Institutionalizing occupation: the ‘University’ of Ariel

In the U.S. slavery was an accepted, normal institution for the first 140 years of the country’s existence. While American universities are now trying to come to terms with their historical corroboration with slavery, Israel is just beginning to institutionalize its system of oppression through accreditation of the Ariel settlement college. 

By Louis Frankenthaler

Universities are meant to be institutions of higher learning and safe places for students to challenge the system, or support it as they see fit. In a democratic society we must accept and promote these principles zealously.

In Israel, these principles are constantly threatened, most recently by the preposterous idea to upgrade the already established academic settlement in Ariel. A settlement university, our government has decided, is indispensable to promoting the ‘peculiar institution‘ of the Occupation. Universities are normal parts of healthy societies. Therefore the University of the Occupation’s function is to contribute to Israel’s delusion that the occupation is natural, normal and sustainable.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once again sought to erase the occupation from our consciousness by appointing a panel of three jurists which recently issued a foregone conclusion that it is not, in fact, an occupation.  But committees cannot legitimize the illicit just by waving a wand.  Israel’s authorities needed to go a step further, and ensure that this ‘once-occupied’ area becomes a regular part of Israeli life. That’s why the Ariel campus was originally established and that’s why it has now been upgraded to a new category of “University Center.” At present, it awaits the signature of the Minister of Defense to make it into a “University.”  The only discourse that has been acceptable to the government surrounding this entire process was the “academic qualifications” of the Ariel institution. Although the media (traditional and otherwise) was critical of this process, the government continued to assert that their decisions were academic alone.

This move embodies a striking lack of historical consciousness. In the United States, for example, many universities in the South and in the North as well were involved in one way or another with slavery.  In “The Other Side of Paradise” Prof. Mark Auslander notes:

Diverse college and university campuses with origins before Emancipation embody a potent paradox. Architecturally and spatially, they present tangible models of idealized utopian spaces, earthly apparitions of the promise of Heaven. Yet these utopian imagined communities rest, at times uneasily, upon under-acknowledged histories of violent coercion, in the form of slavery and slave trades.

At the very least, the new “University” in Ariel seeks to occupy a similar “utopian space.” Discourse around it is coercively directed, by the Education Ministry, (as it draws on a few of Israel’s right-wing Nobel Laureates to back the settler university), to its supposed academic qualifications as opposed to its legal and political desecrations.  CNN recently reported that many universities in the United States are recently coming to terms with their involvement in the slave trade, and are even engaging in high level academic research.

It’s a conversation taking place on campuses around the country as they, too, discover and come to terms with their past ties to slavery. It’s a history shared by Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; Emory University in Atlanta and Harvard University, the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. All admit they benefited from their relationships with slavery. Some, like Emory, were physically built by the manual labor of slaves. Early university presidents and leaders at Harvard were slave owners. Still other schools were built with money made from the slave trade.

Why make such an analogy to slavery?  Does the occupation in Israel evoke slavery in the U.S.? While not the same, slavery and the occupation are part of similar discourses in use at particular historical times.  In the U.S. slavery was an accepted, normal institution until its final abolition. In Israel the occupation is accepted and normalized. Both were and are immoral, systematic and organized violations of collective human rights. There was opposition, even radical opposition to slavery, yet it continued before independence and was accepted as an integral institution through the first 140 years of American history.  The abolitionists were not well received by the public, nor by the state (sound familiar?). Brown University’s Committee on Slavery and Justice found:

[The] American Anti-Slavery Society… Founded in 1833 by William Lloyd Garrison, the society was far more radical than earlier abolitionist movements, insisting not only on the complete abolition of slavery but also on African Americans’ right to full American citizenship…The campaign provoked a furious backlash, with northerners and southerners alike denouncing the abolitionists as irresponsible fanatics bent on racial amalgamation. While Congress responded with a law prohibiting the circulation of abolitionist literature (my emphasis) through the mails, mobs burned anti-slavery publications and assaulted abolitionist speakers. One historian has counted more than two hundred anti-abolition mobs in the antebellum period, with 1835 marking the peak of activity (Read More about this here).

The anti-slavery movement in some ways resembled the anti-occupation movement.   However, like today’s occupation apologists slavery’s defense was multifaceted.  It was justified, supported and allowed to exist for far too long and by far too many “respectable” people:

Writing under the pseudonym “Phocian,” DeSaussure argued that equality as a natural condition would lead inevitably to emancipation and that “inevitable ruin would follow both to the whites and blacks, and this fine country would be deluged with blood, and desolated by fire and sword.” In locating slavery within a network of unequal relations, Ford and DeSaussure were able to defend it as a positive good, and argue for its necessity for freedom and independence: Ford’s argument that, “The constant example of slavery stimulates a free man to avoid being confounded with the blacks: and seeing that in every instance of depression he is brought nearer to a par with them his efforts must invariably force him toward the opposite point,” is but a short step away from the insistence of antebellum pro-slavery intellectuals that slavery was the guarantor of yeoman independence. Read More here.

Universities were established, built and thrived while the institution of slavery continued.  Today universities are seeking to reflect and learn from their history.  Unfortunately in Israel we refuse to learn.

Instead, we establish the University of the Occupation. If we, as a society, were to look in a mirror, would we see our reflection shout back at us “slavery?”  The question of the University in Ariel is not academic.  It is a political and moral question.  Do we, as a society, accept the institution of the occupation or reject it?

Louis Frankenthaler lives in West Jerusalem. He is a parent, partner, human rights worker, research student, volunteer and an intermittent writer.