In 2006, I was among 25 professors from five Israeli universities who filed a petition with the High Court of Justice in Israel requesting that the court put a stop to the transformation of a small college, located in the occupied West Bank, into a university. We submitted the petition because we were appalled by the idea that the Israeli government would use academe to advance its colonial project in the Palestinian territories.
Diverse interests played a role in that expansionist ploy. Among the respondents to our petition were the military general in charge of the West Bank and the members of an academic committee he had appointed to legitimize the makeover. The most notable of those was Yisrael Aumann, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science a year before. Minister of Education Yuli Tamir, who opposed the plan after she left office but remained silent during her term, and who had studied under Isaiah Berlin and had been a lecturer in philosophy at Tel Aviv University before entering politics, was also named in the case.
Ultimately, although some other academics also publicly objected, the court rejected our petition. In 2012, after a protracted struggle over fiscal issues, Ariel University became Israel’s eighth university.
Recently, Ariel has once again been making headlines. An article in the Israeli daily Haaretz disclosed that a student had been expelled for posting a comment on Facebook in which she equated the university with a Syrian prison. After much furor, the punishment was changed to a year’s suspension for another infraction. Another article described a heated debate among Ariel’s faculty over controversial university regulations limiting academic freedom, including an instruction that faculty members have to provide students with different positions on topics they teach and that, in public appearances, they must cultivate the university’s good reputation.
The headlines reminded me of the brief period in 2000 when I served as a reservist in the Israel Defense Forces’ education corps.
During my first meeting with the top education officer in the Southern Command, the military division charged with defending Israel’s southern borders, I was asked about my academic specialization, and, after a brief discussion, we agreed that I would teach soldiers about human rights. I then received a "kit" that dealt with moral dilemmas that soldiers often encounter. The kit included a number of short "educational" films.
In one film, soldiers were seen evacuating Palestinian residents from a house in the West Bank minutes before bulldozers demolished it. The plot focused on a soldier who took a knife from the house during the evacuation. The soldiers were then asked: Was it all right to take something from the house, since the structure would be destroyed within minutes? As one soldier put it, the knife would be useless after the demolition anyway, so why not take it? Following a discussion highlighting several perspectives, the film concluded that pocketing the knife, despite the extenuating circumstances, was an act of looting and consequently forbidden.
The film focused on the ethics of taking the knife, but it ignored larger questions—not least the morality of demolishing Palestinian homes. The recent articles about Ariel University do the same. They pass over the wider context and therefore end up obfuscating the central ethical questions at stake.
To be sure, Ariel’s reaction to the undergraduate who likened it to a Syrian prison smacks of harassment, as the news media charged. In addition, university regulations demanding that faculty members offer students a range of perspectives on topics could introduce questionable intellectual requirements (creationism along with Darwin), and are clearly attempts to monitor faculty views and thus infringe on academic freedom.
But such problems pale in comparison with the real crime: establishing an Israeli academic institution on occupied land, with the goal of maintaining and strengthening colonial rule.
The question we Israeli academics should ask ourselves is about the role played by our seven other universities: Where do they fit in the narrative between the bulldozer and the knife?
What is the moral dilemma they face?
Israeli universities have long acted as if they were mere bystanders, simply watching the demolition but not participating in it. Sitting in classes on Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus, studying philosophy in the midst of the first Palestinian uprising, in the late 1980s, we would often hear shots and see the clouds of tear gas rising from the valley below as the Israeli military quelled Palestinian protests in Arab East Jerusalem. While the Palestinians fought for their liberation, we continued our classes on Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and G.E. Moore.
At the time, Israel had effectively rendered higher education in the occupied territories illegal. Educational institutions had become sites of opposition, so the government had shut down all Palestinian universities, preventing approximately 18,000 students from entering their campuses. Birzeit University was closed almost year-round from 1988 to 1992, while the other Palestinian universities were also shuttered for lengthy periods.
And yet the silence of Israeli universities was deafening. Yes, some professors did organize petitions and solidarity visits to the West Bank. But as an institution, not one university published a statement supporting its colleagues across the Green Line, in Palestinian territories.
Our universities, however, are not simply spectators: The debates they engage in today are the knife, displacing the real crime.
Israeli universities are well known for their rigorous and often innovative academic research. They have produced Nobel Prize laureates in economics and chemistry and Fields Medals in mathematics, and have made distinguished contributions in numerous other fields. Moreover, they see themselves as bastions of academic freedom, protecting the rights of faculty members. They are, in other words, both a symbol and manifestation of a true and indeed vibrant democratic culture.
But, paradoxically, it may be precisely that image of freedom, innovation, and critical thinking that helps legitimize Israel’s colonial project.
Think about it. Even with the very visible debates about scholarly boycotts of Israel in the United States, the majority of academics around the world do not hear about the daily disturbances to Palestinian academic life. The debates focus on the legitimacy of boycotts, not academic life in Palestine.
Most academics around the world know very little about the fact that since the early 2000s, the Israeli government has prohibited Palestinian residents of Gaza from studying in the occupied West Bank—despite the fact that many programs, including preparation for vital medical and paramedical professions, are simply unavailable in the Gaza Strip. They are unaware how the Israeli military continues to obstruct academic studies in the occupied territories. In late January, for example, soldiers entered the Al-Quds University campus in Arab Jerusalem, breaking doors and terrifying students and professors.
Academics in touch with Israelis are mostly familiar with their colleagues’ scholarly research and aware of the freedoms that they enjoy. Visiting academics come to Israel to give talks, oblivious to the situation just a few kilometers away, where their Palestinian colleagues are stuck in checkpoints.
Universities are the face of Israel's democracy that serves to hide its dark colonial side.
Wittingly or unwittingly, Israeli universities play a central role in sustaining the occupation. They are the face of Israel’s democracy that serves to hide its dark colonial side. One could call it "university washing."
Ariel University is perhaps an extreme case, since it was founded by military decree and is intended to play an active role in the suppression of another people. But the general failure of the Israeli academy to stand by Palestinian universities and against the occupation is no less colossal.
Neve Gordon is the author of Israel’s Occupation (University of California Press, 2008).