Academic research collaboration emboldens Israeli apartheid

Diane Shammas, The Electronic Intifada, 14 September 2010

In July, Donna Shalala, the president of the University of Miami and former United States Secretary of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration, joined a 13-member delegation of American university presidents to Israel. The delegation’s main objective was to discuss opportunities for academic collaboration with Israeli universities and reciprocal exchange programs for student and faculty. The majority of these Israeli universities, if not all, have been implicated in war crimes and other human rights violations against Palestinian and Lebanese civilians (“Academic boycott against Israel? Umberto Eco misses the point,” Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, 10 July 2010). Prior to the delegates’ arrival in Israel, they drafted and sent individual letters to their executive counterparts at the Israeli universities, stating that they “clearly denounce[d] the boycott of Israeli academics” (“Shalala among delegation of university presidents to visit Israel,” University of Miami news release, 2 July 2010).

The karmic twist to Shalala’s visit to Israel was that in spite of her obsequious endorsement of the anti-boycott stance, she was not spared from a three-hour, humiliating interrogation and detainment upon her departure from the Ben Gurion Airport. Israel’s Ynet News reported that she was detained because of her Arabic surname (“American VIP humiliated at airport,” 6 August 2010). When later interviewed by the Miami Herald, Shalala dismissed the inconvenience of her detention as purely security protocol to ensure traveler safety. Leaving aside all speculations as to why Shalala, an Arab-American, did not speak out against the indignity of her treatment at the airport, the larger conversation should be the strategic marketing and funding of research partnerships between American and Israeli universities.

Research and development collaboration between higher education institutions amount to billions of dollars annually. In 2008, the federal government alone funded $31 billion for academic research and development expenditures of which $1.6 billion were passed through to other university sub-recipients, domestic and foreign (National Science Foundation). Apart from the steady growth of research collaborations with “Asian 8” countries, such as South Korea and Taiwan, the research partnerships between American and Israel universities have been consistently strong and significant.

Large corporate donors, like Coca-Cola Company and Quaker Oats, a division of Pepsi-Cola, subsidize many of these collaborative research projects between US and Israeli universities, due principally to their robust ties with the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce (“American Israeli Chamber of Commerce promotes academic and research exchanges between University of Minnesota and Israeli educational and research institutions,” American-Israel Chamber of Commerce press release, 10 August 1998).

While the actual number of US-Israeli research partnerships is not readily available, a proxy indicator is the annual percentage of collaborative science and engineering articles between the two countries. Israel has the third-highest percentage of co-authored articles, 52 percent, with American researchers, after South Korea (54 percent) and Taiwan (53 percent). It is important to point out here if the percentage of co-authorship for Israel appears inflated, it is because their co-authorship output with the US is greater than their considerably smaller educational infrastructure. Therefore, the National Science Foundation has corrected for the infrastructural disparities by placing Israel’s rate of co-authorship with US at 1.21, qualitatively speaking, “higher than expected,” along with similar rankings for South Korea and Taiwan. Shalala’s delegation specifically expressed an interest in collaborating with Israeli universities on the application of technological research to the manufacturing of marketable products.

Israel aggressively courts research partnerships with American universities by hosting academic delegations. For example, Project Interchange, an educational organization of the American Jewish Committee, sponsored Shalala’s delegation to participate in their week-long program. A brief portrait of Project Interchange will illustrate that these academic delegations are political-educational junkets, which subliminally promote a Zionist ideology along with coordinating potential partnerships with Israeli universities.

Project Interchange regularly sponsors academic delegations and conducts programs in a seminar format. According to their website, Project Interchange customizes the theme of the seminar to each group’s interest, but all seminars are framed within the broader discourse of Israeli culture, society and politics — with a predominant focus on Israeli foreign policy.

Project Interchange identifies itself as “non-partisan,” “apolitical” and [[an]] “educational organization.” If one carefully deconstructs the language that Project Interchange uses on its website to describe its seminars — “challenging and promoting dialogue” and “offering multiple perspectives on complex issues” — it feigns a non-partisan and apolitical agenda by reducing the Palestinian struggle against occupation and dispossession to mere differences of opinion among ostensibly rival equals — Palestinians and Israelis. The message conveyed, therefore, is deceptive, because it completely denies the existence of the relationship between the colonizer — Israel — and the colonized, the indigenous population. The subordinate reference to “also meeting with Israeli Arabs and Palestinians” blatantly exposes Israel’s relegation of the indigenous population to second class citizens.

Another component of Project Interchange’s seminar program is coordinated site visits to the Israeli and Arab/Palestinian communities. In July, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an account of one site visit by a member of Shalala’s delegation, a president from an elite East coast university, who lauds the multi-cultural efforts of the Jerusalem International YMCA Peace pre-school:

“‘Boker tov!’ ‘Sabaah al-khayr!’ ‘Good morning!’ The excited voices of the kindergarten students and their tri-lingual teachers make us all smile as our group of American academic leaders visit the International Jerusalem YMCA peace pre-school … In the preschool, which serves an equal number of Arab (Christians and Muslims) and Jewish students, young people don’t seem to know they’re from different backgrounds and they are supposed to hate each other but they are friends” (“What we can learn from Children,” 16 July 2010).

Even though the delegate acknowledges the preschool’s diversity, his latter remark about the surprising amity among Arab and Jewish children and declaration that “they do not seem to know that they’re from different backgrounds” demonstrates his racial and religious blindness. He blissfully dismisses this purported hatred between Jews and Palestinian Arabs as if it originates from a historical rivalry on equal footing rather than a deep-rooted power imbalance between occupier and occupied.

Moreover, what is astonishingly naive about his comment is that, as a university president, he is (or should be) cognizant of the racial tensions among minority student populations, and yet, he seems to be taken in by the artificial democratic setting of the Israeli preschool, which is precisely the falsely egalitarian image of Israel that Project Interchange is endeavoring to promote by their site visits.

In the final analysis, Project Interchange’s objective is to transform a research collaboration initiative into a commodified, politicized and hegemonic project that is an extension of the Israeli state apparatus. To this end, American universities’ collaboration with Israel’s educational institutions is complicit in the occupation.

The portrait of Project Interchange lends insight into how a United States-Israeli global network intercedes on behalf of US academic leaders to establish strategic research partnerships with Israeli universities. Because Israeli universities mirror the racist institutional structure of the Israeli government and the US enables the Israeli occupation, it is highly unlikely in the present political environment that any research collaboration between American and Israeli universities would comply with the guidelines outlined by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

In recent months, global boycott, divestment and sanctions have made enormous strides and have reported several victories in the areas of economic and cultural boycotts. To that end, American and Israeli university partnerships merit closer scrutiny in particular, as well as the intermediary organizations and the large corporate and private donors and binational foundations that annually fund billions of dollars to them (e.g., Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD), Binational Science Foundation (BSF) and Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund (BARD)).

Diane Shammas is of Lebanese/Arab American heritage, and holds a Ph.D in International and Urban Education and Policy, with a specialization in Arab American Studies. She currently teaches a course on social construction of race and citizenship. She recently lived in Gaza City for three months, taught at Al Azhar University (Gaza), and passed through the West Bank on her return to the United States.

I'm a teacher, writer, and activist based in Bangalore. I am dedicated to various issues including #BDS and Palestine, living Zero Waste, and reversing the effects of climate change.

Posted in Boycott, Boycott News, U.S. Academica, Why Boycott?!
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