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Top Israeli university marketing country's arms industry to the world

A new university course at Israel’s Technion Institute of Technology teaches students how to brand and market Israel’s defense industry to global audiences.

By Shimrit Lee

Israeli soldiers belonging to the IDF's Sky Rider unit seen during a training drill at the Tze'elim army base, August 5, 2013. The Sky Rider Unit operates unmanned aerial vehicles manufactured by Elbit Systems. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israeli soldiers belonging to the IDF’s Sky Rider unit seen during a training drill at the Tze’elim army base, August 5, 2013. The Sky Rider Unit operates unmanned aerial vehicles manufactured by Elbit Systems. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Contrary to popular belief, Israel’s military-industrial complex doesn’t run on government and arms manufacturers alone. Academia, a sphere often imagined as a bastion of free speech, independent from corporate interests, plays a crucial, though less visible, role in the establishment. Its complicity in violence shouldn’t be ignored.

That’s why last Thursday evening, I joined a small group of activists from Coalition of Women for Peace in central Tel Aviv to protest a new program, put on by Haifa-based Technion—Israel Institute of Technology, Israel’s foremost research university, outside its Tel Aviv campus in the city’s Sarona neighborhood.

The three-month program, titled “Defense Strategy for International Markets,” focuses on how to brand and market Israel’s defense industry to global audiences. This is the second time the course, which was designed for executives, lawyers, consultants, and researchers in the field of defense exports, is being offered by the Technion. Workshops focused on export regulations, cyber warfare, homeland security, marketing communication strategies, and case studies from South Africa and India.

As shoppers walked past the modest demonstration, some stopped with curiosity to read our signs and ask why we were there. Others were more defensive. One man even threatened us with a gun tucked into his pants, while menacingly waving a laser pointer in our faces and muttering that he would “erase” us.

Anti-militarism activists protest in central Tel Aviv against a new course sponsored by the Technion, which teaches students how to brand and market Israel's defense industry to global audiences. (Shimrit Lee)

Anti-militarism activists protest in central Tel Aviv against a new course sponsored by the Technion, which teaches students how to brand and market Israel’s defense industry to global audiences. (Shimrit Lee)

I couldn’t help but note the irony of his word choice, since erasure — of lives, rights, and history — was exactly what we were there to protest. The defense industry is the largest employer in Israel, which means it has largely been immune to criticism. But it has recently come under increased scrutiny for its role in exporting arms to repressive regimes.

In January, a group of Israeli human rights lawyers submitted an urgent petition to the Israeli Supreme Court calling for an end to Israeli military exports to Burma, highlighting the country’s systematic persecution of its 1.2 million ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority. Eitay Mack, a Jerusalem-based human rights attorney involved with the petition has filed a suit to open criminal investigations into Israeli officials who participated in arms deals with the brutal dictatorial regime of Augosto Pinochet, responsible for murdering, disappearing and torturing tens of thousands of Chilean citizens from 1973 to 1990.

Israel has also been complicit in maintaining commercial and military ties to South Sudanese militias in the ongoing bloody civil war, the government of South Africa during apartheid, and the Hutu government while it carried out genocide against the Tutsi population of Rwanda.

Chilean President Augusto Pinochet meets with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1976.

Chilean President Augusto Pinochet meets with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1976.

However, Israeli academia’s complicity in those, and other conflicts is less frequently scrutinized. It’s time for that to change, says the Coalition’s Shahaf Weisbein. “The protest aimed to make militarism in academia more visible,” Shahaf says. “Through academia, the arms industry can present itself as furthering technological and theoretical advancements, disconnected from any violent effects on the ground.”

In December, Hamushim — an arm of the Coalition that investigates Israel’s security industry — launched a Hannukah campaign that included eight small actions aimed at raising awareness on the issue of the arms industry, which included a condemnation of the Anti-Defamation League for its sponsorship of U.S. law enforcement training in Israel. This week, the group launched a letter writing campaign to the Technion, demanding the university cancel the course in the future and avoid “caving into militarism in the academy.”

