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Complicit academia: Israel and the US

Review of Maya Wind’s Towers of Ivory and Steel

Towers of Ivory and Steel
How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom

by Maya Wind

Verso, 2024

Campus climates and “hotbeds” of bigotry

It was the month of May, and the spring semester was nearing its end. And yet tens of thousands of students, comprising an ethnic minority spread across a number of prominent universities nationwide, found themselves concerned far more with their literal and immediate physical safety than end-of-term exams or recreational plans. A virulent form of bigotry had arisen in the cities, with targeted victims being harassed, beaten, and even lynched by supremacist mobs.

At the universities, these minority students at first sought refuge in their dorms, where they hoped to effectively barricade themselves off from the hostile and dangerous social climate prevailing on campus. But this proved of little avail. Signs placed by students on dorm room doors, expressing pride in their ethnicity or religion, were defaced with red paint, bigoted slurs, and threats of violence. Online student forums and residence hall group chats were filled with hateful language directed at the minority students by name. Weapons, carried upon the bodies of some students who were simultaneously enlisted as soldiers in the national army, were flashed or pointed at the minority students in the dorms. Minority students feared wearing the head and body garb—or speaking the native tongue—of their religion and culture, as they witnessed peers being verbally and physically assaulted.

These persecuted students were not only abandoned by university administrators; the latter actively contributed to the prevailing wave of intimidation and repression in both ideological and material terms. Within weeks, minority students across campuses nationwide collectively organized the procurement of buses to transport themselves away from the hostile campus climates and back to their local communities, virtually emptying the universities of their particular demographic. For many, the situation was pregnant with frightful echoes of a past catastrophe mere decades old.

Recent performative investigations of universities as “hotbeds of antisemitism,” conducted by members of the U.S. Congress, may lead one to believe that the foregoing describes the conditions presently faced by Jewish students at perhaps Columbia, Harvard, or the California universities. It does not. Rather, it is a well-documented and researched description of the conditions faced by Palestinian students enrolled at Israeli universities, ranging from Tel Aviv University in the northwest to Ben-Gurion University in the south, in the aftermath of the outbreak of the “Unity Intifada” in May 2021. This popular uprising of Palestinians against Israeli apartheid and oppression, inclusive of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and those living inside the prevailing borders of the Israeli state-proper, was met with immense violence and repression at the hands of the Israeli military, police, university security personnel, and mobs of Jewish-Israeli citizens and students who comprise the legally-supremacized majority of the nation.

While the opening vignette represents the experience across the nine public universities operated by Israel—including one located, in explicit violation of international law, within the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) of the West Bank—the violence and repression meted out by the Israeli military and intelligence apparatuses, often with the express cooperation of the Israeli academic complex, against Palestinian universities is even more extreme. In the Gaza Strip, universities have been repeatedly bombed and strafed by Israel over recent years. In the West Bank, schools and universities have been repeatedly raided by the Israeli military, who carry out the mass kidnapping, interrogation, torture, and indefinite detention of scores of student activists at a time. As of the 2022-23 academic year, Israel held over seventy Palestinian university students in military prisons.

A narrow aim that makes for a precise hit

These are just examples of the mountain of fastidiously collected evidence adduced by Maya Wind in Towers of Ivory and Steel. Wind has a very specific aim in this book, which is both rigorously observed and successfully met—to establish the efficacy and legitimacy of the international boycott of Israeli academic institutions as part of the overall strategy of the Palestine solidarity movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). As Wind explains, the use of the academic boycott as an instrument for undermining Israel’s occupation, apartheid oppression, and systemic violence against Palestine and Palestinians comes out of a 2004 call by Palestinian scholars and academics in the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which was reinforced by and integrated into the 2005 launch of the BDS movement by over one hundred Palestinian civil society organizations.

