This article is published in collaboration with sjpmediacollective.org.
Every year, the Israel Institute provides grants and fellowships to academics to teach courses and organize community events related to “modern Israel”. The Institute’s stated goal is to “enhance knowledge about modern Israel” by ensuring that more students, especially those at “priority universities” in the U.S, have access to classes about Israel during their time on campus.
This year the Israel Institute funded faculty to teach six courses approved by them at the University of Chicago and worked with the school to have them cross-listed and advertised. It funds at least one course at Northwestern University and one more at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
Given the consistent presence of the institute on our campus, and its influence on academic discourse about Israel, we should ask ourselves – what is the “Israel Institute” doing at UChicago and 19 other campuses across the U.S.?
A Political Organization
The Israel Institute was founded in 2012 by former president of Tel Aviv University and ambassador of Israel to the U.S., Itamar Rabinovich. He was succeeded as board chair by Daniel B Shapiro, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, in January 2020. Shapiro was recently appointed by Joe Biden as a special liaison to Israel on Iran, while maintaining his role at the institute. As we can see, the Institute is closely connected to U.S.-Israel diplomacy at the highest levels of national government. Its role at U.S. universities must be understood within this political context.
The Israel Institute is classified as a 501(c)(3) organization (charity). This explains why it carefully presents itself through seemingly independent, non-partisan, and non-advocacy discourse. In short, this a-political self-presentation is necessary to maintain tax-exempt status under U.S. tax regulations.
However, a closer look at the Institute reveals that the Israel Institute participates in advancing specific political perspectives about Israel and is implicated within a network of institutions that use millions of tax-exempt dollars to push Zionist and pro-Israel agenda in U.S. academic spaces. This heavily funded pro-Israel network systematically smears and harasses pro-Palestinian activists across U.S. campuses, while promoting their objectives in the form of ‘non-partisan’ education.
The Israel Institute and the Israeli Military Industrial-Complex
The Israel Institute actively contributes to the production of military technology, tactics, and ideological justifications used by the Israeli state against Palestinians. These military tactics and justifications for state violence are among Israel’s main exports to other countries, and their harmful effects have been felt by oppressed populations all over the world, from South Africa to Guatemala to Turtle Island.
There are many former IOF members working with the Institute as board members and faculty fellows. Several important people at the Institute are also actively involved in institutions like the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, which is an academic institution devoted to developing military tactics and ideological justification for the various arms of Israeli state violence.
Take Ariel Roth, the Executive Director of the Israel Institute. Roth is an IOF veteran and former director of the ‘Global Security Studies’ graduate program at John Hopkins University. He is also a contributor to Foreign Affairs and various “Security Studies’ journals, where he typically takes a “pragmatic” approach, such as discussing the various tactical and geostrategic nuances of brutal IOF campaigns in Gaza. In practice Roth’s “security studies approach” means happily acknowledging the right of the Israeli state to use full-scale military force against civilians and lauding the state’s “restraint” in dealing with “violent terror,” while occasionally pointing out that this or that operation was not the best way to advance Zionist goals long-term.
Another example is Meir Elran, a former Brigadier General in the IOF who has been an Israel Institute fellow at UChicago since 2018. Elran’s ties to the Israeli security industry and military apparatus are extensive, ranging from work in military intelligence, to consulting for various homeland security departments in Israel, to academic work at the INSS. During the winter quarter of the 2019-20 academic year at UChicago he taught a course entitled “Security, Counter Terrorism, and Resilience: The Israeli Case” which prompted criticism from student organizers on campus, and a joint call to oppose the Israel Institute.
Teaching Colonial Violence
Besides individual connections between the Institute and Israeli state violence, which are far more extensive than the two we have mentioned for illustrative purposes, the Institute itself is actively engaged in legitimizing Israel’s security industry. One sample syllabus for instructors interested in receiving a grant from the institute, entitled “Terrorism and Counterterrorism,” recommends a “security consulting” role-play exercise as its final project. The syllabus is on the Israel Institute website on a page devoted to providing resources for prospective fellows, and was also used for a course taught by II fellow Luba Levin-Banchik at UC Davis.
