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  • Preston J. Werner

On Barak Medina’s Review of Maya Wind’s Towers of Ivory and Steel

Preston J. Werner

 

When I read a review that makes a book or article sound like it is of remarkably poor quality, I find myself compelled to read, or at least glance at, the original book or article. I suppose this is the academic’s version of slowing down to look at the horrific car crash, or rushing off to read a book because you saw it on the ‘banned book’ list in school. While I am a bit embarrassed by this tendency, I’ve recently learned, from discussions with others, that it is not so uncommon in us academics.

 

It is with this morbid curiosity that, after reading Barak Medina's scathing review of Maya Wind’s Towers of Ivory and Steel, I immediately rushed off to get a copy of the book and see for myself. Unfortunately, in this case, my desire to see shameful and unprofessional scholarship was frustrated.

This would have been the end of the story; however, Medina’s review was then included in an official email sent to all staff at the Hebrew University, rendering it the university’s quasi-official statement and policy: On the book, Wind’s abilities as a scholar, and how to respond to them. Because I work at this university, and thus this blog post now in some way represents me, I felt compelled to publicly share my disagreement.

 

In this post, I aim to defend three claims, divided into three sections:

  1. Medina’s review of Wind’s book significantly misrepresents its contents.

  2. All academics, at Israeli and non-Israeli universities alike, have reason to read Wind’s book. To read it critically, yes, but to read it.

 

The sections are interlocking, but may be read independently. If you don’t care what I think, note that section 1 is largely factual, unlike section 2 which is argumentative.

 

  1. Comparing Medina and Wind; Discrepancies

 

Before diving into substance, let me make two notes. First, Medina is quoting from the hard copy of the book, while I only have access to an e-copy. Unfortunately, Verso, the publisher, did not ensure that these would align. Thus, my page number references do not match his. Second, there is a phrase, “system of violence” that Medina quotes Wind as saying to describe Israel (he cites p.208 and p.12, respectively). This phrase does not appear anywhere in the book, on these pages or elsewhere. Medina has reported (in private correspondence) that this was simply a slip up, but that it captures the spirit of Wind’s view. I don’t know whether Wind would describe Israel as a “system of violence”, but nothing substantial hinges on this, so I set it aside.

 

Wind assumes without argument that her background framework is true (Medina, Section 1)

 

To assess this claim, we need to consider, piece by piece, Wind’s alleged assumptions. Here are the concepts and claims that Medina gives in the course of his discussion here:

-        Israel is a settler colonial state.

-        The state of Israel is “Occupied Palestinian Territory”

-        Palestinian citizens of Israel are “occupied citizens”

-        Wind “strongly opposes the idea of a Jewish and democratic state”; Israel does not have a right to exist.

-        Palestinians have a right to self-determination and Jews do not

-        The Israeli army is “evil” and “absolutely wicked”.

 

Settler colonialism

Wind does believe that Israel is a settler colonial state. This is clear. However, to say that she assumes it is misleading at best. It is true that Wind only spends 4 pages (18-21) discussing the framework of Israel as a settler-colonial state, but she explicitly defines the concept and then cites no less than 14 sources, including two United Nations reports and 10 scholarly books and journals, in service of showing that (a) the conditions are met in the case of the Zionist movement, and (b) The view that Israel is settler-colonial is not at all “radical” in the discipline (sociology) in which she works. Even if this defense could be more detailed, citing and building on the knowledge and research of others within an established framework is part and parcel of good scholarship.