Since then, the academic boycott of Israel has come under attack by both liberal and right-wing Israeli academics and their like-minded counterparts in the U.S. as unfairly targeting and proscribing “academic freedom” itself. (It should be noted that PACBI clearly distinguishes between individuals and institutions—or individuals explicitly acting on behalf of institutions—as legitimate targets). Even state governments have gotten in on the counterattack; in 2016, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo signed Executive Order 157 (re-affirmed by current Governor Kathy Hochul), which directs the State of New York to boycott and divest from any organization that supports the BDS movement (yes, the irony of the order is that transparent).

Wind’s book, then, is written as a direct rejoinder to those who express opposition or skepticism to the academic boycott of Israel. It poses the simple question, “Are Israeli universities complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights?” and it convincingly advances the thesis that “Israeli universities actively sustain Israeli settler colonialism, military occupation, and apartheid, as well as their own complicity in the ongoing violation of Palestinian rights as recognized under international law.” As Robin D. G. Kelley aptly concludes in the book’s thought-provoking afterword:

Wind’s remarkable and timely book demonstrates … [in] painstaking detail the innumerable ways in which Israeli universities participated in the dispossession of Palestinians, the illegal occupation, and the creation of an apartheid state and its maintenance through military, carceral, juridical, architectural, demographic, medical, and educational means.

The consistent laser-focus of Towers on the question of Israeli academic complicity in the oppression of Palestinians means that readers ought to be aware of both what is and is not covered in this book. This book is not a general history of the twentieth-century dispossession, ethnic removal, and violent subjugation of Palestine as a result of Israel’s settler-colonial Zionist project. However, Wind does a meritorious job of bringing this history into frame as viewed through the lens of Israeli academic complicity. For example, Wind goes into relatively brief detail on the historical context of the 1948 Nakba, or mass expulsion of Palestinians from what would become the State of Israel; likewise with Israel’s regional war and occupation of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem in 1967. However, Wind does comprehensively document the role played by Israeli universities in working hand-in-glove with Israeli paramilitary units and subsequently the Israeli military, the state, the wealthy elite, and the ruling class generally in providing both intellectual and material support and legitimacy for these and other historical practices of oppression against the Palestinians.

An effective and efficient schema

The presentation of the argument in Towers is well and tightly organized. The book is divided into two parts, Complicity and Repression, and these are subdivided into three chapters each, the titles of which give a good sense of the material they contain. Part I, Complicity, comprises “Expertise of Subjugation,” “Outpost Campus,” and “The Scholarly Security State.” Part II, Repression, comprises “Epistemic Occupation,” “Students Under Siege,” and “Academia Against Liberation.” The argument is relatively straightforward, namely, that Israeli universities are best understood not as illusory autonomous spaces of unbounded free thinking, but as inextricable appendages of the Zionist nation-state enterprise, which are tasked by both decree and consent with conducting intellectual and scientific labors in the service and on behalf of the latter. In contrast and concomitantly, this military-political-intellectual complex viciously represses the actual academic freedom and educational pursuits of Palestinians, both at universities within Israel’s borders and those operated by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Black and white image of a masonry building in the distance with a square tower. In the foreground, a crowd is lined up as if for a procession.
“For over a century, Israeli universities have been expanding national borders and advancing ‘Jewish sovereignty’ across all historic Palestine.” Opening ceremony of Hebrew University, Jerusalem, in 1925. Image by Gut Mossinson, modified by Tempest.

In its capacity as an occupying military authority in the West Bank and veritable prison warden in the Gaza Strip, Israel restrictively determines what can be taught in these universities, who can teach there, what materials are available, and who can attend, while also exercising absolute control over the ability (or most often, complete lack thereof) for scholars to travel to and from these universities. In effect, Israel wreaks the isolation of Palestinian academia from the international community by a hyper-violent boycott, divestment, and sanctions regime of its own. Thus, an additional subtextual argument in Towers is that Israeli academics have no basis to protest the academic boycott of Israel while they remain accomplice to the strangulation of Palestinian intellectual life (and indeed Palestinian life itself).

