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Israel’s Universities: The Crackdown

Neve Gordon and Penny Green
Last October, Palestinian students and academic staff in Israel faced unprecedented penalties for their speech. Now the repression persists. 

AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean

Israeli police arresting a demonstrator at a protest against the criminal prosecution of Professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Jerusalem, April 19, 2024

On April 18 Israeli police arrested the scholar Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian at her home in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem. Now sixty-three, she has researched the state repression of Palestinian children in East Jerusalem for decades, but the police’s arrival at her door was still a shock. They confiscated her cell phone, her computer, posters made by the nonprofit Defense for Children International, and multiple books by Mahmoud Darwish, and charged her with suspicion “of severe incitement against the State of Israel for statements made against Zionism and claims that Israel is currently committing genocide in Gaza.”

Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, is the Lawrence D. Biele Chair in Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (She is also a colleague of ours at Queen Mary University of London.) For six hours the police interrogated her about her academic articles and public statements she had made since October 7. They then shackled her wrists and ankles and took her to the Russian Compound, a detention center located near the Jerusalem city hall. She told Haaretz that a policewoman strip-searched her, cursed her, accused her of being part of Hamas, and told her to “burn” and “die.”

A second officer took her to a cell, threw a mattress on the floor, and locked her in. “I was shivering with cold,” she remembered.

I asked for a blanket, and they brought me one that smelled of garbage and urine and was also wet. I sat on the bed until morning, my ears and nose started to bleed, I threw up, washed my face, and went back to bed. I don’t know how something like this happens to someone my age. The light was very strong and there was noise. The cold was terrible, my teeth were chattering, even though the blanket smelled and was wet, in the end I covered myself with it because I couldn’t stand the cold.

At a hearing the following morning, the state prosecutor asked the Jerusalem Magistrates Court to extend Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s detention. The judge, lacking evidence that she posed any danger, dismissed the request; she was released on bail. Since then, she told us in a recent conversation, she has been summoned for three further interrogations.

Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s scholarship casts light on Israel’s degrading and inhumane treatment of Palestinian children and youth: according to Defense for Children International, in the decade leading up to the current Gaza war, close to a thousand children were killed and thousands incarcerated by Israeli soldiers and settlers; in 2019 alone, the UN reported, nearly 1,500 were maimed by Israeli forces. She calls such practices “unchilding,” a process of harsh subjugation. “Although I research these things,” she told Haaretz, “I never felt them on my flesh.”

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On October 26—by which point Israel had killed over seven thousand Palestinians in Gaza, of whom nearly three thousand were children—Shalhoub-Kevorkian signed and circulated a petition titled “Childhood Researchers and Students Calling for Immediate Ceasefire in Gaza.” The petition, which has now gathered 2,492 signatures from scholars around the world, demanded an immediate ceasefire and an end to “Western-backed Israeli genocide” and the “egregious violation of Palestinian children’s rights.”

Three days later Hebrew University’s president, Asher Cohen, and its rector, Tamir Sheafer, sent Shalhoub-Kevorkian a letter. They were, they wrote, “astonished, disgusted and deeply disappointed” by her decision to sign the document—an act “not very far from crimes of incitement and sedition.” Israel’s actions in Gaza, they insisted, did “not come close to the definition of genocide.” Hamas’s massacre of October 7, on the other hand, met it “completely.” “We are sorry and ashamed that the Hebrew University includes a faculty member like you,” they concluded. “In light of your feelings, we believe that it is appropriate for you to consider leaving your position.”

Members of the university community went on to disseminate the letter on social media, where Shalhoub-Kevorkian met with a barrage of hateful messages and violent threats. But everything she had said and done was within the law, and her tenure protected her from dismissal. In effect, the university’s leaders had resorted to bullying her into leaving.

