Italian students launch the “Studenti Contro Il Technion Campaign” to support BDS

The “Studenti Contro Il Technion” campaign

On January 29th 168 Italian scholars from more than 50 universities signed a pledge calling on their institutions to cut ties with the Israel institute of Technology (Technion) in Haifa. The number has soared rapidly, topping 332 signatures last week. The petition follows similar endorsements by scholars and academic associations across Europe, the US and South Africa.

During the IAW (Israeli Apartheid Week) 2016, students’ associations and groups across Italian campuses have initiated the “Studenti Contro Il Technion” campaign, embracing Michel Foucault’s claim: “Knowledge is not for knowing, it is for cutting”. However, the events organized for this occasion have been met with a clear “closure” attitude by their universities. The Deans of the universities of Turin and Cagliari have denied the students the spaces for conferences about BDS, basing their decisions on the absence of a “counterpart” in the programs. Students have on the contrary rejected their Deans’ claims and recalled that when it comes to “criticizing” the State of Israel, Italian institutions have often attempted to resist and impede these forms of peaceful resistance, de facto preventing the opinion of the oppressed to be heard. They have therefore occupied rooms inside the university premises and carried out their IAW program despite the Deans’ denial.

As a matter of fact, this is not the first time Italian universities choose not to allow open criticism of Israel’s violations of Palestinians’ rights. In 2014, the University of Roma Tre revoked at the last minute the space for a lecture to be given by the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, renowned for his stand in support of the Palestinian cause. Likewise, the University of Catania has followed a similar trend with regards to the SeSaMo (Middle Eastern Studies Society) conference scheduled from 17 to 19 of March, where the panel on BDS and PACBI has been mysteriously cancelled ten days before the beginning of the event, resulting in a heated debate among participants.

These events mark a relevant step forward for the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement and the PACBI (Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) campaign in Italy. The academics’ call and the students’ reaction to that have not only prompted discussion over the academic and cultural boycott of Israel at the university level, but has also paved the way to heated reactions on local media.

The Technion, the “MIT of Israel”

Technion is a well-renowned institute of technology in Haifa, considered to be the “MIT of Israel”. Among the best institutes in Israel, Technion can count on a very high number of partnerships around the world, based on short- and long-term projects in different fields of science.

The universities of Cagliari and Torino are only two among the Italian institutes that have signed agreements with Technion. The Deans’ justified the ties stressing on the positive outcomes that this partnership may have. In addition, they highlighted that all shared projects focus on water and nanotechnology, therefore rejecting the accusation of complicity with the Israeli military industry.

However, Technion directly collaborates with the Israeli military apparatus: it has received significant financial support by ELBIT and RAFAEL – two of the most prominent Israeli military industries – in order to develop innovative military technologies such as drones and the renowned Israeli Caterpillar D9 armoured bulldozers, the latter used to illegally demolish Palestinian villages and houses. Moreover, Technion fosters its students to finish their compulsory military service. For example, it granted more than the academic benefit usually provided to those military reservists who took part in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-2009.

In addition, the partnerships focusing on water and on other scientific fields are a further attempt to disregard the ethical role that science should play in the contexts where it is applied. The discriminatory system through which water is taken away from Palestinians to be distributed to Israeli citizens on a non-equal basis is just one of the several examples. “Stating that those projects go beyond ideology and politics means to be “out of the world”, given that technological development and progress in those sectors is just another way to perpetrate human rights violations, apartheid and colonialism in Palestine” read a public written statement by the student group “Studenti Contro Il Technion”.

A pattern of complicity hindering freedom of expression?

“Israeli Academia is complicit with apartheid” read a banner hanged in the middle of the university campus courtyard in Turin. The academic and cultural boycott of Israel is meant to uncover the significant role that knowledge plays as instrument of hegemony, especially in the context of oppression and colonisation. Here academia becomes a means of propaganda to spread the greatest scientific achievement to external agents, while at the same time hiding systematic human rights violation committed internally. “German universities have produced very high quality science in the 30s, and same was in South Africa during the apartheid. If academia is complicit with grave and systematic violations of human rights, as it is the case of Technion and other Israeli universities, they have to be held accountable for those, regardless of the “good science” produced”, said Omar Barghouti in an interview with Il Fatto Quotidiano.

Italian scholars at the present day seem divided, with the vast majority of professors and researchers that remained silent on the question of the academic boycott. However, clearly recalling the case of South Africa, students have denounced this as no less than a passive stance that shows complicity with apartheid: “When looking at situations of oppression, being neutral is equivalent to taking the side of the oppressor”.

The denial of university premises is a clear evidence of the stance taken by Italian Deans, and further constitutes a dangerous limitation to freedom of expression. This confirms an ambiguous trend across Europe when observed in the broader context of the national attempts to contrast the BDS movement through legislations restricting freedom of expression. This is the case of France, where BDS has been criminalised, and of the UK, where the government is planning to ban publicly funded institutions from boycotting business in the Israeli illegal settlements in the OPT.

Will this campaign reach a further momentum, is a question that we leave to future developments. What matters at the moment is that the BDS movement has confirmed once again its increasing capability and appeal among youngsters and civil society across Europe. In addition, it has contributed to further disclose a pattern of complicity with the Israeli apartheid system that is hindering freedom of expression in Italy and in other European countries.

Students Against Technion – Turin University, Italy.