Each chapter with a brief summation of the chapter’s main evidence and the particular proof thereby substantiated. For instance, the chapter “Outpost Campus” concludes:

For over a century, Israeli universities have been expanding national borders and advancing “Jewish sovereignty” across all historic Palestine. Israeli universities continue to serve as settlement outposts on confiscated Palestinian lands, warehouses of looted Palestinian books, and militarized bases for the Israeli state to further Palestinian dispossession.

And the chapter “Epistemic Occupation” concludes:

Rather than distinguishing themselves from the state and marking themselves as spaces for scientific study of the conditions of the state’s founding, Israeli universities have aligned with far-right groups and the Israeli government to limit and police research and discourse on the Nakba. By extension, the critical study of Israeli occupation, apartheid, and settler colonialism has been defined as out of bounds. Foundational critical conversations, then, have been excluded from the Israeli academy.

If the bulk of Towers comprises a series of thrusts and parries, the epilogue represents an intriguing final riposte. Wind offers what to me seems a generous and effective gesture to Israeli academics who decry the actions of the BDS movement. Responsibility and redress, as it were, are transferred back into the hands of Israel academia itself. “It need not be this way,” Wind writes.

Israeli universities could stop denying that their campuses stand on expropriated Palestinians lands and cease to serve as engines of “Judaization,” colonization, and Palestinian dispossession in their regions…. Israeli universities could cease to serve as the scaffolding to repress the Palestinian movement for liberation and transform themselves into the infrastructure that anchors free academic exploration and debate for all its students.

In a word, “The movement for the academic boycott calls on the international academic community to guide Israeli universities to take the first, most difficult, steps toward decolonization.”

The taxonomy of settler-colonial apartheid and genocide

There is one stark question that snakes its way through the book’s foreword (written by Columbia University Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj), body, epilogue, and afterword, and is perhaps only partially answered. In what way—or to what extent—should Israel, and its various institutional props, inclusive of academia, be understood as different, or sui generis, within the prevailing world system? In the foreword, El-Haj writes:

As covered in the US press, the current Israeli political crisis is but one more instance of a more general shift toward right-wing, (proto-) fascist, and antidemocratic political movements throughout the Euro-American world…. And yet, I want to insist, what is unfolding in Israel should not be integrated, and certainly not seamlessly, into this larger global trend. Israel is not and has never been a democratic state.

In the epilogue, Wind further tugs on this thread of Israel being the same but different.

Built on indigenous Palestinian land and designed as vehicles of Jewish settlement expansion and Palestinian dispossession, Israeli institutions of higher education were founded in the tradition of land-grab universities. Like other settler institutions [“from the United States and Canada to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa”], Israeli universities were established to uphold the colonial infrastructure of the Israeli state. Where they stand apart, however, is in their explicit and ongoing role in sustaining a regime now overwhelmingly recognized by the international community as apartheid.

Finally, in the afterword, Kelley approaches the question of Israel’s differentiable sameness in this way:

Both [Israel and the U.S.] are settler colonial states founded on ethnonationalism, racial hierarchy, and the subjugation and dispossession of Indigenous people. But if democracy in the US has always been fragile and incomplete, Israel’s democracy has always coexisted with what leading Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has called apartheid, a “regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea”—a democracy for some, and military rule and systematic subjugation for others.

What especially struck me while reading the sections on the ideological and police repression regularly meted out to Palestinian and anti-Zionist students on campuses in Israel and the OPT, was the similarity in the scale and intensity of repression recently witnessed on universities across the U.S. in response to the Gaza Solidarity Encampment movement. In the chapter “Students Under Siege,” Wind writes of Israeli campuses being militarized, “bordered and gated,” as a natural consequence of their design as “apparatuses in service of the state’s program to ‘Judaize’ Palestinian territory in their regions.” Wind recounts interviews with Palestinian students who describe

the humiliation of being turned away at the campus gates and missing classes because they were seen as not belonging at the university. These encounters with Israeli security apparatuses cause students to create narrowly designated walking routes, all to avoid the labyrinth of checkpoints, or minimizing the time spent on campus altogether. Such measures render indigenous Palestinians as foreigners on their own campuses.

