly and graduation halls, rich collections of books, art pieces, archival and archaeological artifacts, all completely decimated. Decades of Palestinian student academic and political life instantly wiped out.

This war on Palestinian education, what Karma Nabulsi has called “scholasticide,” is central to Israel’s genocide of Palestinians. And it did not begin now. It has been waged for seventy-five years. To fully understand how this war has been sustained, we cannot simply look to the Israeli military and military industries, nor to Israel’s far-right government. We must also look to Israel’s most vaunted liberal institutions — its universities.

For decades, Israeli universities have been celebrated in the West as exceptionally free. Upon launching its only Middle Eastern dual degree program with Tel Aviv University in 2020, Columbia University advertised its Israeli counterpart as one that “shares Tel Aviv’s unshakable spirit of openness and innovation — and boasts a campus life as dynamic and pluralistic as the metropolis itself.”

Columbia is not alone in characterizing Israeli universities as liberal bastions of pluralism and democracy, uniquely worthy of academic partnerships in the region. In 2022, the US-based Freedom House scored Israeli academic freedom as three out of four, contending that “Israel’s universities have long been centers for dissent and are open to all students.”

That same year, the European-based Varieties of Democracy Institute (or V-Dem Institute) ranked Israel as among the top 10 percent of countries in the world for academic freedom. These assessments mirror Israeli academia’s self-narration, as one of “unwavering and unparalleled commitment to excellence, multiculturalism, pluralism, and the cause of peace.”

This apparent Western consensus has, however, been questioned by Palestinians. 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.” 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.”

Boycotting Israeli Universities

Shortly thereafter, in 2005, 170 Palestinian civil society groups — including trade unions, refugee rights associations, women’s organizations, grassroots popular committees, and NGO networks — came together to launch the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Inspired by the South African movement against apartheid, Palestinians call for BDS as a means to exert pressure on Israel to meet the three core demands of Palestinian civil society, as stipulated in international law and UN resolutions: first, end the colonization of Arab lands and dismantle the military occupation and the wall; second, recognize the right to full equality of Palestinian citizens of Israel; and third, respect and promote the right of Palestinian refugees to return.

Many in the international community have responded to the Palestinian call. In North America, some academic associations have adopted BDS resolutions over the last decade, including the American Anthropological Association, the American Studies Association, the Middle East Studies Association, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. So, too, have faculty and graduate student unions. In Europe, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, and the UK National Union of Students, among others, have voted to endorse the boycott. Sustained by broad coalitions and endorsed in votes on thoroughly debated resolutions, the academic boycott is gaining traction worldwide.

The backlash to this growing movement has been severe. The Israeli government and international Zionist organizations have used lawsuits, lobbying, legislation, and what activists and civil rights organizations call “intimidation and smear campaigns” to intercept, demonize, or even criminalize the movement wherever it gains momentum. The debate over the academic boycott has roiled universities across Europe, North America, Australia, and South Africa and has become central to discussions about race, justice, and the meaning of academic freedom in higher education.

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 countercampaigns 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.

Writing in opposition to the first referendum on the academic boycott by the American Anthropological Association in 2015, leading Israeli anthropologist Dan Rabinowitz published his outward-facing apologia for Israeli higher education in the English edition of Haaretz. “Israel does inflict injustices on Palestinians,” he wrote, “but making universities accountable for them is ludicrous.”

This claim by Israeli scholars that they are but bystanders has become central to their opposition strategy, especially with rising worldwide support for the academic boycott. Anticipating the passage of the resolution to endorse the boycott by the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) in 2022, Israeli academics built their case on both institutional and individual innocence.

The Middle East and Islamic Studies Association of Israel asserted that the group is “apolitical” and that Israeli universities are, likewise, not responsible for government policy. Meanwhile, the Association for Israel Studies implored MESA not to “punish” Israeli academics for mere “guilt by association.”