 

Occupied Palestinian Territory

Wind uses the phrase “occupied Palestinian Territory” and its shorthand “OPT” dozens of times in the course of the book. (You can find most of its mentions in the index of her book, but I searched my e-copy of the book to find a few more as well.) She consistently, on every occasion, is using it to refer to the West Bank and/or Gaza, not Israel, and when necessary makes clear that the OPT is distinct from Israel proper. To illuminate, let me compare Medina’s claim with the text he is citing in support of it:

 

Medina: “Wind not only suggests that Israelis should join “the struggle for Palestinian liberation” (p. 16), but even refers to the place where parts of the book were written, probably the State of Israel (not the West Bank!), as “the Occupied Palestinian Territory” (p.  208)” (Relevant page number in the PDF is 195)

 

Wind: “Palestinian students across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory are on the front lines of the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality…The work on this book began in the Occupied Palestinian Territory” (emphasis mine)

 

Medina again states that “[i]t is telling that Wind chooses to ignore the distinction between the West Bank, which is an occupied territory, and the State of Israel.”

However, simply stated, she does not do this at any point in the book. To be sure, Wind is critical about actions surrounding the founding of the State of Israel. However, this is quite distinct from failing to recognize a distinction between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

 

Palestinian Citizens of Israel are “Occupied Citizens”

Wind does make this claim; however, (a) it is made once, in passing (p.112) - clearly not a foundational assumption of the book - and (b) she is actually merely quoting (approvingly) previous scholarly research on Palestinian citizens of Israel. (The phrase was coined by Sultany 2012; picked up by Sabbagh-Khoury 2022; both articles have been well-cited.)

 

Opposition to a Jewish and Democratic State

Does Wind believe that, as a Jewish and Democratic State, Israel does not have a right to exist? While I don’t know Maya Wind, I highly doubt that this is the vision she has in mind when she speaks of “decolonizing” Israel. (Medina seems to prompt this in his readers when he speaks of “decolonization” using the violent wording of “dismantling”. In fact, Wind only uses the word “dismantle” when referring to ending Israel’s occupation or alleged apartheid policies (pp. 14, 18, 189)).  Instead, if her political milieu is anything to go by, Wind favors a single binational state which is neither Jewish nor ‘Arab’.

 

Whatever one thinks of the feasibility and desirability of a binational liberal democratic state or confederation, it represents a legitimate and serious scholarly tradition which was once an influential branch of Zionist thought. It was even endorsed by many of the first faculty members at Hebrew University itself, including Judah Leon Magnes (the first Chancellor of the university) and Martin Buber. It does not entail the removal of or harm to Jews in Eretz Israel. The scholarly literature on decolonization, in general and with respect to Israel and Palestine, is complex, and what decolonization looks like varies from proposals of shared sovereignty over lands, reparations, or even institutional exercises in restorative justice.

In sum, then, whatever Wind might say about Israel as “Jewish and democratic”, she certainly is not (neither overtly nor, in my impression, implicitly) committed to the claim that Israel does not have a right to exist, contrary to what  Medina seems to be suggesting. (For more on Wind’s thoughts on decolonization in the cases of other states, see her Epilogue.)

 

Clarifying the scholarly notion and implications of decolonization and Wind’s endorsement of it in the Israeli case allows us to address Medina’s next claim, that Wind believes that Palestinians have a right to self-determination while Jews do not. First of all, she does not say this anywhere in the book. She does criticize Israel as settler-colonial, but that is about the means of ensuring self-determination, rather than the right. It is uncontroversial that rights to self-determination are limited by the rights of other people and Peoples. Her claim - which Medina may reject - is that the history of Israel involved self-determination at the cost of the rights of Palestinians. She may or may not be wrong about this, but it is not holding the Jewish people to a double-standard. If she endorses a binational state or confederation, as I suspect, then her view about Jewish and Palestinian self-determination is in fact the same. (Whether self-determination for a Nation requires the right to a Nation-State  is a tricky question I won’t attempt to answer here.)

 

Finally, Medina says that Wind assumes that the Israeli army is evil and absolutely wicked. Wind never uses this language to describe the IDF (or anything else) in the book. Medina is right that she is very critical of the IDF. However, it seems to me that “evil” and “wicked” impugn conscious and intentional motives on individual actors within these institutions, and it isn’t clear that Wind thinks this. It is standard sociology (perhaps since Arendt) to understand that systems of various sorts can result in systemic harm even independent of the intentions of any individual actors within that system. (At the individual level, in psychology, this is known as “bounded ethicality”.) Wind, throughout the book, provides several case studies of alleged war crimes and violations of international law that members of the IDF have committed. Examples begin each chapter, and are also scattered throughout most sections of the book - they were too numerous for me to easily count. These examples are almost always (though not always) tied in directly with her discussions of the connections to Israeli institutions of higher education. I could not find an instance of her accusing any individual actors of bad or evil intent. (They may exist, but they are few if so.)

It is true that these are anecdotal. But in a book who’s central thesis is trying to establish a longstanding pattern of something in which the data is complicated, messy, and not easily quantifiable, it is difficult to imagine what else she may have done instead. This perhaps raises the question of why she doesn’t speak about positive things the IDF has done, which Medina raises in the review. I’ll return to this issue below.

 

Critical Sociology

 

Medina stresses in several locations that Wind is arguing from a particular (and in his opinion biased) perspective. He is right: This book is not an even handed assessment of all of the effects, positive and negative, that Israeli universities have on Israeli policy or Israeli society.

 

This is why, as with all books within this genre, they should be read critically. But it would be a mistake to infer from this that the book is poor scholarship or illegitimate. Methodology in sociology is a much larger issue than could be covered in this review, nor is it anything I am competent to speak on. However, the idea of “critical sociology” - that is, sociology that does not strive to be “value-free” or “neutral”, is a methodological approach to the discipline which has been endorsed by a considerable plurality of sociologists going back to the early 20th century and includes several influential and respected contributions to the field.  Indeed, it is considered “best practices” in this subfield to not strive for objectivity, but instead to be explicit and upfront about the framework and assumptions that one is starting with, which, as we have seen, is exactly what Wind does.

 

Textual Comparisons

 

Let me conclude this section by considering three more discrepancies between Wind’s book and Medina’s descriptions of it.

 

Begin with the following:

 

Medina

Wind

On one level, many of the examples presented in the book refer to the activities of individuals, not institutions. Consequently, drawing conclusions about “Israeli academia” from these sporadic examples is misleading. For instance, consider the subchapter devoted to Israeli international law scholars. Wind suggests that this group of researchers “create a discursive and legal infrastructure to justify Israeli violations of international human rights law and the laws of war, continually developing legal interpretations that shield the Israeli state from accountability for its illegal military tactics” (p. 24). She argues that “[l]eading departments and scholars […] have subordinated their intellectual inquiry to the requirements of the Israeli state” (ibid). However, Wind’s argument relies exclusively on the work of one(!) scholar who holds an adjunct (i.e., non-tenure track) position(!) in a center affiliated with one university.

"Dominant paradigms in diverse disciplines are entangled with, and structurally complicit in sustaining, Israeli apartheid and military occupation, and their ongoing infringements of Palestinian human rights. Leading departments and scholars across disciplines have subordinated their intellectual inquiry to the requirements of the Israeli state, as illuminated by three representative case studies.

First, the discipline of archaeology...Second, legal studies—including ethics, law, and criminology—create a discursive and legal infrastructure to justify Israeli violations of international human rights law and the laws of war, continually developing legal interpretations that shield the Israeli state from accountability for its illegal military tactics and permanent military occupation. Third, Middle East studies…." (28)

 

First of all, it should be noted that Wind’s thesis in this chapter (1), as the full passage makes clear, discusses case studies from three separate disciplines, and is incredibly well sourced (this chapter alone contains 196 referential endnotes). However, let’s discuss Medina’s more direct claim that Wind’s subsection on law and ethics only discusses one adjunct scholar. This claim, and I invite readers to see for themselves, is false. In the relevant subsection, Wind discusses six scholars of ethics, law, and criminology. It is true that she herself only discusses three (not one) in depth (Asa Kasher, Amos Yadlin, and Pnina Sharvit Baruch). This is because much of the section is dedicated to citing and building off of other previous work on this topic - which explains why this 6 page long section contains 51 endnotes, 13 of which are to academic journals, the rest of which are to reports from respected Human Rights Organizations. To be sure, not all of these citations are explicitly on connections between Israeli academia and international law. Nonetheless, they are all broadly related to this general theme in the context of her argumentation in the subsection.

