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Resisting Israeli Scholasticide and Academic Apartheid

Interview With Maya Wind

July 9, 2024

Israel’s genocidal war is both massacring Palestinians and destroying their physical and social infrastructure. In particular, Israel has targeted Palestinian educational institutions. In late April, UN experts concluded, “with more than 80% of schools in Gaza damaged or destroyed, it may be reasonable to ask if there is an intentional effort to comprehensively destroy the Palestinian education system, an action known as ‘scholasticide’.”1“UN Experts concerned about ‘Scholasticide’ in Gaza,” the website of the United Nations, April 18, 2024, The aim of this settler-colonial project is to eradicate the physical, intellectual, and political reproduction of the Palestinian people. As Maya Wind documents in her new book Towers of Ivory and Steel, the Israeli higher education system plays a key role in this agenda. Spectre’s Ashley Smith interviews Wind about the current war, the nature of Zionist higher educational institutions, and the case for a boycott of Israeli universities.

Maya Wind is a Killam Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Her scholarship broadly investigates how settler societies and global systems of militarism and policing are sustained, with a particular focus on the reproduction and export of Israeli security expertise. Towers of Ivory and Steel (Verso, 2024) is her first book.

Your book is a brilliant account of the role Israeli higher education plays in enforcing apartheid, occupation, and ethnic cleansing. The flip side of that for the Israeli state is the destruction of Palestinian higher education, best exemplified by what activists have called “scholasticide,” that is, the complete demolition of Palestinian educational institutions. Why is Israel so intent on destroying Palestinian schools and universities?

Palestinian and Indigenous scholars of education across the world have long analyzed settler colonialism through the prism of the university. Informed by this work, I investigated the institution of the university in order to study the Israeli settler colonial project. The Zionist project has always sought to eliminate and replace indigenous Palestinians with Jews as the basis for the Jewish state. Because Israel has always regarded Palestinian education as a force behind the Palestinian liberation movement (and therefore a threat to its rule), the erasure of Palestinian knowledge production and the destruction of Palestinian centers of education—what Karma Nabulsi has called “scholasticide”— is central to this project of Palestinian elimination and dispossession.

Israel has continuously obstructed, raided, and bombarded Palestinian universities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) since their founding, and it has escalated its repression of Palestinian universities in tandem with Palestinian popular uprisings. When the First Intifada erupted in 1987, Israel immediately targeted and labeled universities as sites of rebellion. Between 1988 and 1992, the Israeli military ordered the closure of Birzeit University, along with all Palestinian institutions of higher education. Palestinian faculty and students were forced to continue their collective study underground, which Israel then designated “cells of illegal education” and continually raided, arresting faculty and student participants.

Israel has criminalized campus mobilization and has targeted student organizers in particular, declaring 411 Palestinian student groups and associations unlawful since 1967. Every year, the Israeli military abducts dozens of organizers of student associations, either from their campuses during the day or from their homes in the middle of the night. These students are often held in administrative detention, which allows Israel to indefinitely incarcerate Palestinians in military prisons without either charge or trial based on undisclosed evidence. Israel subjects these students to ill treatment and torture, including beatings, prolonged shackling in stress positions, and threats of extended detention that would derail their academic studies.

Even before the current war on Gaza, Israel’s illegal siege targeted Palestinian universities with debilitating economic and structural isolation and periodic aerial bombardments that damaged their already dilapidated infrastructure. In the course of this genocide, Israel has destroyed every single Palestinian university in the Gaza Strip, reducing them all to rubble. Over ninety thousand university students now have no university to attend.

Israel’s continuous war on Palestinian education extends from the detention and killing of Palestinian organizers in universities across the OPT to Shin Bet interrogations, arrests, and disciplinary hearings for Palestinian citizens at Israeli universities. Across all the territories under Israeli governance, the university campus is not a safe space for Palestinian students. Israeli universities are the state’s partners in their oppressive campaign to deny the Palestinians’ right to education. This denial is central to subduing the Palestinian movement for liberation.