“Defense Strategy for International Markets” may be a new course, Shahaf says, but this isn’t the first time the Technion has coordinated with the defense industry.

The university developed the remote-controlled Caterpillar D9 bulldozer, used by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian homes. Electro-Optics Research & Development (EORD), a subsidiary of the university, manufactured the “Scream,” an acoustic system that “creates sound levels that are unbearable to humans at distances up to 100 meters.” Also called “the Shofar,” this “non-lethal” crowd control weapon is mainly used to suppress non-violent demonstrations in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Palestinian children watch as a Caterpillar digging machine demolishes a Palestinian property in Sheikh Jarrah to make way for new Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, January 9, 2011. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Palestinian children watch as a Caterpillar digging machine demolishes a Palestinian property in Sheikh Jarrah to make way for new Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, January 9, 2011. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

In 2013, Meir Shalit, the academic manager of the Technion course, was forced to resign from his own position as the department head for defense exports at the Defense Ministry after supervising an arms shipment to France, which ended up in China — a breach of U.S. arms trade regulations.

Most disconcerting, perhaps, is the Technion’s close ties to Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest publicly traded arms and security company responsible for 85 percent of drones used by the Israeli military, as well as the electronic surveillance system on Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank. According to researcher Shir Hever, the Technion in Haifa opened a center for electro-optic research with Elbit, and the Technion “specifically trains students to work in Elbit.”

On the Israeli Left, resistance to militarism is often thought about only in terms of army refusal. But Sahar Vardi, an anti-militarism activist, says that academia is often overlooked as an effective space for students and professors to mobilize.

“This project can feed conversation surrounding the academic boycott of Israeli institutions when brought into the international arena,” she said,

At the end of Thursday’s protest, the manager of the course emerged, clearly irritated, with two police officers by his side. Sahar described the ensuing confrontation as a success: “Organizing some kind of action against such a blunt example of academic complicity will hopefully serve as an energizing force for more action on the subject,” she said.

Shimrit Lee is a PhD candidate at New York University, focusing on visual cultures of militarism and the commodification of war in Israel/Palestine.
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    1. Bernie X

      The United States, Russia, France, Great Britain and Sweden, the worlds’ top arms exporters, can trade weapons, but if a Jew makes weapons, than,’oy va voi li’.

      Reply to Comment
    2. R5

      This line of argument is one of the best examples of the “new anti-Semitism.” Israel is not merely an occupier, but a fount of evil for the whole world. The collective Jew spreading war across the planet, once again. You’re just missing the octopus cartoon, but I’m sure we’ll see that soon enough. Appreciate the author letting us know about the NYU funding though. Will be sure not to give them any money this year. Really shouldn’t be admitting SOAS graduates in the first place.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gearoid

        So you think selling arms to regimes violating human rights and international law is perfectly fine?

        Any state doing so would come under criticism. As the US has regarding the Saudi war in Yemen, for example. Why is Israel immune, other than that you and other trolls infesting this site need to continue your mendacious attempt to promote a false persecution complex?

        Reply to Comment
        • R5

          @Gearoid: But it’s not about “criticism” per se – For the US & UK you get criticism, and for Israel you get a ravenous boycott of all government-funded culture and universities. And American universities do a hell of a lot more military R&D than Israeli ones. You can try and generalize away from the facts that reveal the double-standard, but the facts are still there.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Ben

      ​Shir Hever offers an analysis of Gaza as a testing ground for Israeli military technology
      Israel is the largest per-capita weapons exporter in the world.