 

Let’s take a look at another example from the same subsection:

 

Medina

Wind

“On a more general level, an evaluation of collaborations with government agencies must refer to the type of work that is done…In one place, Wind strongly criticizes a normative ethics professor for his involvement in assisting the IDF to draft its code of ethics, suggesting that in this work, this scholar “established himself as an academic in the service of the state” (p. 36). Disregarding the fact that this work was not done as part of the scholar’s academic work, the relevant consideration here is the content of the IDF’s code of ethics. Given that this code meets the highest standards, there is nothing wrong with the scholar’s work in this matter, aimed at improving the IDF’s adherence to morality.”

(Medina also discusses criminology; I don’t quote it here because Wind’s discussion is too long to usefully compare here.)

“Over the past two decades, faculties of law across Israeli universities have facilitated this legal innovation in service of the Israeli military and security state. Ethicists from philosophy departments have joined these efforts, theorizing and providing moral justification for Israeli policies and military

operations, both in real time and during the international legal probes that followed. One of the philosophers leading this endeavor is Tel Aviv University professor and Israel’s distinguished ethicist Asa Kasher. Kasher established himself as an academic in the service of the state in 1994, when he collaborated with the Israeli military to write its code of ethics.” (39-40, endnotes removed)

 

“Building on Ruach Tsahal, Asa Kasher began a long-standing collaboration with Major General Amos Yadlin to offer ethical guidance to the military. In 2001, the Israeli military’s International Law Department

issued a legal opinion governing the nascent Israeli policy of targeted

assassinations.” (40, endnotes removed)

 

“Shortly thereafter, Kasher and Yadlin teamed up to write Israel’s “Ethical Doctrine for Combating Terror,” developed at the National Security College at the University of Haifa with a team of academic and military experts. The final document, supported by three military chiefs of staff who served during the height of the Second Intifada, was broadly considered to be Israel’s “counterterror doctrine” and the basis for its military guidelines. The doctrine was developed as part of a broader project of legal innovation led by Israeli military lawyers, with support from Israeli legal scholars and ethicists. These theorizations and legal interpretations, Noura Erakat and Lisa Hajjar show, sanctioned practices that have been traditionally defined as extralegal in international humanitarian law. Israeli military operations and tactics deployed on the basis of this counterterror doctrine have since been repeatedly deemed war crimes by international human rights organizations.” (40, endnotes removed)

As we can see, Wind is elaborating on the long-standing coordination between Kasher and the Israeli military. Furthermore, she does not criticize Kasher for writing the IDF Code of Conduct: She criticizes him for later work on targeted assassinations and counterterror, which, she argues, was used to justify war crimes and violations of rights.

I am of course not objecting to disagreeing with Wind and others about the ethics and law of targeted assassination and counterterror. However, to claim that Wind assumes without argument that Kasher is guilty merely for cooperating with the IDF is false: She provides a very specific accusation concerning a very specific document and actions which that document justified and led to. Responding to Wind, here as elsewhere, requires addressing these specific documented claims.

 

A third and final comparison:

 

Medina

Wind

“In practice, academic scholars, Jews and Palestinians alike, offer very critical research of all aspects of life in Israel, including claims about settler colonialism, military occupation, and apartheid. Wind mentions in this regard an incident at the Hebrew University, in which a faculty member made an argument about the effect of a student’s wearing military uniform on class discussions, which resulted, according to Wind, in a “swift and decisive” response by the Hebrew University (p. 125). In reality, the administration did not take any measures against the said faculty member, whose academic freedom has been fully secured.”

