Oppose the New “Settler University”

[O]ccupation proceeds from the same ideological infrastructure on which the 1948 ethnic cleansing was erected  [. . .] and in whose name there take place every day detentions and killings without trial.  The most murderous manifestation of this ideology is now in the Territories.  It should and must be stopped soonest.  For that, no expedient which has not yet been tried should be rejected.  — Ilan Pappe, 8 May 2007

A distinctive element of Israeli academic life is the extent to which university staff and researchers actively or more often tacitly support the broader aims of the government and the Occupation.  Government contracts and a perfected meshwork of ties between academe, the defense & hi-tech industries, and the military, driven by an entrenched framework of national chauvinism, characterize the topography of Israel academe in a striking way.1  Yet far too many Israelis of all social strata function in a perverse bubble of denial, a radical disconnect from the political and human realities of oppression and injustice around them.  A vast morass of inaction abounds within the vortex of what some of us think is a national political psychosis.2  Those calling for an international boycott of Israeli academe, like Virginia Tilley, warn of a situation where “moral paralysis becomes moral culpability.”

That “moral culpability” manifest in Israeli academe is nowhere more visible than on the growing campus of the College of Judea and Samaria (CJS, Ha-Mikhlala Ha-Akademit Yehuda ve-Shomron) in the ever expanding settler fortress city of Ariel on the Occupied West Bank.  Recently unilaterally restyled as a “University Center,” the function of this institution as a “power tool” of settler ideology and the consolidation of the Occupation is perhaps unique to higher education in an “advanced” industrial economy, where a campus assumes what is in effect a vanguard geopolitical role.  The present essay reflects on that role and explores some counter-hegemonic alternatives for the boycott movement.

West Bank U

Amidst all the current sleight of hand & tongue by the Olmert government, higher education in Israel took an ominous turn in the broader geopolitics of Occupation and permanent settlement.  On 1 August 2007, the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel, the second largest colony in the West Bank, unilaterally elevated itself to the official status of a university in the making, now called “Ariel University Center of Samaria,” in Hebrew Ha-Merkaz Ha-Universita’i Ariel Ba-Shomron.

By legal legerdemain, long in planning, CJS has become in effect the first new “provisional” Israeli university in 34 years, established at the heart of an illegal Occupation, the hated Ihtilal or “Suffocation.”  Now granted temporary university status while it seeks to qualify as a full bona fide university, it has been significantly upgraded as an academic power tool of control, colonization, and “academic” promotion of the West Bank settlement project.  It is an educational institution of legitimization for the ethos and ideology of colonial settlement and “land redemption.”

A “Hot Button” Reemerges

Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc), Peace Now, and a number of other progressive groups in Israel are now organizing to counter this unilateral move by CJS.  A first joint protest was held at the campus on 3 August 2007.  The campus saw protest demonstrations two years ago after a preliminary decision in the Sharon cabinetto upgrade the college, and it is likely now that many more protests are to come.

Indeed, the move by the Ariel educational leadership and their allies in the Olmert government points up a major division in Israeli political alignment among “liberal” and “conservative” Zionist blocs: those who support and seek to maintain and strengthen West Bank settlement, in particular among the Likud party and its ideological associates, and those who nominally “oppose” its expansion, centered in the Labor Party and other groupings on the Israeli Zionist left.

There are few topographies of education anywhere on the planet where the upgrading of a college to provisional university status can provoke such heated political debate.  Leading opposition to the unilateral movement by the CJS in Ariel is the current Education Minister Yuli Tamir, of the Labor Party.  In this sense, the row over “Ariel University” becomes a prism through which to view the profound contradictions in the Israeli ruling and political class.  Sharon in coma still casts a long shadow.

From CJS to Ariel University Center of Samaria

The College of Judea and Samaria was founded in 1982 in the “radical messianic” Gush Emunim settlement Kedumim, the self-styled “vanguard of the Jewish resettlement of Samaria” on the hills outside Palestinian Nablus.  The College functioned initially as a branch of Bar-Ilan University.  Kedumim today, a small settlement of 2,900 zealots, is still a bastion of radical “messianic” settler ideology and praxis, guided by one of its original first settlers, American-born ultra-nationalist mayor Daniella Weiss, a graduate of Bar-Ilan University.

The College was relocated to Ariel in 1991 and has functioned there until recently as a branch of the Orthodox religious Bar-Ilan University, whose main campus is located in Ramat Gan east of Tel Aviv.  With some 9,500 students, the CJS has been the largest public college in Israel, part of its rationale in now reinventing itself as a “University” no longer formally affiliated with Bar-Ilan U.  The Israeli Supreme Court rejected a petition earlier this year brought by progressive academics seeking an injunction to prevent CJS from acquiring university status, seeing this as a move in the politics of West Bank settlement.

Reflecting deep antinomies between different segments of the Israeli political class, Education Minister Yuli Tamir and some officials of the Council for Higher Education (CHE) in Israel say this self-initiated change is misguided, misleading, and unjustified; indeed Minister Tamir is irate.  The CHE, with authority for all tertiary education inside the “Green Line,” has officially declared it does not recognize this unilateral decision and will not deal with any requests from the Ariel campus as a self-designated “University Center.”  But apparently CJS has the legal permits to declare itself the “Ariel University Center of Samaria.”  It operates technically under the aegis of the separate Council for Higher Education-Judea and Samaria, which does not function under laws binding inside the Green Line and the CHE that functions there.

Yigal Cohen-Orgad, who heads the Ariel University Center’s Executive Committee, said he was “very surprised that the education minister is acting in contrast to what she publicly committed to, which is to act only within the framework of the law.  [. . .]  All the steps to upgrade the college were carried out precisely in accordance with the directives of the deputy attorney general.  According to legal opinions we have, there was no need to get the approval of the military commander.”  Cohen-Orgad’s reference to the military commander was the claim by the CHE that the decision by the College was “in opposition to the position of the Israel Defense Forces commander in the West Bank” (ibid.), in itself a distinctive aspect of Israeli education policy under military rule.

These are the perverse paradoxes of Israeli colonial space.  Prime Minister Olmert was beaming as he welcomed the move, long on his wish list of expansion.  Professor Dan Meyerstein, University president, announced that it now boasts six research centers and  recently signed a major high-capital agreement with an American biotechnology company to develop and market a new pharmaceutical.  Meyerstein has sought hard to upgrade the campus as a research center in the heart of the occupied West Bank, the “intellectual crown” of settlement.  Among its research institutes are the Samaria & Jordan Valley Regional R&D Center, the Israel National Strategic Assessment Center, Mass Media Research Center, and, ominously, the Homeland Security R&D Center.

While Palestinian students under siege and Suffocation can barely travel to their universities in the Ihtilal‘s 24/7 nightmare, Ariel University Center of Samaria is gearing up to become an apartheid tertiary education hub for the further Judaization of the northern West Bank.  The University’s International Board of Governors is chaired by Moshe Arens, former Israeli defense minister and a prominent hawk.  Its Executive Committee head, Yigal Cohen-Orgad, is a former Israeli finance minister and Likud activist known for his right-wing views and support of settlement expansion.  He was recently appointed to the Steering Committee of the Yesha Council of Settlements, the key settler representative body in the West Bank.  Significantly, a long-time CJS faculty member and hi-tech expert, Danny Dayan, was elected in July 2007 as powerful head of the Yesha Council.

Livnat’s Ariel Dream

The CJS conversion to a university began in earnest two years ago under Ariel Sharon’s former arch-conservative nationalist education minister Limor Livnat.  Livnat has served as Vice Chairperson and Acting Chairperson of the World Likud Movement and opposed the Oslo Agreements.  Under Sharon, she pushed through a cabinet resolution in 2005 that considered the upgrading of the College in Ariel to be a matter of “national importance,” as an “impetus to bolstering the region’s higher education system,” and a way to attract new “populations” to settle there.  At the time, Livnat argued that the proposal was related to “the agreements between the US and Israel concerning the strengthening of the settlement clusters of Ariel, Gush Etzion, and Ma’ale Adumim.”  She compared the transforming of Ariel College into a university to the creation of the University of the Negev in Beersheva in 1969, then inspired by a “vision” of David Ben Gurion.

