Why Anthropologists Must Boycott: Israeli Attacks on Academic Freedom

This is the second post in a series advocating that the AAA endorse an academic boycott against Israel. For more general information on BDS, see our first post. This past….

This is the second post in a series advocating that the AAA endorse an academic boycott against Israel. For more general information on BDS, see our first post.

This past May, Palestinian students at Haifa University requested permission to hold a formal commemoration on campus for the more than 600 Palestinian villages destroyed in the course the Nakba (the mass expulsion of Palestinian residents that accompanied Israel’s founding). When administrators denied their request, students decided to gather informally without flags or banners. They were not in violation of any university policy.

But even this silent commemoration was too much for administrators. Haifa University organized a raucous dance party on the quad to disrupt the informal gathering. During the event, representatives of the student union taunted those present and police officers were sent in to intimidate and later disperse the Palestinian students.

This event is just the latest in a longer pattern of abuses to academic freedom.1 In recent years, every major Israeli university has engaged in some form of censorship on research and events perceived to be critical to the state — from suppressing commemorations of the Nakba to censoring human rights curricula and even banning scholarly texts on the occupation. At the same time, Israeli universities play a crucial role in maintaining the occupation and discriminating against minority groups.

Supporters of the Israeli occupation frequently criticize boycotts as a violation of academic freedom. But, in fact, the opposite is true. The policies of both the Israeli state and of its universities constitute an assault on the basic rights to education. These violations affect not only universities in the occupied Palestinian territories, but also those within the 1949 armistice lines, like Haifa University. In order to protect the educational rights of all of Palestine/Israel’s inhabitants, we should refuse to cooperate in a system which contributes to the occupation, discriminates against Palestinian students, and punishes political dissent.

Assaulting Palestinian Univeristies

The Israeli army treats Palestinian universities not as centers of knowledge production, but as one more target in a sixty-year long military occupation.

The latest example of this came just this past week, when the Israeli army launched raids on the campuses of Birzeit University, Al-Quds University, and the Arab-American University in Jenin, causing extensive damage to buildings and facilities in the process.

One of the Birzeit University offices raided by Israeli forces this week.
One of the Birzeit University offices raided by Israeli forces this week.

At the same time, the Israeli military also converted Palestine Ahliya University near Bethlehem into a temporary detention center.

These latest raids are by no means a recent development. From 1988-1992, Israel forced Birzeit to shutter its doors entirely. Shorter closures have affected virtually every Palestinian institution of higher learning.

Tear gas and damage to the Al Quds University Science building resulting from  an Israeli raid in 2013. Photo by Rima Najjar.
Damage to the Al Quds University Science building resulting from an Israeli raid in 2013. Photo by Rima Najjar.

Nor are they infrequent. The Israeli army fires rubber-coated bullets and gas canisters on campus so often, that one English lecturer we know at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem carries anti-tear gas remedies in her purse every time she goes to teach. While the effects of the gas can be managed, the constant disruptions to her lessons resulting from the raids are harder to cope with.

The effects of Israeli attacks on universities are even more palpable in the Gaza Strip. In 2009, Israel bombed the campus of the Islamic University, destroying computer labs, scientific laboratories and the campus library.2 Meanwhile, the seige on Gaza has made it difficult to acquire even the most basic educational materials, such as paper and books. And, thanks to harsh Israeli restrictions on movement, young Gazans face great difficulties in accessing higher education outside of the strip: Israel bars Gazan students from attending universities in the West Bank and has repeatedly prevented them from participating in the Fulbright program or attending American universities.

Beyond disrupting student learning, these restrictions on university life make it extremely challenging for foreign academics to form productive research partnerships with their Palestinian colleagues. In addition to dealing with the uncertainty and restrictions on movement that life under military occupation entails, arbitrary visa regulations for foreign researchers and draconian import rules interfere with the ability of Palestinian universities to be centers of research.

Despite these serious violations of academic freedom, Israeli academic institutions have been conspicuously silent on these issues.3 Given the complicity of Israeli academic institutions in the occupation, their silence should surprise no one.

Not innocent bystanders: Israeli Universities and the Occupation

Israeli universities are not innocent bystanders in the occupation of Palestinian territories. They actively participate in it.

Some university campuses are built directly on occupied lands. The recently upgraded Ariel University is built entirely on an illegal settlement. Hebrew University of Jerusalem, founded within the 1949 armistice line, has recently expanded its campus beyond the Green Line. And Herzog College, a smaller academic institution, is located in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc.

Moreover, virtually all Israeli universities collaborate with the Israeli army to develop the weapons soldiers use in maintaining the occupation. For instance, both the Technion and Weizmann Institutes have built academic programs in coordination with Israeli weapons manufacturers, including Elbit and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Amongst the more notorious results of these close partnerships is the Caterpillar D9 remote-control bulldozer, responsible for destroying thousands of Palestinian homes in the West Bank.

Israeli universities have likewise played a crucial role in developing some of the most heinous military strategies used in the occupied Palestinian territories. Perhaps the best known example of this is the development of the Dahiya doctrine – a military strategy “involving the application of disproportionate force and the causing of great damage and destruction to civilian property and infrastructure” – by Tel Aviv University’s Institute of National Security Studies. This military doctrine resulted in widespread civilian deaths and destruction of property in the 2009 Gaza War.

Increasingly, Israeli academic institutions are also mobilizing to justify Israeli violations of human rights to the world. During the 2009 Gaza war, the Herzilya’s Interdisciplinary Center in close coordination with Israel’s foreign ministry set up a “war room” in order to defend Israel’s military actions on the internet. Since the war’s conclusion, these programs have become more widespread. Today, students at Tel Aviv, Ariel, and Haifa Universities can receive  credits for taking courses in hasbara, learning slick social media strategies designed to justify the Israeli military occupation under the guise of “public diplomacy.”

Universities in Israel are thus not simply spaces for learning. They have become the centers where the ideas and weapons that Israel uses in its occupation are developed and disseminated.

Anti-Palestinian Discrimination on Israeli Campuses

Just as they participate in the Israeli state’s occupation of Palestinian territories, so too do universities further the state’s discrimination against its own minority populations. In fact, within the Green Line, Israeli campuses are on the front line of wide-ranging assault on the principle of equality.

Perhaps the most explicit example of university racism in recent years came about in 2009, when the Carmel Academic Center ended its program in accounting because the majority of incoming students would be non-Jewish. Caught on tape, the institute’s financial backer explained: “If it is a majority Arab, we can’t allow ourselves, because we can’t allow ourselves an institution that will be categorized as Arab.“

By and large, however, discrimination against Palestinian students operates through structural forms of legalized racism, rather than through such overt means. Israeli laws allow universities to provide preferential admissions and financial-aid support to reservists soldiers. But while conscription is mandatory for Jewish citizens, most Palestinian citizens are exempt from national service.4

As a result, discrimination against Palestinian students is institutionalized at every level of university life. Palestinian students are de facto excluded from many scholarships and face tougher entry requirements than their reservists classmates. Haifa university even conditions access to dormitory residence on a student’s fulfillment of army service.5

The results of widespread discrimination in Israel are evident in educational outcomes: Although over 20% of Israeli citizens are Palestinian, the account for only 9.5% of BA students, 4.8% of MA students, and 3.2% of Ph.D.s. Only 1% of professors at Israeli universities are Palestinian.

Universities in Israel actively contribute not only to the occupation, but also to Israel’s system of legal racism. As the students at Haifa University learned, these discriminatory practices do not stop after admissions.

Silencing Dissent: Restrictions on Research and Expression on Israeli Campuses

Once on campus, Palestinian students and academics face an atmosphere of widespread hostility. The Haifa University Nakba Day protests were just the latest example. In the past, Israeli universities have canceled speakers, banned gatherings, and even arrested peaceful demonstrators against Israeli military operations. They have even canceled the screening of award-wining documentaries about the occupation on campus because they were “too political.”