“Acceptable academic debate further narrowed with an Im Tirtzu campaign targeting Hebrew University cultural studies professor Carola Hilfrich in 2018. Like many classes at Hebrew University and across institutions, Hilfrich’s courses included both Palestinians and active-duty

Israeli soldiers as students. During one class discussion, a Palestinian student drew on an assigned text to comment on Israel’s occupation. After class, when the Palestinian student was approached by an active-duty military officer taking the class, she replied that she did not wish to engage with a soldier in uniform. Outraged, the officer—an active member of Im Tirtzu—turned to Hilfrich, who responded by stating that the classroom should facilitate tolerance of the diverse reactions which a military uniform may elicit among

students. As it turned out, the event was a setup by Im Tirtzu. The exchange was caught on film and immediately made national headlines. The very next day Im Tirtzu staged a protest on campus calling for Hilfrich to be fired, and the media and right-wing parties framed the event as an attack on the Israeli military.The Hebrew University response was swift and decisive. The administration immediately issued an apology and published a statement welcoming all soldiers who are students to its campus, reiterating its institutional commitment to supporting the military. With Hebrew

University refusing to publicly back her, Hilfrich became the target of an intensified popular media campaign and received a barrage of vitriol and threats, leading her to leave midsemester for a hiatus.” (122-123)

 

What Medina says here is strictly true - Hilfrich was not officially sanctioned or suspended for her actions. However, what Wind says about the administration’s reaction is also true, and, as several people pointed out at the time, had a chilling effect on faculty and students’ comfort speaking about difficult issues surrounding Israel and criticism of it, especially concerning Palestinians.

 

Of course, this is one example. We may think that this case was either (a) an outlier, or (b) the administration’s behavior has changed. If so, concerns about academic freedom and self-censorship are unfounded. The details are too far afield and a question for a different blog post, but rest assured, the matter is much more complicated than Medina suggests, as evidenced by several studies, many of which are cited by Wind in her extensively referenced 29 page chapter on the topic and not mentioned by Medina. As just one example (which Wind does not cite), consider the following illustrative story from our colleague Daphna Golan’s book, Teaching Palestine on an Israeli University Campus:

 

“I asked the students to think about what else we deny. One student asked if I was referring to what we are doing to the Palestinians. I asked her to elaborate but she refused. ‘Do you mean the occupation?’ I asked. ‘What occupation?’ asked another student. ‘How can you say occupation?’ said another. ‘That’s taking a political stance,’ complained another. All the students concurred that they had never heard the word ‘occupation’ spoken on campus. Not on the Mount Scopus campus in the heart of occupied East Jerusalem…They were adamant that the word had no place on campus.” (Ch.1)

 

Self-censorship, as the absence of speech, is difficult to prove. I leave it to the reader to decide for themselves what to conclude from this anecdote.

 

  1. Why Scholars - International and Israeli - Should Consider Reading Wind’s Book

 

I do not support an academic boycott of Israel, despite the fact that I vehemently disagree with consecutive Israeli governments’ policies, especially concerning the Palestinians, and recently in the protracted war in Gaza as a result of Hamas’ October 7th massacre. It may seem odd, then, that I would encourage as many people as possible to read a book which is dedicated explicitly to convincing readers to support some kind of boycott. But of course, as scholars, we read papers and books all the time that we know beforehand that we don’t endorse the thesis of. And this practice is incredibly beneficial in many ways.

 

The pursuit of knowledge and increased understanding is our bread and butter, and this requires a spirit of open-mindedness and inquisitiveness to those views with which we disagree. All academics who hold these values with respect to their disciplinary activities should also be willing to take this approach with their ideological and political commitments.

 

It is true that we cannot read everything, and if, as Medina argues, Wind’s book is poor scholarship, it would make sense to skip it. However, I hope that the above discussion has convinced you that Wind’s book is far from poor scholarship. Setting out to defend a particular viewpoint, even when that viewpoint is grounded in frameworks that others may disagree with, does not make a book a bad book. Neither is Wind’s book poorly researched. Of course, I can’t prove this to you in this post, but I welcome you to see for yourself. But to gesture at an admittedly very defeasible rule of thumb, the book contains 195 pages of main body, with 70 pages worth of endnotes: The book is polemical, to be sure, but it cannot be argued that its claims are not well-documented.

