Tel Aviv University’s role in settler-run archaeological dig “playing into hands of BDS,” Israeli academics complain

Dozens of academics from Israel and abroad, worried about the threat of academic boycott, have sent a petition to Tel Aviv University (TAU) requesting the cancelation of the university’s participation in the settler-run archaeological dig in the Silwan neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem.

The partnership between TAU and Elad’s project was revealed in October, and TAU’s Institute of Archaeology began digging in the “City of David” national park last week. Elad “is responsible for settling over 500 Israeli Jews throughout Silwan,” and the organization’s director “has himself been caught on tape admitting the digs he oversees endanger Palestinian homes situated above.”

The university’s response to what TAU archaeologist Prof. Rafael Greenberg has called “a clear politicization of research” has been to defend the dig on the grounds that it “will be carried out using modern scientific methods, at the highest professional standards, with particular attention paid to professional ethics.”

TAU is not alone in its relationship with the settler group’s project in Silwan; Hebrew University now offers an “Archaeological Field Summer School” at the City of David, where students can gain credit for the studies.

The organizers of the petition to TAU, worried about damage to their efforts to fight support for the Palestinian call for academic boycott, claimed that a boycott has already begun to bite. In the words of Prof. Sidra Ezrahi:

Tel Aviv University would be causing immeasurable damage to academia in general and to our desperate efforts to steer clear of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel in particular. We’re already getting cancellations of conference participation and this is playing straight into the hands of the BDS movement.

This follows a familiar pattern whereby so-called liberal critics of Israeli government policies are motivated by concern for the country’s international image and a desire to combat the BDS campaign. For example, opposition in 2008 to freedom of movement restrictions on Palestinian students from the West Bank was partly due to the assumption that the policy helps “those who are trying to impose an academic boycott on Israel.”

Tel Aviv University’s role in occupation

In fact, TAU’s relationship with the Elad dig in occupied Silwan is not even the half of it, in terms of the university’s complicity with grave violations of international law and human rights abuses.

TAU is proud of its intimate relationship with the state and the military. As the Winter 2008-2009 edition of TAU’s Review put it, the university “is at the front line of the critical work to maintain Israel’s military and technological edge.” In the same issue, President Zvi Galil boasted of “how much TAU contributes to Israel’s security,” adding that he is “awed by the magnitude and scientific creativity of the work being done behind the scenes at TAU that enhances the country’s civilian defense capabilities and military edge.”

Plenty of work indeed. The Review refers to “defense-related research throughout the TAU campus,” with MAFAT, “a Hebrew acronym meaning the R&D Directorate of the Israel Ministry of Defense,” funding 55 projects at TAU (correct as of January 2009).

TAU’s ties to the military that enforces the colonial occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is illustrated with a few examples (from many). An estimated 50 percent of students in the Security Studies Program “belong to the middle and upper echelon of Israel’s defense establishment,” a course designed to equip them “with new conceptual tools and concepts.” The program is headed up by Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel, a Major General (res.) in the Israeli military, who also runs TAU’s decade-old Science, Technology and Security workshop. In the words of Ben-Israel: “Military R&D in Israel would not exist without the universities. They carry out all the basic scientific investigation, which is then developed either by defense industries or the army.”

TAU also offers a special engineering program for soldiers who excel, with dozens of students a year participating in the IDF Academic Reserve Program that supplies them, according to Dean of Exact Sciences Prof. Haim Wolfson, “with an open-minded academic approach, skill set, and expertise for key research posts in the army.”

Meanwhile, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), an “external institute” of TAU, “operates seminar, workshop, and lecture programs jointly with the National Security College, IDF Command, and National Security Council.” At a December 2008 conference, the INSS head noted that “we are now on the threshold of Tel Aviv University campus and this proximity is more than geographical proximity of buildings — it is a fertile and mutually stimulating proximity.”

It was the INSS which published IDF Major-General (res.) Giora Eiland’s paper advocating “the destruction of homes and infrastructure and the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people” in a future attack on Lebanon. The TAU-affiliated think tank also published a paper by Colonel (res.) Gabriel Siboni, recommending that the IDF devastates “economic interests,” “centers of civilian powers” and “state infrastructure” in Lebanon, as a way of “meting out punishment” that will “demand long and expensive reconstruction processes.”

Long, shameful legacy

These are some examples of TAU’s complicity with Israel’s colonial and criminal policies, a legacy that goes all the way to the Nakba: TAU campus includes land belonging to the destroyed village of Sheikh Muwannis, with the home of the former village sheikh now serving as the university’s faculty club. The case for boycott is much bigger than a politicized archaeological dig.

News of the petition came as final approval was given by Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak for the University Center of Samaria located in Ariel settlement to be granted full university status. This is a development also seen by some as a blow to efforts to fight the academic boycott campaign, with one petition arguing that the decision will mean “an inevitable identification between the entire Israeli academic community and the policy of settlements and occupation.” As BDS opponent Bar-Ilan Prof. Jonathan Rynhold put it: “[the Ariel upgrade] makes [the anti-boycott] case much more difficult to make.”

Yet that “identification” between Israeli academia and the occupation already exists – and the case for academic BDS rests on the intimate relationship of institutions like TAU with the fabric of the state’s security-military apparatus guilty of routine apartheid and war crimes as part of a decades-old military regime. Silwan and Ariel are just the tip of the iceberg, and the more this complicity is exposed, the harder it will be for international institutions to justify official links with Israeli universities.


Ben White

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Ben White is a freelance journalist, writer and activist, specialising in Palestine/Israel. His articles have been widely published in the likes of The Guardian‘s Comment is free, Al Jazeera, Electronic Intifada, New Statesman, and many others. He is the author of ‘Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide’ (2009, Pluto Press) and ‘Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination & Democracy’ (2012, Pluto Press). Ben is a researcher/writer for the Journal of Palestine Studies.