Violent restrictions on education are by no means limited to hindering Palestinians’ student activities. Faculty at Israeli institutions also face increasing limits to their research agenda, especially in cases where their research is deemed too critical of the Israeli occupation. In 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu prevented Rivka Feldhay from participating in a German academic institution because of her support for soldiers who refused to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories .

Similar political interference nearly shut down Ben Gurion University’s Department of Government and Politics, after prominent politicians expressed displeasure over the views of some of its professors. In the end, the department narrowly escaped closure, but only after it implemented changes to its curriculum and hired several “state friendly” researchers to mollify their critics.

While it can be hard to quantify this kind of censorship, the persistence of such stories indicates that this is more than a few isolated incidents: they are evidence of a persistent atmosphere of intimidation towards Palestinians and political dissidents on Israeli campuses.


While some individual scholars have bravely denounced the violent and discriminatory policies of the state, Israeli academic institutions remain complicit with both the belligerent military occupation in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza as well as the discriminatory practices within the Green Line. We have been asked by a united Palestinian civil society to withdraw our support for such practices. Given the policies of Israeli  universities documented in this post, we believe that we must honor this request to endorse the academic boycott.

As a scholarly association, the AAA has an obligation to to support our colleagues, wherever they may be. Israeli military raids on Palestinian universities, discrimination against Palestinian students, and restrictions on academic research represent grave violations of academic freedom.

Meanwhile, Israeli universities do not merely remain silent in the face of these acts; they actively perpetuate them, both through their partnerships with the Israeli army and in their censorship of students and professors Until such time as the Israeli government respects the principles of human rights and academic freedom at universities in Palestine/Israel, the AAA ought to withdraw any form of support from this discriminatory system.

It is not only academic knowledge in the abstract that plays a role in maintaining the occupation. Our own discipline’s archaeological techniques are also being used by the Israeli state as a weapon of war. But we will get into that more in the next post.

  1. In this post, we cite some of the most egregious violations of academic freedom, almost all of which occurred in the past five years. In writing this post, the biggest problem we had was whittling down the numerous examples of Israeli restrictions on the right to education to fit a short blog post. (The first draft of this post – which still did not cover even a fraction of recent violations – was well over 3000 words!) For more extensive documentation of these abuses, we recommend starting with: “Academia Undermined: Israeli Restrictions on Foreign National Academics in Palestinian Higher Education Institutions“; Al Rased’s 2011-2012 annual report; the Alternative Information Center’s report on the Academic Boycott of Israel
  2. A subsequent UN fact finding mission confirmed that “These were civilian, educational buildings and the Mission did not find any information about their use as a military facility or their contribution to a military effort that might have made them a legitimate target in the eyes of the Israeli armed forces.” 
  3. To date, we know of no Israeli university or faculty senate that has passed a resolution condemning the frequent closures of and raids on Palestinian universities. With only a few notable exceptions, Israeli academics have likewise been largely silent on the issue: only 45% (n=407) of the 9000 Israeli professors who were asked to signed a 2009 petition in support of Palestinian academic freedom. One contributing factor to this silence is no doubt the atmosphere of intimidation and censorship on college campuses, which we cover below. 
  4. Discrimination on the basis of military service affects areas of life well beyond the university as well. For this reason, the U.S. State Department has criticized these discriminatory policies: “Citizens who do not perform military service enjoy fewer societal and economic benefits and are sometimes discriminated against in hiring practices.” 
  5. One particularly stark example of how these policies affect campus life occurred at Safed College, located in the majority-Palestinian Galilee region. In 2012, at the urging of the college president, the student union altered its bylaws to make army service a precondition to serving as it president.  As a result, the 60% of university students who are Palestinan are no longer eligible to run for the office.