Shalhoub-Kevorkian decided to stay. The following March she was interviewed on the podcast Makdisi Street and made comments for which she was further targeted. She referred to Israel’s policy of withholding the corpses of Palestinians whom it had killed in military operations or who had died in custody—a practice widely documented by rights groups like B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch as well as in a series of Supreme Court cases since at least 1981. Later the conversation turned to the perception that Israel was using allegations of sexual violence committed by Hamas militants on October 7 to justify violence in Gaza. She denounced sexual abuse in no uncertain terms. “I will never approve it, not to Israelis nor to Palestinians and not in my name…. If a woman says she is raped I will believe her,” she said. “The issue is, is Israel allowing proper collection of evidence?…We don’t see women coming out and saying what happened, so women’s bodies are being used as political weapons.”

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Soon after a reporter on Israeli television mentioned these remarks, a member of the Knesset—Israel’s parliament—named Sharren Haskel called on Hebrew University to intervene. In a public statement in response, the president and rector reiterated that they were ashamed that Shalhoub-Kevorkian was on their faculty. Accusing her of “cynically” using free speech and academic freedom to “divide and incite,” they suspended her from all teaching responsibilities. They ended by declaring the institution a Zionist university, implying that it has no place for non-Zionist or anti-Zionist students, faculty, or staff. After a series of letters from faculty members—who argued that the president and rector had overreached their authority—and academics from abroad, the university’s leaders met with Shalhoub-Kevorkian and canceled the suspension on the grounds, Haaretz reported, that she had clarified her position about the rape charges. She was arrested three weeks later.

What explains the intensity of the attacks against Shalhoub-Kevorkian? Her story underlines how fragile academic freedom can be when it comes under political pressure. It also offers a window into the assault that Palestinian students and staff in Israeli higher education have suffered since October 7. In the three weeks following Hamas’s attack, well over a hundred Palestinian students in Israel, nearly 80 percent of them women, faced disciplinary actions for private social media posts that supported the end of the siege on Gaza, celebrated the bulldozing of the Gaza border fence, expressed empathy with Palestinians in the Strip, or simply included memes about suffering Palestinian children. When word got out of arrests, investigations, suspensions, and expulsions, many Palestinian students and faculty stopped posting or sharing on social media. Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s treatment months later made it clear that this wave of repression had hardly abated.

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With the exception of a handful of mixed primary and secondary schools, which cater to about two thousand of Israel’s more than two million schoolchildren, Israeli universities are the only educational institutions where Palestinian and Jewish students meet. Over the years enrollment has risen among Palestinians, who make up twenty percent of the country’s citizens and currently comprise just over 16 percent of bachelor’s degree students, 11 percent of master’s students, and 8 percent of Ph.D. students. They have long been subject to disproportionate penalties for their speech. In her book Towers of Ivory and Steel, the anthropologist Maya Wind reports that in 2002, at the height of Israel’s military offensives in the West Bank, Palestinian students at the University of Haifa were suspended for peacefully protesting.* At the time they comprised a minority of the student body, but between that year and 2010 they made up over 90 percent of the students summoned to disciplinary committees. Between 2010 and 2015 they remained three times as likely to be summoned as their Jewish peers.

In 2007 the Knesset passed the “Students’ Rights Law,” which specifies that “an institution will establish and publicize, in accordance with the provisions of this law, a behavioral code for the behavior of applicants and students regarding their studies at the institution, including behavior during class and while at the institution’s facilities, as well as in the student dormitories.” Nowhere does the law give higher education institutions the authority to monitor and persecute students for their extramural statements or activities, including posts on private social media accounts. Yet many disciplinary committees have since overreached their authority to do precisely that. 

Even Palestinian students keenly aware of earlier periods of repression could not have anticipated just how widely universities would disregard such protections after Hamas’s attack. The suspensions began within days. By October 9 the human rights organization Adalah, which works with Palestinian citizens of Israel, had received a request to offer legal assistance to seven Palestinian students temporarily suspended from Haifa University. Unlike Shalhoub-Kevorkian, they were punished for posts shared among friends or on private social media accounts. The university’s rector, Gur Alroey, told Haaretz that their posts amounted to expressions of support for the attack. Elsewhere the Israeli media reported that he had sent the students a curt email: “In light of your statement on social media, and your support for the terrorist attack on the settlements surrounding Gaza and the murder of innocents, you are suspended from studying at the university until the matter is investigated.” Adalah, in a legal petition earlier this year, stressed that the students had “repeatedly made clear that they oppose violence against civilians.”