So, the entanglement of the university with settler colonialism has two facets: first, because the universities of the colonized harbor tremendous liberatory potential, the colonial administration targets them with brutal repression; second, the colonizers establish their own universities as pillars of settler rule. My book focuses on this second facet through a comprehensive study of the Israeli university system. I wrote it in response to the call from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

For two decades now, PACBI has illuminated the imbrication of both the Israeli university and the Western university with colonial violence. In answering the Palestinian call and demanding divestment and an academic boycott, the student encampments in the US and Europe have come to face this violence in the brutal repression enacted through the universities’ collaboration with the state. But this confrontation has emboldened and multiplied an emerging movement to decolonize higher education in Palestine and across the world.

In your book you illustrate how, much like kibbutzim, the construction of Israeli universities as physical outposts was part of the conquest, colonization, and ethnic cleansing of Palestine. They were, as you argue, “land-grab institutions.” How were they set up? What role did they play in colonization? And how do they continue to fulfill that function today?

The parallels between kibbutzim and Israeli universities are important. Both have long been celebrated as Israel’s foremost liberal—if not progressive, or even “Left” –—institutions. In fact, not only do they serve as critical infrastructure of Palestinian dispossession, but it is precisely their liberal identity that has been so instrumental in justifying and sustaining the Zionist colonization of Palestine for decades.

Kibbutzim were established on Palestinian lands and designed as frontier communities to anchor campaigns for Palestinian expulsion and Jewish settlement expansion across historic Palestine. Universities too, were founded as land-grab institutions to anchor demographic and territorial engineering in regions of particular strategic concern for the Israeli state. The broad international celebration of both Israeli kibbutzim and universities as progressive has enabled them to obscure the colonial nature of the Zionist project and enact violence against Palestinians.

In the case of Israeli universities, this begins with the physical infrastructure of their campuses. They were built to anchor the official state program of “Judaization”: the state’s theft of Palestinian lands and interruption of Palestinian territorial contiguity, coupled with the expansion of Jewish settlement and Jewish land ownership.

Hebrew University, the first university of the Zionist movement, was established in 1918 as a state-building institution. It was built at the strategically chosen apex of Mt. Scopus to stake a symbolic and material claim to the entire city of Jerusalem. In the wake of Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the Mt. Scopus campus played an important role in the state’s project to “unify” the city through the illegal annexation of occupied East Jerusalem. After nineteen years spent at a campus in West Jerusalem, the university’s return to the Mt. Scopus campus was made possible by Israel’s 1967 occupation. Its return fueled the expropriation of property from neighboring Palestinian communities and the continuous building of new settlements on Palestinian lands in occupied East Jerusalem.

In the Galilee, the most populous Palestinian region within Israel’s borders, the University of Haifa plays a key role in interrupting Palestinian territorial contiguity and facilitating Palestinian land theft. It anchored research and planning for mitspim (lookouts), nuclei of Jewish settlement built on strategically selected hilltops throughout the Galilee. They were conceived of as a “deterritorializing device” by the Israeli state in the wake of the Palestinian “Land Day” in 1976 and growing concern over Palestinian citizen mobilization. Designed to create “facts on the ground” and solidify control over Palestinian lands, mitspim also serve as sites of surveillance for Jewish residents to monitor Palestinian land use and potential expansion. University of Haifa experts have helped plan, develop, research, assess, and improve mitspim and other Israeli programs of demographic engineering in the Galilee.

In the Naqab (which Israel calls the Negev), the region most sparsely populated by Jewish Israelis, Ben-Gurion University anchors the Zionist project of displacing and replacing Palestinian Bedouins. The university was established to “make the desert bloom,” as the Zionist adage puts it, and “develop the Negev” by growing its Jewish population. The university facilitates regional “Judaization” by aiding the state in transferring military bases from Israel’s center to the Naqab and supports its Jewish-Israeli students to participate in this land-grab project. Ben-Gurion students continually establish “student villages,” exclusively Jewish settlements across the Naqab, which provide student housing with the explicit goal of facilitating permanent residence on state lands previously inhabited by Palestinian Bedouins.