The growing student body of “Ariel University Center” today is drawn principally from the settlements, nearby metro Tel Aviv and central Israel.  Several hundred students are evacuees from the Gaza settlements given special tuition scholarships — this even though most families relocated from the Gaza settlements of Gush Katif received nearly half a million US dollars each in “removal compensation.”  Students and staff are overwhelmingly nationalist in ideology and generally supportive of the Occupation.  Long-term plans include a medical school, developing from its School of Health Sciences, and major expansion to accommodate 20,000 students by the year 2020.

“Courting” Arab Students?

The institution has a small number of Arab students, some 3.5%, and may seek to recruit more, in part to enhance its “image” as an “inclusive” campus.  Many Jewish students remain dubious.  Some critics, like Helen Freedman of Americans for a Safe Israel, think it is trying to project an “inclusive” image and to court a few Arab students and some Arab leaders in a calculated bid to hasten full recognition as a university open to “diversity” and free of “racism.”  Freedman also alleged that the CJS administration has steered clear of the Yesha Council and its far-right politics over the years, and discouraged “extremism” among students, and alludes to “disgraceful actions on the part of President Don Mayerstein [sic!] in his effort to woo Arabs and turn against the Jews of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, in order to gain the credentials he seeks for the college.”   The fact that Danny Dayan, a long-time faculty member, is now head of Yesha Council may portend new directions for the “University Center” in the vortex of West Bank settler politics.

Pro-Active Varsity Zionism

Distinctive features of this “demonstratively Zionist” campus are a Israel Heritage Department3 and a unique requirement that all students take a course in Jewish history every semester, a compulsory element unknown at other Israeli public institutions.  By standing regulation, the Israeli flag must be displayed in all classrooms, laboratories, and auditoria.  The “University” has a support group American Friends of the College of Judea and Samaria with an office in Brooklyn and is expanding in part due to the flow of generous contributions from North America.4  The campus is a living musée imaginaire of the Zionist national narrative and its territorial imperatives.

Arielizing the School Curriculum?

Significantly, the new education overhaul in Israeli Jewish public schooling recently proposed by the Likud Party headed by Binyamin Netanyahu follows a very similar ideological tack on the infusion of “heritage,” calling for a new curriculum on Jewish history, traditions, and Zionism: “Tools for teaching the curriculum will be provided to all teachers, regardless of their teaching subject, to integrate Zionist values into the general life of the school.”  The Likud leadership is alarmed that “many young people in Israel don’t understand why they live here” — certainly not the problem in Ariel.

Fortress Ariel

The ever expanding artificial “exclave” settlement of Ariel (established in 1978, now with some 20,000 residents) is at the core of the “Ariel Bloc,” which includes 25 other settlements, secular and religious, among them ultra-nationalist Kedumim.  The municipality has been keen to cultivate ties to Christian evangelical “Zionists” in the U.S. and elsewhere.  Palestinians view Ariel darkly.

Ariel is projected to expand by 50% over the next few years; it lies 25 miles east of Tel Aviv, connected to the metro Tel Aviv area by the Trans Samaria Highway, and 30 miles north of Jerusalem.  The plateau-top fortress remains one of the truly major obstacles blocking any reasoned hope of Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories.  In April 2005, the Gush Shalom Peace Bloc noted in a letter to Professor Moshe Kaveh, President of Bar-Ilan University:

The creation and maintenance of Ariel entailed and continues to entail untold hardships to the Palestinians who happen to live in the nearby town of Salfit and in numerous villages a long distance all around.  Palestinian inhabitants are exposed to ongoing confiscation of their land so as to feed the land hunger of the ever-expanding Ariel settlement, and their daily life are subjected to increasingly stringent travel limitations in the name of “preserving the settlers’ security.”

The demonstrative strengthening of this stronghold through the creation of a “university” beyond the 1967 Green Line needs to be spotlighted and opposed by a wide progressive front within Israel and internationally.