Normally Adalah deals with a handful of student complaints a year. Now, however, it was inundated with dozens of requests for legal representation. It became clear that right-wing organizations like Im Tirtzu—which monitors faculty members as part of its “Know the Anti-Zionist Israeli Professor” project and according to a Jerusalem District Court ruling has “fascist characteristics” —were mining Palestinian citizens’ posts on social media. Soon Zionist students were assembling portfolios of their Palestinian classmates’ private accounts.

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At the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology, students circulated a PowerPoint presentation on WhatsApp and Telegram that included screenshots of social media posts alongside academic information about sixteen Palestinian students and brief explanations of the “offences” they committed. In the document, which was shared with us by Adalah, one student was outed for liking an Instagram image of a bulldozer breaching the fence surrounding Gaza. Zionist students at universities and colleges filed scores of complaints against their Palestinian classmates, who within days were subjected to investigations, disciplinary proceedings, suspensions, and expulsions, often without hearings. A number of institutions evicted accused students from their dormitories.

On October 12 Israel’s minister of education, Yoav Kish, who chairs the country’s Council for Higher Education, issued a letter directing universities and colleges to “immediately suspend any student or employee who supports the barbaric terrorist acts experienced in the State of Israel, or who supports a terrorist organization, an act of terrorism, an enemy or an enemy state.” All such statements, he wrote, amounted to incitement to terrorism. “In cases where incitement is confirmed,” he went on, universities had to “issue permanent expulsions or terminations.” On October 17 Kish passed a resolution requiring universities to report to the council on how they had dealt with such students who “incite and support Hamas.” University leaders were outraged that the government seemed not to trust them.

Some universities were flooded with complaints. A few set up screening committees to sift through social media posts and determine which students to suspend while a disciplinary committee deliberated whether the students in question could continue their studies. These committees, wittingly or not, also assisted their institutions in censoring students. Bar Ilan University tweeted that it had established a committee made up of academic, legal, and security experts to examine statements made by members of the university community that identified with terrorism or engaged in incitement or racism. The tweet included the rector’s email address, to which people could send complaints.

AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian appearing in court after her arrest on charges of incitement, Jerusalem, April 19, 2024

“Within two weeks after the attack,” the attorney Adi Mansour, who works for Adalah, told us, “we found ourselves representing seventy-four Palestinian students in twenty-five institutions of higher education, including thirteen from Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and the seven from the University of Haifa.” Several other students were represented by Academia for Equality or private lawyers. The vast majority were suspended, according to Mansour, for expressing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, demonstrating compassion for their suffering, or quoting verses from the Quran. In most cases the institution noted that as part of the procedure it had also sent the details of students under investigation to the police.

Lubna Tuma, another attorney with Adalah, related to us that several students were arrested, interrogated, and even indicted for posting an image from October 7 of Palestinian children rejoicing on a captured military jeep. The students were stripped, searched, and humiliated. A twenty-three-year old Technion student told The Washington Post that, after posting a cooking video on October 8 with the caption “today we eat victory shakshuka,” she underwent three strip-searches and was woken up for roll call every hour of the night. Some were slapped and pushed; several alleged that the guards had exposed them to the cold, offered them food not “fit for animals,” moved them from facility to facility, and held them in closed-off rooms for hours on end before transferring them to grossly overcrowded cells. The same Technion student told PBS Newshour what had happened to other female students in her cell: “I had my hijab, but the other girls, they seized them from their bedrooms and did not allow them to put veils on their heads. Then they put garbage bags on their heads.”

In another case, some sixty police officers stormed a student’s family home. At work when he learned about the raid, he went to the police station, where he was interrogated, then taken to Megiddo Prison and held in what lawyers described as “deplorable conditions.” After two weeks, he was released in the middle of the night. No charges were ever filed against him.