I cannot help but relate this to the recent experience at the City College of New York, in which the aftermath of the administration’s violent police attack upon and removal of the Gaza Solidarity Encampment included the hasty erection of fences and the deployment of private police around the entire campus. One faculty member described the campus as being transformed into the Fenced University of New York:

From the morning after the police raid, students, faculty and most of the other workers were not allowed inside the fence. That status was reserved for select administrators, campus security and 100 newly hired guards from Strategic Security Corp…. A week after the crackdown, in-person learning was phased back in. We arrived at campus from all corners of the city and lined up outside the fence, waiting to be let in by private security. Some of my students—all of them people of color—told me they felt harassed and intimidated. Another student told a colleague that it felt like going to the airport every day.

Of course, the most obvious difference between the fences, checkpoints, and police at Israeli universities and those at the City College of New York is that, in the latter case, the show of force was temporary, while in the former, such militarized repression is the norm. So perhaps Israel can be classified as an extreme, or an extreme phase, of a type that also includes similarly oppressive and unequal societies, such as the U.S., built on settler-colonialism, indigenous dispossession, and racial hierarchies of oppression? This brings up a related question pertaining to the rubric of racial capitalism. Though most often used in the context of the U.S., to what extent might this be a useful framework for conceptualizing Israel’s history?

A modern university administration building seen from above and in front. Modular, colorful design with Islamic patterns.
The administration building of Islamic University of Gaza in 2021. Israel destroyed the campus on October 10, 2023, alleging that the university produced weapons—though offering no proof. Image by Belal2795.

The reason this taxonomical question is important is that ultimately, the proposition that Israeli academia functions as an instrumental appendage of the prevailing Israeli social system and its ruling class should not really be all that controversial. After all, it is not too difficult to convincingly argue that, in the main and in the long term, the dominant academic system of any society functions in the interest of and in service to the dominant social system and its ruling class. This is self-evidently the case in the U.S., with its multi-billion-dollar endowed ivy league schools invested in and conducting research on behalf of weapons manufacturers, oil corporations, despotic regimes, and sweatshop archipelagos, in addition to directly training and conducting intellectual propaganda for various ruling class state and military apparatuses. (See, e.g., The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent).

Thus, the real question is what it is that is especially oppressive and odious about a given social system and ruling class, which makes the complicity of its academic institutions both especially violent and censurable? In other words, in what way is Israel ‘the same but different’? Towers is a very fine book for those interested in or puzzled by the academic boycott movement and the systemic role played by Israeli universities in the oppression of Palestinians. However, to get at such broader questions pertaining to the precise character of Israeli society and history, one would do well to turn to some of the other books available, for instance, from either Haymarket Books or Verso Books.

As from the limb into the trunk

Leaving taxonomical questions aside, one thing has been proven by Israel’s current genocidal war on Gaza and the intense repression carried out by a near-unanimous U.S. ruling class and university administrative apparatus against an unprecedented student uprising for Palestine. Different as the U.S. and Israel may be, they nonetheless share an intimate and integral relationship that is mutually determinative. This is not an argument about the Israeli tail supposedly wagging the U.S. dog. It is clear that the U.S. is the supreme partner in the relationship; it is the metropole and Israel is the satellite. Put differently, from the U.S. vantage, Israel is a valuable and dependable appendage of U.S. strategic imperial interests in the Middle East. But Israel is also an appendage undergoing a profound case of necrotic decay; something indisputably redolent of fascism. Aside from the simple moral outrage that those of us in the U.S.—along with the rest of the world—are right to feel at Israel’s actions, there is an additional threat in prospect. Namely, that the necrotization of Israeli society is currently being either transmitted into or matched by the same within the political corpus of the U.S. ruling class, as from a limb into the trunk.

Featured image credit: Spearhead; modified by Tempest.

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Keith Rosenthal View All

Keith Rosenthal is the editor of Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings by Marta Russell. He is a graduate student in Disability Studies and History and a member of the Tempest Collective.