Building the Boycott of Israeli Academe throughout Palestine

The immediate occasion for the Gush Shalom letter to Moshe Kaveh was the boycott announced in April 2005 against Bar-Ilan University by British university lecturers, later revoked.  Published as “You Brought the Boycott Upon Yourselves,” the letter is all the more relevant now.

A boycott is imperative.  Pressure should be brought to bear on the Ministry of Education and the Ariel University Center’s former mother institution Bar-Ilan University to scale down and eventually close what is poised to become Ariel University, further consolidating Israeli settlement “facts on the ground.”  Academics, professionals, scientists, and students worldwide building a movement for a boycott of higher institutions of learning and research in Israel should raise the demand that the CJS revoke its unilateral move to upgrade into what is a “university of Occupation.”  In this, protesters can join hands with unlikely allies in the paradoxes of hegemony,5 such as current Education Minister Yuli Tamir.

Instead, the University should be challenged on moral turf, called on to spearhead a movement for Ariel to disband as a model mega-settlement within a historic decision of prime magnitude, a decision for a pathway forward out of the present morass.  Such a call for disbandment must be part of a concerted massive withdrawal from the West Bank, in the name of future Arab-Jewish “ta’ayush” — radical togetherness, synergy — and an end to the exclaves of dispossession and ethnic cleansing.6  The “Jewish heritage” the Ariel campus foregrounds should be a rage for justice.

Moral Culpability

If you have doubts about an academic boycott, see the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel.  Read Colin Green in the British Medical Journal on the “overwhelming evidence for deliberate and savage undermining of the health of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories” and the need for concerted international action by medical professionals.  Virginia Tilley’s defense of an academic boycott takes on renewed salience in the shadow of the turn in Ariel:

In democratic countries where human rights abuses abound as rampantly as in Israel, it is not tenable that faculty entertain and promote the notion that their institutions — cranking out the architects and professional foot soldiers of occupation — have no role in those abuses and can join in mixed company as fine upstanding members of the international scholarly club.  It is especially not tenable when universities themselves perpetrate discrimination in their research and their grants and admission policies.  University faculties are supposed to hold their institutions accountable to basic standards of objectivity, fairness, and non-discrimination.  Where they are capable of acting on those standards and refuse, the hack becomes the hypocrite.  Moral paralysis becomes moral culpability.7

This “moral culpability” ever more rank in wide sectors of Israeli academe is at the core of an ideological “geopolitics of settlement” that is now being struggled over inside the Israeli Zionist elites.  Anti-Zionist Israeli Jews, such as comrades in Anarchists Against the Wall and virtually all Palestinians anywhere oppose the very existence of the Ariel settlement, and most certainly the use of an educational institution as a tool in its bolstering and the broader geopolitics of the Zionist national imaginary.

Forward to an Arab Palestinian University in the Galilee

Instead of an apartheid university under the Ihtilal, an Arab Palestinian university should be established in the Galilee in northern Israel, to serve the Arab majority population there and elsewhere inside the Green Line.  The College of Sakhnin for Teacher Education in central Galilee, established in 2001, could with determination and special funding from abroad be rapidly expanded into the first Palestinian, Arabic-medium university at the center of northern Israel.

In May 2005, Mossawa, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel, called on the Education Ministry and the government to establish an Arab university in Israel’s north, preferably in Nazareth.  It was responding in anger to a plan by Education Minister Livnat to press forward with upgrading the status of the College in Ariel, now stark reality.  The original plan for an Arab college in Galilee to be creatively pioneered and rapidly built into a full-fledged Arabic-medium university was launched by the Council for Higher Education in Israel in February 2000 under P.M. Ehud Barak (himself then Education Minister as well), but was put on nationalist ice the next year under Sharon’s appointee Livnat.  It has been recently re-stressed in the key document “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel,” issued by the National Committee for the Head of the Arab Local Authorities in January 2007.  Sakhnin is likewise seen by many Palestinians as an appropriate space for such a paradigm experiment in people’s pedagogy.