Adalah’s lawyers accompanied university and college students to their disciplinary hearings. Tuma, who has gone to more than seventy disciplinary procedures during the past eight months, described them to us as farcical and draconian. In one case she represented a student who was suspended for sharing the Quranic verse “Their appointed time is the morning. Is not the morning near?” on October 7. In a reversal of the presumption of innocence, Tuma remembered, the judges expected the student to convince them that he did not support terrorism. They asked him why he had not shared posts condemning Hamas or demanding the return of Israeli hostages.

The crucial offense, in many of the hearings, seemed to Tuma to be “hurting the public’s feelings.” But how, she asked, can you prove that the public’s feelings were hurt, particularly by posts shared only on private accounts with small groups of friends? And who, for that matter, is meant by “the public”? “In the imagination of most of the academic judges sitting on disciplinary panels,” she said, it “seems to denote only Israel’s Jewish citizenry.” Tuma recalled one hearing at Ben-Gurion University in which the disciplinary panel invited a student whose family members were killed on October 7 to prove that the post in question was hurtful.

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In some cases the disciplinary panels gave their verdict, only for right-wing students to take matters into their own hands. At Ben-Gurion, a panel decided not to suspend a Palestinian nursing student who shared a video clip denying some of the violence that took place on October 7. Instead the institution reprimanded her and asked her to volunteer for forty hours of community service. Students in a WhatsApp group responded to the verdict with a threat: “If she stays in this degree, no one will begin the year—the university will be turned upside down.”

The university announced that it would appeal the panel’s decision, and according to Haaretz, the rector, Chaim Hames, sent the student an email, again using bullying rhetoric: “It seems wrong to me that you should return to school tomorrow as if nothing had happened. I recommend that you do not come to class tomorrow and that for the next few days, study by yourself in the library or anywhere else you see fit.” In the appeal, the student was found guilty and suspended for a term—but since all the courses in the nursing faculty are a year long, she was effectively suspended for twice that time.

This was not the only or first appeal to popular justice. Already on October 16 the chairperson of the National Union of Israeli Students issued a letter suggesting that Palestinian students who allegedly supported terrorism be removed from universities and colleges. Not two weeks later, a group of Zionist students tried to break into the college dorms in the city of Netanya, shouting “death to Arabs” as police stood by. In January, a video clip circulated on Facebook showing students at Emek Yezreel Academic College draped in Israeli flags, standing on a classroom podium, declaring that they will “not sit in the same class with supporters of terrorism.” By Christmas, Palestinians were asking lawyers whether they could share images of Santa Claus standing amid the rubble in Gaza on social media. Many Palestinian students who could afford it started looking for alternative university options overseas.

Individual faculty members have contributed to this hostile climate. In October a professor at Hebrew University posted a video, now taken offline, in which he compares Hamas to Nazis and advocates for a “Nakba 2” in Gaza. In an October 27 op-ed for the right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon, also now taken offline, Eviatar Matania, a political scientist at Tel-Aviv University, called for the complete destruction of Gaza City and the establishment of a park in its place. Neither professor was subjected to disciplinary action. But when, on October 14, twenty-five staff members at Haifa University wrote a letter criticizing the suspension of Palestinian students without due process, over 10,000 people signed a petition demanding that the staff be dismissed.  

Palestinian academic faculty are a small minority: they make up just 3.5 percent of the country’s university teaching staff, and they are almost always the only non-Jewish staff member in their academic departments. They too were targeted. On October 29 Arye Rattner, the president of Kaye Academic College of Education, sent a letter notifying the school’s staff that the college administration had received several complaints about social media from students and faculty members. “Management,” he wrote, “decided to act with a heavy hand and zero tolerance towards these cases,” including by expelling a student from her studies and firing an academic staff member. “Publications condemning the activities of IDF soldiers defending the State of Israel,” the president stressed, “will be met with zero tolerance.”

Jewish faculty members were not entirely immune. On October 25 Yoseph Frost, the president of David Yellin Academic College for Education, summoned Nurit Peled-Elhanan, a renowned scholar who studies the portrayal of Palestinians in children’s Hebrew textbooks, to a disciplinary hearing. She was charged with sending messages on a staff WhatsApp group that criticized the conflation of Nazis with Hamas and invoked Jean-Paul Sartre’s discussion of anticolonial violence. To Frost, these WhatsApp notes evinced “understanding for the horrific act of Hamas” and “justification of their criminal act.”