      “After the 2006 war against Lebanon, which was a humiliation for the Israeli army, the Israeli government sought to focus its aggression on the Gaza Strip. Gaza is small, contained and densely populated, and did not have the ability to defend itself in comparison to Hezbollah’s ability to defend Lebanon in 2006.
      Since then, a clear pattern emerged, according to which the Israeli army launches an attack against Gaza every 2 years. The army thus successfully avoided budget cuts, arm companies increased their profits, and by 2012 the Israeli weapons exports have reached a peak of US $ 7 billion.
      In the previous attack of November 2012 “operation Pillar of Defense,” the star of the show was the “Iron Dome” anti-rocket system. The Iron Dome missiles, which cost US $ 50-100 thousand each, intercepted the makeshift rockets from Gaza which cost little more than US $ 1,000 to make. Nevertheless, the system successfully allowed Israelis to continue in their daily routines while defenseless people in Gaza are killed at a whim, an achievement which seems attractive to many governments and armies around the world. Their demand for Israeli weapons depends on such asymmetrical warfare. The Hamas party in Gaza understands this fully well and tried to break the cycle. They offered a cease-fire at the very beginning of the Israeli attack, offering a 10-year cessation of attacks against Israel, in exchange for lifting the siege. This seemed to be what the Israeli government wanted. After all, Israeli justified the siege merely as a protective measure against Palestinian attacks, but Hamas knew that Israel would never accept their offer. The Israeli arms industry would lose its edge if it were to go 10 years without testing its weapons.”

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ben

      “[Trump and Netanyahu] might or might not have disagreements on the issue of settlements, but they are natural allies in the biggest political drama of our time—the battle between liberalism and the populist right, which is being waged across the Western world. It is a story in which the Palestinians play an entirely different role than they have in the peace process, since if populism gains the upper hand, Israeli expertise in control and supervision of millions of people without rights might come in handy for Trump, and for many others like him.”

      Reply to Comment
    5. i_like_ike52

      Glad to see that Israel’s best acaademic minds are working to improve our technologies of self-defense, without which Israeli Jews would end up like being wiped out like the Christian , Yazidi and other minority groups in the Muslim Middle East.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Hever and Sheizaf analyze these not as technologies of defense but as technologies of the control and supervision of millions of people without rights. There is a decisive difference. But Andrew Levine argues that some Israelis have a constant need to create fake “existential” threats (of being “wiped out,” as you say).

        SEPTEMBER 8, 2011
        The New “Existential Threat”
        by ANDREW LEVINE

        “The general contours of a negotiated settlement, acceptable to all who believe in a two state solution, have been clear for decades.… As matters now stand, it is clear that Israel won’t agree to live alongside a viable Palestinian state; officially autonomous Bantustans are as far as it will go. This is so not just because many Israelis harbor hopes for a Greater Israel or because the Israeli political class is effectively owned by a religiously driven settler movement. The more important reason is that if there were a just peace, Israel’s reason for being a state of the Jewish people, and therefore its hold over “diaspora” Jews and even over its own population, would diminish, not abruptly but inexorably.
        Leaders of the Israeli political and military establishment understand this. It is why they conjure up existential threats and why, regardless what they say, they have repeatedly drawn back from making peace with the Palestinians….
        The animating principle of the Zionist movement from the 1890s on has been that Jews need a state to serve as a refuge in a world in which anti-Semitism is a force of nature…. In time, universalist ideologies faded and Zionism hijacked Judaism. Meanwhile, as Jewish assimilation has proceeded at full throttle in the United States and other Western countries, and with anti-Semitism no longer much of a concern, Israeli nationalism has all but monopolized Jewish identity politics in the West.
        Because Judaism, shorn of the Zionist shell that has been imposed upon it, is a non-starter for most Jews today, and because inter-marriage is so prevalent, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a sense of Jewish identity on religious or ethnic grounds. That leaves only Israel. And as Israeli society sheds its historical ties to secularism and socialism, Israel has become hard to love or even to admire. No wonder that so few diaspora Jews would even think of living there or that so many Israelis live abroad.
        There is, of course, still the memory of the Nazi Judeocide, and Zionists exploit it for all it is worth. But as time passes, that memory becomes less serviceable…. The Zionist movement succeeded in appropriating moral capital from the devastation Nazi Germany wreaked upon European Jewry, but it has spent that capital recklessly, and there is not much of it left.
        Enter existential threats. When they do not exist, as is the case with the ones Israel’s leaders invoke, they need to be invented or at least blown up out of all proportion….”

        Reply to Comment
    6. Chauncey

      This was an insightful article! Thanks for sharing. $%^& the haters.

      Reply to Comment