Nazareth and Sakhnin lie in the “Heart of the Galilee” sub-region, which is nearly 80% Arab in population; the Galilee (al-Jalil) as a whole is some 52% Arab, despite repeated efforts of the state for its “Judaization” over nearly six decades.  The objective need cries out: an autonomous state-supported democratically administered Arab university is an imperative on anyone’s agenda of struggle for fundamental justice, equity, and an even playing field.  Any such university will be plagued by the paradoxes of ethnocratic hegemony in Israel, but can actively struggle to counter them, and to resist manipulation from above through the praxis of tsumud, untiring persistence with grit, from below.

For decades, a pattern has prevailed: Arab Palestinian academics raised in Israel frequently emigrate by sheer necessity of professional survival, and Israeli universities have but few permanent staff who are Palestinian.  Human Rights Watch notes that of the more than 5,000 teaching staff in Israeli higher education, less than one percent are Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, although the Arab population is nearly 20 percent of total Israeli population, and Arab students comprise about 9 percent of the present student body inside the Green Line (even some 18 percent at Haifa University).  Yet Haifa University, despite its comparatively large Arab student population due to its northern location, has only a handful of Arab faculty members.

Some Arab leaders say there are not enough Arab academics to staff any serious university venture in Israel, but that of course is a direct result of this process of forced brain drain and exile, and in effect a form of “de-Palestinization” of Israeli intellectual and academic topography.  Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish are two outstanding examples, Azmi Bishara is the most recent intellectual forced into exile.

Now is the time for renewed international advocacy of this necessary and fundamental vision of educational counter-hegemony.  The call for a boycott of Israeli academe here and now needs to be coupled with demands for the radical transformation of that academic topography, pressing for the creation of a public Arab university, perhaps building on the College of Sakhnin.  It is badly needed to serve the Arab Palestinian community, and especially students and adults from impoverished working families, inside the Israeli ethnocratic state.  The watchword is ¡ya basta! / khalas!.8


1  Henry Giroux’s analysis of the military-industrial-academic complex in North America (The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, Boulder: Paradigm, 2007) holds all the more so for Israel, probably the most profoundly and perversely militarized of any advanced industrial society.

2  This is well described from the inside by Michel Warschawski in his book Toward an Open Tomb: The Crisis of Israeli Society (Monthly Review Press, 2004); see also Warschawski, “The New Israel” (Monthly Review 56.7, December 2004), a version of Chapter 8 of Toward an Open Tomb.  Warschawski is founder and co-director of the Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem.

3  The department is known in Hebrew as “Moreshet Yisrael,” Israel Heritage, but is officially termed Department of Jewish Studies in the English version of the University website.  It explicitly states there: “The Department of Jewish Studies mirrors the worldview on which the Ariel University Center of Samaria was founded.”

4  An article in The Jewish Press  features an interview with Yigal Cohen-Orgad: Naomi Klass Mauer, “College Of Judea And Samaria: A Remarkable Israeli Success Story,” 21 March 2007.

5  Yoshie Furuhashi reminds us that force can never build an empire, let alone expand it (“Empire and Its Fixers,” MRZine 1 August 2007).  In a Gramscian sense, a critical mass of subjects, prepared by intellectuals, must “spontaneously” consent to the rule that subordinates them, or else the ruler cannot control the rest.  The struggle under Ihtilal and apartheid inside Israel is riddled with hegemony’s myriad often perverse paradoxes.  So we may find ourselves at times allied with elements that hegemony fuses together in odd even incongruous melds.  And hegemony can inculcate grim “toleration” even of the most gross inequities.

6  For a geographical analysis of the dynamics of enclavization and exclavization in Israel/Palestine, see Ghazi Walid Falah, “The Geopolitics of Enclavisation,” Third World Quarterly 26.8 (2005): 1341-1372.

7  See also Tilley’s broader argument in “The Case for Boycotting Israel: Boycott Now!” CounterPunch 5-6 August 2006. 

8  Re khalas!, Arabic for “we’ve had enough, no more of this bullshit!,” see the site of the Palestinian rock band Khalas based in the ancient city Akka north of Haifa: “They grew up denied their basic rights and services and for them it is time to send a message to the world that enough is enough… ‘Khalas’.”  The expression was long ago borrowed into Israeli popular slang.

Bill Templer writes on politics from several peripheries and teaches at a working-class university in the Thai provincial north.

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