The disciplinary committee was satisfied with reprimanding Peled-Elhanan, but she resigned. “The values ​​we used to know have long since been overturned,” she wrote in a Haaretz editorial explaining her decision:

To say that [Hamas’s] attack and massacre occurred in a context, and that it was not an antisemitic pogrom born out of nowhere, is considered a more terrible crime than murder in this country…. Words have become dangerous and lethal bullets legitimate. People who use words are persecuted while murderers enjoy impunity. A person who burned an entire family to death is considered righteous, while anyone who dares to acknowledge the suffering of the residents of Gaza or the West Bank is denounced as a supporter of terrorism.

In mid-November Achva Academic College, between Tel-Aviv and Beer-Sheva, fired a lecturer named Uri Horesh for two posts on his personal Facebook page: on October 7, he had changed his cover photo to one that says “Free Ghetto Gaza” in Hebrew; a week later, he posted a call to “end the genocide now” and “let Gaza live.” More recently Im Tirzu has been mining petitions signed by academic staff and sending the names to student groups, which then demand their universities fire the signatories. At Sapir College, located not far from the Gaza Strip, a lecturer named Regev Nathansohn signed a petition calling on the Biden administration to stop transferring arms and related funds to Israel. He was maligned as a supporter of terrorism, and wrote to the rector that he felt unsafe on campus. In response, he told us, the university approved an unpaid leave of absence for six months, though he had requested no such thing.

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On October 24 the Committee of Academic Freedom of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies—which one of us, Neve Gordon, chairs—sent a letter to the presidents of every Israeli university stressing the importance of defending the rights of individuals to express views that others may find offensive or challenging. It also highlighted the institutional duty to care for Palestinian students under attack. Three college leaders replied by characterizing Israel as an island of civilization in the midst of barbarism. Six days later, BRISMES, as the professional association is known, sent President Frost, of David Yellin Academic College for Education, a letter charging that his interpretation of Peled-Elhanan’s text was prejudicial. Frost responded with a letter that said, among other things, “tread carefully.”

The crackdown has clearly not subsided. On Monday the Knesset member Ofir Katz, the current coalition’s parliamentary whip, introduced a bill dedicated to “removing terror from academia.” It would, in the words of The Jerusalem Post, “force academic institutions to fire faculty members who make statements that negate Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state or support terror activities.” The faculty members in question, it stipulates, would not receive a severance package. Academic institutions that fail to comply would be financially sanctioned.

The bill has the backing of the National Union of Israeli Students, which on Sunday, in a well-coordinated campaign, hung billboards on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway bearing decontextualized quotes from Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Professor Anat Matar of Tel-Aviv University. Matar was singled out for publicly mourning the Palestinian political prisoner Walid Daqqa, who died in custody this past April after thirty-seven years in prison, despite having been diagnosed with cancer in 2022. His corpse is being withheld by the prison authorities.  

Adalah’s General Director, Hassan Jabareen, represented Shalhoub-Kevorkian this past April in the hearings on her detention. In his closing remarks, he stressed that all her comments, including her criticism of the military, fell under legitimate free expression. Her case, Jabareen noted, was unprecedented in several respects. It was the first time in Israel’s history that Section 144d of the Penal Code—the provision criminalizing public incitement and incitement to racism—had been “brought against an academic to extend her detention”; the first time that “an academic had been investigated by the police over scholarly articles published in English-language international journals”; and the first time that the police arrested someone in part for citing factual accounts of Israel withholding the bodies of dead Palestinians.

Jabareen also stressed that 150 professors from the Hebrew University had signed an open letter condemning Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s detention. But there is little chance that a small group of dissenting scholars will stem the assault on freedom of speech within Israel’s higher education system. On the contrary, the events of the past seven months suggest just how closely the country’s universities are aligned with the imperatives of the state.

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