Liberal Gatekeepers

Having declared that their universities and academic associations play no part in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians — “even if” such oppression existed — Israeli academics have swiftly moved to claim that, in fact, they are the ones being repressed. Israeli academics thereby subvert the argument for Palestinian rights — and, specifically, the academic rights of Palestinian scholars and students — for their own ends.

At risk of violation, they argue, are the academic freedom and rights of individual Israeli scholars, wrongfully held accountable for injustices for which they bear no responsibility. This claim misrepresents PACBI’s call to boycott Israeli academic institutions and not individual scholars. Yet the absolute majority of Israeli academics continue to rally against what they insist is directed at them on a personal basis.

As the debates about the academic boycott have expanded in the Western academic arena, certain Israeli scholars have emerged as particularly effective gatekeepers of the conversation. Curiously, these scholars are often self-styled progressives who argue — for an international audience — that they support Palestinian rights yet oppose the academic boycott. In fact, self-identified progressive Israeli scholars and associations frequently hinge their opposition based on this very identification.

“Most of the humanistic and dissident voices in Israel,” argued anthropologist Baruch Kimmerling, “sound from the ranks of the academy, or are supported by its faculty members.” While admitting that not all members of the Israeli academy can be counted among supporters of Palestinian rights, Kimmerling nevertheless insisted that the international academic community refrain from enacting the boycott, so as to safeguard Israeli universities as a platform for progressive mobilization.

Most recently, in 2023, the Israeli Anthropological Association came out in opposition to the second referendum on the academic boycott at the American Anthropological Association, claiming it would be counterproductive to boycott Israeli universities that are, in fact, “at the forefront of the struggle to maintain democracy and equal rights.”

Liberal Israeli scholars, then, join with their right-wing compatriots in their opposition to the academic boycott, arguing that Israeli universities and their faculty are being mistakenly — and therefore unjustly — targeted. They do so based on the foundational claim that Israeli universities must be institutionally distinguished from the Israeli state. For too long, the Western academic community has taken these claims at face value.

The Israeli Settler University

The Israeli state was founded through the mass expulsion of Palestinians, with the objective to establish a Jewish majority as the basis for a Jewish state. From the start, Israeli academia has been entangled in this settler-colonial project of elimination and replacement. Indeed, before even the founding of Israel, the Zionist movement founded three universities, which were explicitly to serve the movement’s territorial objectives in Palestine.

First, in 1918, Hebrew University was established as a comprehensive university and center for the formation of a new collective Jewish-Zionist identity and nation. Founded at the apex of Mount Scopus, it was also built as a strategic outpost for the Zionist movement to stake claim to Jerusalem. Likewise, the Technion in Haifa and the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot were established to advance the scientific and technological development of Israel as a Jewish state in historic Palestine.

In the lead-up to the 1948 war, these three institutions of higher education were directly recruited to support the violent dispossession required for Zionist territorial expansion. The leading Zionist militia, the Haganah, established a Science Corps, which opened bases on all three campuses to research and refine military capabilities. Throughout the 1948 war, the universities helped sustain the mass expulsion of Palestinians to establish the state of Israel. Faculty and students developed and manufactured weapons, as their campuses, equipment, and expertise were put to the service of Zionist militias as they drove Palestinians from their lands.

With Israel’s founding, the state continued this territorial and demographic project of replacement, officially terming it “Judaization.” By the late 1960s, Israel’s “Judaization” program had expanded on multiple frontiers. Now, new Israeli universities were built to anchor this territorial and demographic project, their campuses constructed as strategic regional outposts that impelled both Palestinian enclosure and Jewish settlement expansion.

In the largest city of the Palestinian-majority, Galilee, Israel developed and granted full accreditation to the University of Haifa in 1972. That same year, Israel built Ben-Gurion University in the center of the Naqab, the region known in Israel as the Negev and most sparsely populated by Jewish-Israelis.

After 1967, Israeli universities created facts on the ground in the form of permanent Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT). Hebrew University expanded its Mount Scopus campus into occupied East Jerusalem, while Ariel University received full accreditation in 2012 as the newest Israeli university in the occupied West Bank. For over a century, Israeli universities were planned and built to serve as pillars of regional demographic engineering and Palestinian dispossession.

The 1967 occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, further entrenched how academia produced expertise on behalf of Israeli military governance. Claiming new territory while differentially ruling Jewish and Palestinian citizens, as well as Palestinian subjects living under military occupation, required new and expanded capabilities.

Diverse academic disciplines immediately stepped in to produce this knowledge for use by the Israeli state, and in so doing expanded their own scholarly frontiers. Archaeology, legal studies, and Middle East studies, among other fields in Israeli academia, continue to serve the state and its maintenance of a regime of apartheid.

Israeli academic knowledge production not only developed through ties to the Israeli government but was often itself steered toward direct military applications. Israeli universities designed — and continue to run — tailored academic programs to train soldiers and security forces to carry out their work and to enhance their operations.

The development of Israeli higher education was imbricated with the rise of Israeli military industries, and Israeli universities still sustain them. Rafael and Israeli Aerospace Industries, two of Israel’s largest weapons producers, developed out of infrastructure laid by the Weizmann Institute and the Technion. Today, Israeli universities collaborate with Israeli weapons corporations to research and develop technology that is used by the Israeli military and security state in the OPT. This technology is later sold abroad as field-tested or “battle proven.”

From Repression to Scholasticide

The institutional commitment of Israeli universities to the state has profoundly shaped the opportunities and experiences of their Palestinian faculty and junior scholars. After decades where critical research was foreclosed, in the 1980s and 1990s, Palestinian and some Jewish-Israeli scholars created new openings to explore the histories and structures of violence and oppression of the Israeli state.

This scholarship and the foundational debates it instigated were immediately marked as out of bounds, as researchers and faculty faced harassment and silencing campaigns. This backlash has only escalated over the past two decades, as university administrations aligned with the state and Israeli far-right groups to more narrowly define permissible research, teaching, and discourse on their campuses.

Palestinian students, too, are deeply affected. From its founding, Israel has limited Palestinian citizens’ access to education, and universities have restrained and conditioned their enrollment. University administrations continue to curtail Palestinian presence and learning on their campuses and persistently collaborate with the Israeli government in repressing their Palestinian students, and particularly student organizers.

Israel has always understood Palestinian education as a threat to its rule and has targeted it across all the territories that it governs. Since their establishment, Palestinian universities have been governed by the Israeli military, subjugated to prevent them from becoming sites of Palestinian resistance.

In the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Palestinian universities are subjected to bureaucratic restrictions that isolate and obstruct them, as well as recurrent military closures and raids, and the abduction, detention, and torture of faculty and students. In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian universities have been suffocated under an illegal blockade for over seventeen years and to repeated Israeli aerial bombardment.

And now, Israel has devastated every single Palestinian university in the Gaza Strip. Not one Israeli university administration has called on the Israeli government to cease the bombing of Palestinian universities and the intentional decimation of Palestinian higher education.

Israeli universities are complicit in this current and most devastating stage of scholasticide. They are enlisting their institutes, resources, and courses to produce hasbara, state propaganda, to defend Israel from international criticism. They are crafting legal scholarship to shield Israel from accountability for its war crimes. They are training soldiers and developing weapons for the Israeli military. They are granting special benefits, scholarships and even course credit to reserve soldiers returning from the Gaza Strip. Every day, Israeli universities make this genocide possible.

Israeli universities actively sustain Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid, as well as their own complicity in the ongoing violation of Palestinian rights as recognized under international law. It is on the basis of this collaboration with the Israeli state that Palestinian civil society, including the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees, has called for the international community to enact the academic boycott.

The BDS movement has called on the international academic community to demand that Israeli universities sever their ties with Israel’s regime of oppression. It offers faculty and students across the world the opportunity to join the movement to remake higher education for liberation. For, as PACBI teaches us, there is no academic freedom until it applies to all.