Towers of Ivory and Steel

This new book is an invaluable resource for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions applied to Israeli universities, argues Ian Parker


The subtitle of Maya Wind’s excellent timely book Towers of Ivory and Steel just published by Verso is “How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom.” It does what it says on the tin, and much more. Maya Wind, a Jewish-Israeli academic currently based in Canada, gives a history of Israeli universities, institutions that are busy reaching out for links with other universities around the world, busy legitimising the Israeli state while it commits genocide in Gaza. She shows that they have played a vital ideological and practical role from the Nakba onwards in sustaining apartheid, and (to use a word much-disliked by Zionist apologists for the state while they are energetically providing their own “context” for ongoing dispossession and mass murder), she “contextualises” Israeli academic institutions, effectively providing a broader history of the Israeli state and Palestinian self-organisation.

Each chapter of the book begins with a present-day outrage, an example of the colonial-settler nature of Israeli universities. This gives us an on-the-spot and as near-as-possible up-to-date insight into what Palestinians are facing. But things have moved so fast since the book went to press, and with such brutality in Gaza, that the description that Maya Wind offers must now be re-contextualised, and the message of the book repeated in these times of Gaza-genocide in relation to specific instances of repression and resistance.

Uncannily timely

For example, in Manchester we have been organising a memorial lecture each year since 2005 for Tom Hurndall, a photography student at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) who was murdered by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). The guest lecturer this year, on 19 March, was Professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian. The lecture took place at Cross Street Chapel in the packed main hall, and was followed by a break for Iftar, and then a panel discussion (which also included Ghassan Abu-Sittah, Izzat Darwazeh, Lara Sheehi and Stephen Sheehi) to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Tom’s death.

This is the first year that the lecture could not take place in MMU (something that the local UCU branch is in negotiation with the university about, this to ensure the lecture returns to MMU in future years). This is an academic event, and a book of the first sixteen lectures (which includes a chapter by Lara Sheehi, who has herself been forced out of her academic post at George Washington University) is now available to download free.

Our publicity for the Hurndall Memorial Lecture event, and for a discussion of the work of Frantz Fanon in the University of Manchester the following day alongside Lara and Stephen Sheehi, authors of a path-breaking Fanonian book about psychoanalysis in Palestine, listed Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian as having an academic post at Queen Mary University London (which she indeed does have). We deliberately did not indicate that Nadera was also Professor of Law at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Why? Because Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) apply to institutions, to the breaking of institutional ties with Israeli state institutions, not to individuals, and we wanted to be clear that a public lecture or invited seminar discussion should not give legitimacy to Israeli universities. We do that while actively engaging with those academics in Israel who are speaking out against the apartheid state.

The week before the Hurndall lecture, and after repeated attempts to force her to resign, Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian was suspended from Hebrew University, a university where she was a student and post-graduate student, after she publicly called out the genocide of her people in Gaza and called for the “abolition” of Zionism. There have been many letters protesting against Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s suspension, including by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies. A Jewish Hebrew University professor (an activist who has been in prison for refusing to serve in the Israeli military), Yuri Pines, has apparently resigned in solidarity from administrative tasks (though his position at the university hangs in the balance, and, at time of writing this, he is attempting to speak out while hanging on in there).

There was a call for the boycott of the Hebrew University signed by hundreds of academics in a statement that mentions Maya Wind’s book Towers of Ivory and Steel as a go-to account of why BDS is now an urgent task for everyone concerned with Palestine solidarity, or at the very least with academic freedom. Other statements and motions at university union branches have already referenced the Maya Wind book. It is indeed an exceptional invaluable resource, and it shows very clearly exactly how and why the position of radical anti-Zionist academics, and particularly Palestinian academics in Israeli universities has always been difficult, and is now near-on impossible.

Academic freedom

Alongside “pink-washing” cover-up propaganda for the Israeli state (which is covered in detail in a chapter in the Hurndall Lectures book), the myth of “academic freedom” in Israeli universities is a potent and hypocritically ideological motif to oppose growing calls for BDS. As Maya Wind notes, she speaks as a research insider with access not only to internal debates but many archive materials that are not publicly available.

Israeli universities present themselves in their brochures and websites as happy open places where Jewish and Palestinian students sit around on the grass laughing with each other. Nothing could be further from the truth, a truth about ongoing exclusion and repression that is painstakingly documented in the numerous scholarly footnotes to the book; each claim is backed up, and the picture is coloured in from interviews.


The oldest universities in what is now Israel actively participated in the Nakba, offering support to the Zionist military forces driving out the Palestinians, and celebrated this fact. In this, there was, of necessity, a peculiar double-think at work in the history of these institutions that also characterises that of other Israeli state bodies. At one and the same time, there is a denial that there were people that were being displaced – the line that Palestine was a land without people for a people without land – and there is participation in the process, acknowledgement of the existence of the Palestinians that is now embedded in a peculiar way in the academic “research” that is carried out by university departments.

The author Maya Wind
Maya Wind

Maya Wind also documents how the university campuses are themselves built on Palestinian land, in many cases occupying villages that were emptied of people. In a detailed case example of Tel Aviv University, she shows as how the campus takes on the “qualities of a military base”. Meanwhile, she writes, “Hebrew University operates as a besieged-yet-hegemonic fortress serving a select part of the city’s population, and as a militarized base for the ‘Judaization’ of Palestinian East Jerusalem”.

This is part and parcel of the “legally codified and unidirectional transfer of ownership, wherein 93 percent of the land became Israeli state land that now legally and permanently belongs to the collective ‘entire Jewish people’;” this is the construction of a settler-colonial apartheid state.


One of the most remarkable aspects of Maya Wind’s book is the use that she makes of her access to documents that are in Hebrew, and that are not usually made public. This gives us an insight into the inner shape of specific academic disciplines. She draws on these documents to show the intimate connection between state practice and academic practice. The three specific disciplines she describes are archaeology, legal studies and “Middle East studies”.

Archaeologists in the university departments, for instance, play an active role in highlighting certain kinds of “evidence” of a Jewish history on parts of the land and the erasure of Palestinian history, and this has direct consequences for the enclosure and control of land; “Israeli archeological practice establishes an ‘evidentiary terrain’ to substantiate the identity of the land as an intrinsically Jewish space.” So, “All Israeli universities collaborate with the Staff Officer of Archaeology to conduct archaeological excavations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories”.

Legal advice from university departments is a crucial part of the ongoing support for military operations, designating, for example, Palestinians who stand in the way of occupation as legitimate targets, as the so-called “third population,” that is “persons who appear to be noncombatants but may potentially interfere with Israeli military.” Meanwhile, Middle East Studies systematically render the objects of study, “Arabs,” as other; “this form of expertise is termed Mizrahanut (Orientalism, literally translated),” and so Arabic is treated as a foreign language to be decoded, not spoken with, not at all a space for dialogue.

Very few Israeli Jews speak Arabic, and the situation is not much better inside the universities. Thus, “Arabic became ‘frozen’ in Israel—a language to be decoded and deciphered, to be read but not spoken—and taught mostly in Hebrew,” and so the aim is to “comprehend or decode ‘Arabs’ but never come to know them.” In sum, Wind shows us that “Israeli universities are not independent of the Israeli security state but, rather, serve as an extension of its violence”.

These disciplines are indirectly linked to the explicit process of “hasbara” (“explanation” in the form of propaganda initiatives targeting critics of the Israeli state) which has deliberately drained the time and energy of non-Zionists and anti-Zionists. Hasbara provokes “questions” that are designed to confuse and trip up activists, the kinds of questions that, in the worst cases, lead activists, usually unwittingly, into conspiracy-inflected accusations that are then seized upon as evidence of antisemitism. In practice, the continual low-level insinuation that criticism of Israel amounts to antisemitism is the opposite of the open “dialogue” it pretends to be.


The physical displacement of Palestinians and collaboration with the murderous practices of the Israeli state since before 1948, with the foundation of the state, and then over the following decades, have enormous costs for Palestinians who still live around the university campuses, and Maya Wind describes in detail the encroachment of the institutions on neighbouring land. What this also means is that the lives of Palestinian students are made intolerable, and the very few Palestinian lecturers and professors appointed to teach and research in the universities are subjected to harassment and, when they speak out, punishment.

There is chilling historical account in the book of the way that limited inclusion of “Arab” students was facilitated as part of an apparatus of “birth control,” the rationale being that to educate an Arab would be to stop them from breeding. Maya Wind is especially attentive to the position of Palestinian women students and academics, making clear the intersectional nature of oppression; Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, for instance, is a feminist academic, and Hebrew University have been making demands on her to apologise for her remarks in such a way as to undermine her as a Palestinian and as a feminist.

This all makes a mockery of the much-vaunted tenets of “academic freedom”, and the claims made on public university websites and course handbooks. As with other forms of apartheid, there is a pretence at “inclusion” which is belied by the actual treatment of an indigenous population corralled into specific tightly-controlled areas. So, there are numerous restrictions on what are called “unauthorized associations,” and the Israeli state had, when the book went to press, deemed “unlawful” over four hundred student associations.

The message that comes through again and again in Towers of Ivory and Steel is that the most appropriate radical response to a system of apartheid is, as it was in South Africa, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS): Wind reminds us that “in 2005, 170 Palestinian civil society groups—including trade unions, refugee rights associations, women’s organizations, grassroots popular committees, and NGO networks—came together to launch the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement”.

Solidarity and dialogue

Active solidarity in this case needs to take the hypocritical proclamations of academic freedom made by the universities at their word, to insist on free open dialogue in such a way as to also expose the brutal limits that are placed on that “dialogue” by the Israeli state. The Israeli universities really are towers of “steel;” as Wind points out, their “recommendations include ‘maligning and incriminating’ BDS activists for connections with organizations construed by Israel as ‘terrorist’ or human rights violators, disclosing personal histories of activists.”

A widespread, and deliberately propagated confusion by the “hasbara” training programmes and their graduates is that BDS means cutting out and excluding Israeli Jews from dialogue; we hear time and again the claim that BDS is a personal affront, an attack on individual Israeli academics. Maya Wind’s book is also a counter to that misconception. BDS actually enables a more radical and productive “dialogue” to take place with each and every Israeli academic who is willing to participate in it, but in such a way that draws attention to the institutional limits on dialogue that are woven into the practice of the Israeli state. BDS does not target individuals, but institutions; refusing, for example, to allow Israeli academics to speak for their institutions, from their institutional positions. BDS confronts the way that Israeli academic institutions legitimise the racist nature of the Israeli state.

This is why, for example, when Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian was listed as a speaker for the Hurndall Memorial Lecture, it was in her capacity as a Global Professor at Queen Mary University of London, not as a Professor at Hebrew University. Her work is one of the case studies in Towers of Ivory and Steel: As Maya Wind puts it “Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s decolonial scholarship—on what she calls ‘state criminality’—challenges the hegemonic frameworks of Israeli academia”. Her academic activity is resistance from within, work that can only be sustained by our internationalist resistance outside the state.

Destruction and resistance

There is now, of course, ongoing physical destruction of the university system in Gaza, the latest onslaught happening since Towers of Ivory and Steel went to press. What Maya Wind shows us is the underlying logic of Israeli academic practice that makes it part of the apparatus and ideological legitimation of this latest stage of genocide of the Palestinian people.

Where there is power, however, there is also resistance. Many activists now know, from the campaign to close down Elbit systems, that “Developed through collaborations with Israeli universities, Rafael, IAI, and Elbit are Israel’s leading military corporations and global exporters of technologies of war”. Elbit likes to present itself as a “world leader in the design and manufacture of drones,” and trades on recruitment that makes it seem friendly, non-sexist and sexy at the same time. Thus “Israeli universities are critical nodes in the state’s military-industrial complex, sustaining Israel’s apartheid regime.”

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s steadfast refusal to resign her position, and the campaign to defend her when she was suspended has now, temporarily at least, borne fruit. The suspension has in the last few days been lifted, and we also are seeing solidarity with the Palestinians in universities around the world; the latest instance is the election of Ghassan Abu-Sittah as Rector of the University of Glasgow (a position once held by Lord Balfour) with 80% of first preference votes.

This book is a weapon, enabling us to “end the colonization of Arab lands and dismantle the military occupation and the wall; second, recognize the right to full equality of Palestinian citizens of Israel; and third, respect and promote the right of Palestinian refugees to return.”

Maya Wind is the best example of scholar-activist, speaking about her work, making it accessible and useful. Reading and putting into practice the critique made by this book is part of a process of active resistance inside and against Israeli academia, a process that is of a piece with the best most open aspects of scholarly work.

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Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyst and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.


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