 

I would be happy to tell you why I think an academic boycott of Israel, at least at this moment in history, is not the most effective strategy to fight against Israeli government policy or advance a decolonial struggle. And I would be happy to tell you my feelings about Israeli policy historically and currently. But the truth is that you shouldn’t really care. (In any case, I wouldn’t even trust my own judgment - as Kahneman and Tversky showed, it is hard to reason clearly when one’s livelihood depends on coming to a particular conclusion.) If you’re an international scholar, you can think for yourself, and plenty of people have given far more thought to questions of the ethics, politics, and effectiveness of boycotts than I have. So what you should do, if you care deeply about this issue, is to try as best you can to understand the evidence of Israeli universities’ historic and current relationship to various Israeli institutions, and consider for yourself what you think about the ethics and effectiveness of a boycott, perhaps even acquainting yourself with some of that literature.

 

Reading Wind’s book is, in my opinion, an essential step in this, as she has gathered more evidence of purported negative collaboration between Israeli universities and violations of international law than any other place I know. Of course, just as you should read any non-fiction book, and especially one advancing a particular viewpoint, with a critical eye, you should also read Wind with one.

 

Medina’s review points to some places where Wind neglects to mention some positive aspects about Israel’s or Israeli universities’ actions historically and contemporarily. Of course this is fair game. But the narrative by which we frame historical processes also affects what facts we deem salient, meaningful, and important, and it is unavoidable that this will guide which things we will and will not report. No one is immune from this. Medina himself, for example, mentions the 1948 Hadassah medical convoy massacre on Mount Scopus, which killed 79 medical staff, students and faculty of Hebrew University, as well as Haganah soldiers. He does not mention that the convoy purportedly contained a mixture of combat and medical vehicles (a policy which was later put to a stop by the demand of the Red Cross), nor that the attack was in part a response to the horrific Deir Yassin massacre, 5 days earlier, in which Lehi and Irgun forces killed approximately 107 Arab civilians, which in part led to the flight of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from Israel in the following year.

 

I’m not picking on Medina here. The story and context of the Hadassah massacre is more complicated and nuanced in ways that I haven’t mentioned, which can support and undermine different narratives of these historical events. My point is that the accusation of “leaving out facts” depends on which facts are and are not important, and when one reads a work without making an effort to understand their framework, it is easy to find places where we think they should have mentioned things that they did not.

 

What this means is that reading a text like Wind’s, coupled with a critical eye and a willingness to look in more detail at the histories that she cites, is the best way to get a full understanding of the case for and against an academic boycott. I don’t want you to boycott, but I trust that the full picture will lead you to this conclusion. I am not afraid of you reading the Wind book - I encourage it.

My academic colleagues in Israel should also read this book because we care about education, and in particular the institutions in which we work. We have an interest and an ability to effect change here, at Hebrew University (or whatever university or college employs you). We (I hope!) want to work in an environment in which all of our students and faculty feel comfortable exploring a wide range of topics, even controversial ones, and expressing a wide range of opinions, even controversial ones. Wind has given us powerful reasons to believe that we have not, neither historically, nor today, lived up to these aspirations. And this can be so even if Wind is wrong, politically or otherwise. It can also be so if BDS is a misguided strategy in all kinds of ways.

 

I don’t accept that denial or aggression is the appropriate response to Maya Wind’s book, or calls for an academic boycott more generally. I see our international colleagues, in Israel, in the United States, and even in South Africa and Gaza, as our colleagues. My allegiance and my solidarity are with the global academic community, not with any nation-state (neither Israel, nor with the United States, where I grew up). Admitting the mistakes of our past is not a weakness, it is an indication that we want to be better: For our Jewish Israeli students and faculty, for our Palestinian students and faculty (citizens and residents), for our international students and faculty, and to make our little corner of the international research community as just, equal, and cosmopolitan (for what is an international research institution that isn’t equally open to all?) as we can.

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