For this course’s final project students are asked to imagine they own a “for-profit company” that offers “consultations on issues related to terrorism and counterterrorism.” The student’s job is to prepare for a high-level conference involving the Israeli foreign ministry that is dedicated to planning joint “counter-terror” measures after an imagined suicide bombing in Israel.
To re-iterate: at the Israel Institute’s behest, students at UC Davis are being asked to imagine they are the head of a for-profit “anti-terror” consulting firm in Israel that is responding to an attack praised by “Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hizbullah, and ISIS.”
This in-class exercise is a crystal-clear example of the Israeli security industries that capitalize on the oppression of the Palestinian people – treating them as test subjects for surveillance, repression and counterinsurgency, and exporting these methods to repressive regimes abroad. It also plainly reveals how the Israel Institute’s mission is anything but apolitical: the Institute explicitly works to justify and legitimize Israeli state violence, and propagandizes students into viewing the Palestinian struggle against Zionist colonialism through the imperialist trope of “Arab-Islamic terror”.
Israel Institute’s Source of Funding: The Schusterman Family Foundation
The Israel Institute was founded in 2012 in partnership with the “Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation,” which is still the Institute’s primary source of funding. Itamar Rabinovich, founder of the Institute, is also the treasurer of the Schusterman family foundation. Sender Cohen, who serves on the board of the Institute, is the former president of Soros Capital and also the current president of Schusterman Family Interests. The Foundation’s website states: “Our work in Israel is rooted in a proud embrace of the vision of Zionism embedded in Israel’s founding Declaration of Independence”.
A look at the vast array of organizations that the foundation established and continues to fund in both Israel and the U.S gives a clear picture of a coherent network of institutions of knowledge production and activism that work together to push pro-Zionist agendas and suppress Palestinian voices in academic spaces.
Schusterman Family Foundation’s “Educational Mission“
The Schusterman Foundation is quite clear about the political goals that guide its “educational” programs on Israel in the U.S. In their own words:
We have also invested in expanding Israel education in various K12 settings and at universities across the U.S. so that students, regardless of religion, have access to a broad suite of courses on modern Israel.
Yet, even as we advance a broader understanding of Israel, we still see the spread of anti-Israel activity and efforts to de-legitimize Israel, particularly at colleges and universities. The good news is that efforts to support Israel on campus today are more sophisticated and more creative than ever.
To continue this work, we must provide students with the tools to stand up for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, to challenge inaccurate narratives, and to support informed and productive dialogue. We also continue to invest broadly in efforts to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and to advocate for a constructive, bi-partisan relationship between the U.S. and Israel.
This self-description gives us a clear blueprint to understanding the role of the Israel Institute on U.S. campuses. The Institute, listed proudly under these declarations by the Schusterman Foundation, is clearly revealed to be a propagandistic institution specifically aimed at creating support for the continued political bond between the U.S. and the Israeli colonial state, in large part by silencing pro-Palestinian organizers who are resisting Palestinian oppression and dispossession through grassroots actions like BDS.
One concrete example (among many) of the Institute’s close partnerships with this web of Zionist organizations is Steven Davidoff Solomon, who is an active member of the Israel Institute’s board, while also serving on the board of the Academic Engagement Network of the SFF, a highly aggressive propaganda group which, in its own words: “works to counter Israel delegitimization and antisemitism on campus.”
One of the Academic Engagement Network’s most favored tactics, seen through initiatives such as “Improving the Campus Climate,” is linking any and all pro-Palestinian work on U.S. college campuses either to white nationalist and other forms of antisemitic rhetoric, or to “delegitimization of Israel.” For them, ‘delegitimization of Israel’ doesn’t refer to non-recognition of legalized Jewish ethnic supremacy, or the necessary work of decolonization. Rather it refers to wholesale obliteration of Israel and Israelis, which is an absurd idea that makes sense only within Islamophobic and imperialist discourse that labels all indigenous resistance as “terrorism” and “religious extremism”.