In the occupied West Bank, Ariel University was developed to normalize and grow Jewish settlements and expand Israeli sovereignty in the OPT. The university was conceived of by the settlements’ founders as a means to bring more Jewish Israelis into the occupied West Bank and to transform the illegal settlement of Ariel into a legitimate suburb of the Tel Aviv metropolis. As the institution developed from a college into a fully accredited university, it has expanded Israeli legal jurisdiction in the OPT and fueled a construction and population boom in the settlement to create “facts on the ground.” The normalization and development of Ariel University and the Israeli settlement and planned annexation of the occupied West Bank are thus intertwined.

For over a century, Israeli universities have been expanding national borders and advancing “Jewish sovereignty” across historic Palestine. They have been planned, designed, and built to serve as settlement outposts on confiscated Palestinian lands and militarized bases for the Israeli state to further Palestinian dispossession. Their international reputation as liberal, if not progressive, institutions provide them cover to serve Israeli settler colonialism with impunity.


The Israeli higher educational system is deeply integrated with the apartheid state and the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) in particular. What are the key features of this integration? What role do they play for the IOF?

Israeli universities run programs that conceptualize academic and military training as one and the same. All public universities offer their facilities, faculty, and expertise to the Israeli military for training and advancing the career development of soldiers and security state personnel through specialized degree-granting programs. For soldiers, this is run through a specialized academic program administered through the university system called Atuda (academic reserve). Atuda was developed to provide the Israeli military a cadre of highly educated and specialized soldiers.

The Israeli military runs fifty degree programs across all public Israeli universities, covering soldiers’ tuition and granting needs-based stipends in exchange for extended military service as commanders and officers after they graduate. The wide-ranging disciplines these programs offer include courses in languages, humanities, law, life sciences, data sciences, and engineering. Through Atuda, soldiers are drafted and then sent to complete academic degrees and basic training, followed by a minimum six years of military service. This elite academic-military track has long operated as a pipeline to military leadership, academic posts, and executive positions in Israel’s military and tech industries.

Senior military personnel and academics attest to the importance of the program. They claim that Atuda is both crucial for its military and central to providing Israeli companies with technological capabilities and a competitive edge in the global market. Knowledge and ideas developed through Atuda are not patented by the military, allowing for a “knowledge spillover” into the Israeli private sector. Graduates of Atuda degree programs in physics, math, and computer science have frequently assumed key positions in Israeli military research and development, with some later establishing their own security sector companies.

Crucially, Atuda hones the capacity of Israeli soldiers to carry out their work in maintaining Israel’s illegal military occupation and system of apartheid. Israeli universities prepare Israeli soldiers for their daily labor of violating Palestinian rights. They train engineers for the research and development of weaponry used against occupied Palestinians, as well as officers for combat units and the Intelligence Corps.  Many of the soldiers graduating from Hebrew University’s prestigious “Havatzalot” Atuda program serve in Unit 8200 of the Intelligence Corps, which is responsible for amassing Palestinian phone calls, text messages, and emails.  As Palestinians have long reported—and as Israeli whistleblowers have corroborated—soldiers from Unit 8200 use their routine surveillance of Palestinians in the OPT to collect information and try them in military courts. The unit also uses information about peoples’ financial difficulties, sexual orientation, serious illnesses, or their loved ones’ needed medical treatments to extort them into collaborating with the Shin Bet. 

Palestinian journalists, researchers and human rights organizations have been reporting these forms of Israeli coercion across the OPT for years. Al Mezan Center for Human Rights has extensively documented Israeli extortion and arrests of Palestinian cancer patients as they travel to and from the Gaza Strip. Unit 8200, which now includes soldiers trained at Hebrew University, is responsible for these violations of Palestinian rights. Unit 8200 soldiers have also created mass “target banks” in Gaza to guide the IOF in killing Palestinians over the last nine months.

In tailoring courses and degrees to soldiers and offering soldiers exclusive training under their auspices, Israeli universities have become integral to honing Israel’s military capabilities and reproducing its labor power. So, not only are Israeli universities central to the infrastructure of apartheid, but they are also now training soldiers carrying out a genocide.

In your book you expose the function of Israeli universities as knowledge factories for apartheid and occupation. How do they generate founding myths about the past and provide ideological justifications for the Zionist project in the present?

Knowledge production within universities must be taken seriously because it has been central to shoring up the legitimacy of the Zionist project. Over the decades, Israeli universities have helped the Israeli state create legal frameworks that have paved the way for the impunity of the current genocide.

In the field of legal studies, the Israeli state has collaborated with its universities to legitimate the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Israel has been an innovator in interpreting international humanitarian law, with the OPT as its laboratory. To sanction its permanent military regime, Israel has created the legal infrastructure to justify extrajudicial assassinations, torture, and the deployment of (what would otherwise be considered) disproportionate use of force against civilian populations.

As legal scholars Noura Erakat and Lisa Hajjar show, these theorizations and legal interpretations sanction practices that have been traditionally defined as extralegal in international humanitarian law. Yet Israeli scholars, who collaborate with the Israeli military leadership, have conceptualized and provided the philosophical and legal foundations for Israeli military doctrines, strategies, and tactics that have been deemed war crimes by international human rights organizations.

Tel Aviv University is a key site for such legal innovation. At its Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), academic experts and senior security state personnel join forces to develop and publish legal guidance for the Israeli government and military. In INSS journals, Israeli scholars and military personnel have articulated justifications for the exclusion of Israeli military doctrines, strategies, and tactics from the usual terms of international law. For instance, they proposed a new category to contravene the legal distinction between combatants and civilians when they coined the term “third population”—persons who appear to be noncombatants but may potentially interfere with Israeli military operations. Referring to Palestinian civilians in this way enables the Israeli military to target them with impunity.

Right now, Israeli legal scholars are providing theoretical justifications for the genocide for its defense against international legal charges. Israeli scholars mobilized in the wake of the South African petition accusing Israel of genocide against the Palestinian people. At the INSS, they joined panels with senior personnel from the Israeli Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs to craft arguments and narratives to influence international lawyers and public opinion, and to convince the judges at the International Court of Justice to side with Israel against South Africa’s case. Israeli academic knowledge production is thus being used to cultivate Israeli impunity and justify genocide.

Israel likes to claim that it respects the rights of its Palestinian population, pointing to their inclusion in all institutions of its society from the Knesset to the higher education. Your book exposes such proclamations to be lies that cover up apartheid. What is the experience of Palestinian scholars and students in Israeli universities? How do the state and universities restrict and repress Palestinians’ right to research, study, advocate, and organize?

Israeli universities continually manipulate the facts when manufacturing propaganda about their ostensible inclusion of Palestinians. Government data actually shows that Palestinian students have always been underrepresented in Israeli universities. In 2022, Palestinians made up just over 16 percent of bachelor’s degree students (when they make up 30 percent of university-aged citizens in Israel), and their numbers shrink in the higher echelons of the university hierarchy. They make up just over 11 percent of master’s students, 8 percent of PhD students, and only 3.5 percent of university faculty.

Even research from the Israeli Ministry of Finance concluded that the integration of Palestinians in Israeli universities is currently declining and that the gaps in access between Palestinian and Jewish students are, in fact, widening. Thus, while Israeli universities may tout their integration of Palestinian students and programs to counter the campaign for an academic boycott’s cascade of victories, their claims are contradicted by actual facts and data.

But a debate about the numbers obscures the foundational problem of Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid. There is a crucial distinction between, on the one hand, enrolling Palestinian students and the facilitating the mere presence of individual Palestinians in Israeli universities and, and on the other, permitting the Palestinian identity and Palestinian politics on campus.

Like their inclusion in the Israeli state as citizens, Palestinian enrollment in Israeli universities has always been considered an “undesirable inevitability” by the Israeli state. Their presence was fiercely debated, resisted, and, ultimately, only reluctantly tolerated. From their entry into the Israeli university system Palestinians citizens have been closely surveilled and monitored by university administrations and the Israeli security state. The Israeli educational system seeks to create what anthropologist Khaled Furani describes as “‘Israeli Arabs,’ closed in a box and reconciled with Zionism and with its state.” Palestinian students graduating from this system arrive at the university in hopes of finding a more liberatory space. Yet upon their arrival at Israeli universities, Palestinian students find that these institutions too are embedded in an Israeli society whose existence is, as Furani puts it, “based on the negation of the Palestinian existence.”

Soon after they enter the Israeli university, Palestinian students and scholars quickly come to understand the structural barriers to their exploration of Palestinian history and identity. They are policed in classroom discussions and in their own thinking and writing. This of course extended to any sort of political mobilizing on campus. Universities closely monitor and violently repress Palestinian activism. Administrations summon Palestinian students to disciplinary committees, refuse to authorize their events, suspend their student groups, and permit the Israeli police and Shin Bet to arrest them on their own campus.

This longstanding repression has escalated since October. According to leading Palestinian civil rights organization Adalah, over 160 Palestinian students have already faced disciplinary action—34 of them suspended or expelled—often just for posts on social media.2Israeli Academia Wage War on Palestinian Students and Faculty,” Adalah’s News, May 6, 2024, For their online expression and campus activism, Palestinian students have been accused (and sometimes indicted) for “incitement,” arrested, and subjected to abuse in Israeli detention facilities. Not only have universities failed to protect Palestinian students on campus or publicly defend their rights to oppose the genocide in Gaza, but the administrations themselves have often referred complaints against their students to the Israeli police that led to their arrest.3Neve Gordon and Penny Green, “Israeli Universities: The Crackdown,” New York Review, June 5, 2024,


Finally, the encampments that have swept campuses in the US and throughout the world have raised the demand for the divestment of university endowments from firms invested in Israel and for an academic boycott of Israeli universities. How does your book substantiate the case for an academic boycott? What does that boycott entail? Why is the call for an academic boycott a crucial part of the movement against Israeli apartheid?

The call for the academic boycott is in fact the foundational call of the BDS movement. The Palestinian Boycott National Committee (BNC) issued its call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions in 2005. A full year before that, in 2004, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) called to boycott the Israeli academy as a pillar of Israel’s “regime of oppression” against Palestinians. As scholars, staff, and students in the international academic community, we need to take the Palestinian analysis that the Israeli academy was the primary institution to be boycotted seriously.

There has been a build up towards this moment for two decades now, with academic associations, faculty and graduate student unions, and undergraduate student councils passing resolutions to endorse the academic boycott. But this student uprising and its rapid cascade of wins is remarkable. We are witnessing a total paradigm shift exactly twenty years since PACBI first issued its call.

My book offers further data and evidence to substantiate what PACBI and Palestinian scholars have long argued—that the Israeli universities are pillars of Israeli racial rule. They have called for an institutional boycott until Israeli universities sever their ties to the apartheid regime. PACBI has articulated deeply principled and clear guidelines for the academic boycott. Read correctly, these offer Israeli universities a road map forward and extend an invitation to Israeli academics to address their institutions’ complicity in Israeli apartheid. In South Africa, some white faculty and students heeded the call from the African National Congress—echoed by the international community—and demanded that their universities sever their ties to the apartheid regime and take meaningful steps toward decolonization. Palestinians are calling on scholars across the world to guide Israeli academics to demand the same.

PACBI’s guidelines also call upon those of us in the Western academic community to address our own complicity in Israeli apartheid. Western universities have conferred an exceptional status to Israeli institutions, offering a broad range of funding opportunities, joint research ventures, and study-abroad programs. No such parallel collaborations exist with Palestinian universities or any other university system in the Middle East. For funding, publications, and legitimacy, Israeli universities are deeply dependent upon the Western system of higher education. This gives those of us in Western universities—students, staff, and faculty—both a critical opening and a responsibility to intervene and, at the very least, to end our own complicity in Palestinian unfreedom.

The courageous student uprising is leading all of us in fundamentally reimagining higher education and transforming it into the infrastructure of liberation in Palestine and throughout the world.

Ashley Smith is a socialist writer and activist in Burlington, Vermont. He has written in numerous publications including Truthout, International Socialist Review, Socialist Worker, ZNet, Jacobin, New Politics, Harpers, and many other online and print publications. He is currently working on a book for Haymarket entitled Socialism and Anti-Imperialism.


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