The Schusterman foundation spends tens of millions of dollars a year on U.S. campuses to fund pro-Israel work. It has its own “Schusterman Center for Israel Studies” at Brandeis University. It also has some initiatives that might give the impression that this organization espouses liberal values, and is concerned with things like tolerance and diversity. However, let’s take a closer look at only some of the campus related initiatives funded by the organization:
Israel on Campus Coalition
Whereas pro-Palestinian activist groups are largely grassroots, ICC provides top-down funding to Zionist organizations, which utilize their overpowering resources to silence pro-Palestinian activism. They provide in-depth updates and analysis on campus trends in Palestinian activism for their subsidiaries, while bolstering and coordinating the response of affiliated Zionist-on-campus organizations.
Anti-Defamation League (Received a grant of 250,000 USD in 2019)
While the organization paints itself as an anti-hate organization it openly equates anti-Zionist activists with neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Full articles have been spent smearing Palestinians advocating for their rights in the U.S. and Palestine.
This state-funded trip promised to the Jewish diaspora only shows a sanitized and whitewashed version of Palestine and the occupation. It obscures Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israeli brutality from its patrons while peddling heavy colonial propaganda. Most of all, it promotes the racist idea that Jewish persons wherever they are from have a “birthright” to live and gain full rights in Palestine, whereas more than 6 million Palestinian refugees are not allowed to even visit their own homeland, much less to return to and live in their original hometowns.
Similar to Birthright, these are Israeli state funded “educational” trips for graduate students to Israel. Part of the program’s appeal is that they help participants secure internships, many of which are with the IOF.
American Jewish Committee
An advocacy group whose unflinching support for the occupation motivates them to demonize the BDS movement and decry humanitarian aid to Palestine as part of a “money-for-terrorism scheme”.
According to their website, “Hillel’s goal is to inspire every Jewish college student to develop a meaningful and enduring relationship to Israeli culture and society”. In service of this project, they have partnered with Jewish Israel Agency Fellows, which is a program that matches Jewish college students to former IOF members who teach them the standard state-sponsored narrative of “socially progressive values” and “accomplishments in technology, life sciences, and the arts.” We cannot expect former self-identifying members of an occupation army to teach students anything other than a justificatory and white-washed account of Israel’s crimes.
Hillel is explicitly anti-BDS: they refuse to partner with any organizations that “Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel”
This organization also encourages Birthright trips, whose problems are explained above.
American Friends of Tel Aviv
Raises funds for Tel Aviv University which was built and is still being expanded upon the displaced Palestinian village of Sheikh Muwanness. In just the past decade, this university decided to desecrate and raze the remaining graveyard of the village in order to build up a parking space, a consumerist center and student dorms.
We call on students to Boycott Israel Institute sponsored classes. Our previous post calling for boycott of Zionist classes received a great deal of critical attention, in large part due to the propaganda of several multi-million-dollar anti-Palestinian campus organizations much like the ones we described above. One of the points they fixated on in their outrage was our call to boycott classes by Israeli fellows. We are not advocating boycotting classes based upon the national origin of the professor, and not all Israel Institute fellows are necessarily Zionist. However, the relationship between the Israel Institute and the University of Chicago directly works to spread propaganda and justify Israeli apartheid, settler colonialism, and state violence. We are calling for a boycott of classes sponsored by the Israel Institute to withdraw support from an institution explicitly designed to spread Zionist propaganda on our campus.
Share this report to raise awareness about the Israel Institute’s sources of funding, its role on campuses, and its extensive anti-Palestinian and militaristic connections.
Research your own University’s ties to the Institute and other related propagandistic organizations devoted to suppressing Palestinian voices, such as the “Academic Engagement Network.”
Call on your University administration and faculty members to cut ties with the institute.
Develop alternative educational resources on your campus that are aimed at Palestinian liberation, not legitimization of the Israeli apartheid state.
- Support your SJP by attending events and staying engaged.
- Support and build Palestinian-centered academic spaces and reading groups that focus on the history this institute wants you to forget. One place to start is our resource list.
- Stay informed on what is happening in Palestine by following us and your on social media.
- Raise awareness in your communities and practice BDS principles.
Articles by Israel Institute executive director Ariel Roth mentioned in our report: