This summer, while a college in one of Israel’s largest US-funded colonies illegally built on Palestinian lands was upgraded to the status of public university, Arizona celebrated the 150th anniversary of its own territorial land-grant university, which was first established as a settler college in the heart of the Mexican-indigenous Southwest. Both items of news should strike rousing chords in people around the world who oppose settlement and military occupation of indigenous communities.
On July 17, the Council for Higher Education in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories voted to certify the Ariel University Center (AUC) as Israel’s eighth public accredited university. The decision made AUC the first Israeli university beyond the “Green Line”—the international boundary within which Israel continues to occupy Palestinian territories (Gaza, West Bank, East Jerusalem) seized during the 1967 regional war, in violation of international law.
Just more than three weeks earlier, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer issued a state memorandum to “recognize and celebrate” the 150th anniversary of the federal act which allotted a land-grant eventually establishing the University of Arizona. In the latter half of the 19th century, the area was known as the “Arizona Territory,” a series of remote settler outposts isolated from the rest of the US due to the presence of “hostile Apache” Native Americans, the detachment from country-wide railroads, and the absence of an independent economy. The advent of a public university system was part of the territory’s turning point into an established part of the "civilized" United States.
A "victory for the settler movement”
The news of university status in Ariel was reported internationally as “a significant victory for the settler movement.” The movement’s leaders, with US funding, have been seeking to further entrench the settlements as a permanent, immovable force dominating what they religiously refer to as “Judea and Sumaria” (also the name designated by Israel’s military occupation forces), and the university lends much needed credibility to the effort.
The University of Arizona was founded on even greater spoils following the American settler movement’s own landmark victory in acquiring the modern-day US Southwest. Between 1836-1853, the US government and its settler movement, through both force and coercion, seized numerous territories from Mexico including what now makes up Arizona, California (the foremost coveted prize of US expansion), Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. In his book, Arizona: A History, leading Arizona historian Thomas E. Sheridan thoroughly traces this golden age of settlements riding on the coat-tails of war and conquest and calls it "the most monumental land grab in North American history.”
A “celebration day” for settlers
The 19th century Arizona settlers (like their kindred spirit Jan Brewer) had much to celebrate and look forward to with federal grants to stolen land. Likewise, today, in the wake of Ariel’s upgrade, the settlement’s founder and mayor, Ron Nachman, told the BBC, "Today should be a celebration day" because “Ariel is a university city," subject to state funding and academic legitimacy. Israeli government finance and education ministers earmarked hundreds of millions of essentially land-grant funds for the university.
But a university is only one part of a long-term settlement program. Industry and economic independence is crucial to permanent sustainability. Israel’s settlers know this today just as Arizona settlers knew it when they legislated out the pilfered rewards of the land. Historian Jay J. Wagoner points out in his authoritative Arizona Territory: A Political History that the AZ settler ambitions hinged on upgrading the area with several “territorial institutions” in order to transition from their relatively isolated settlements – which “depended on…military spending for economic health” – to a new settler-driven industry that integrates into the rest of the country.
In addition to the University of Arizona, the settlement prizes included a teacher’s college called a “normal school” (later becoming Arizona State University), locations of a much-desired prison and state capital, and an insane asylum. With indigenous peoples out of the way and the completion of railroads connecting Arizona with US transcontinental lines, soon settler industries of agriculture and mining flourished. This is Arizona’s unacknowledged history over which today’s leaders like Jan Brewer see cause for celebration.
Justice in Palestine up for grabs
The “American west was won” in its lasting way not ultimately by military power, which is unsustainable in the long-run. The most insidious victories of military-colonial movements occur after conquest. Territorial integration of what became one third of the modern US was cemented by the expansion of academic, cultural and economic institutions, which achieved a permanent and, in some ways, irreversible presence on the continent.
In recent history, Israel has not been so successful. The political will of world public opinion, grounded in the rule of law, has fostered a global movement opposing Israeli settlement, and its accompanying military occupation. Transportation giants Veolia and Egged continue to face local boycotts around the world due to their role in providing railway lines and bus transportation connecting the settlements to the rest of Israel. Another boycott target is the settlement-based cosmetics firm, Ahava, which excavates mud and mineral-based compounds from the occupied Palestinian Dead Sea area. More boycott and divestment campaigns are mounting.
During the period of indigenous removals and settlement integration, the Arizona settlers were able to proceed largely unimpeded without this sort of opposition. So there’s still reason to hope. The choice remains among ordinary people to act to stop Israel from grabbing more land and stand beside Palestinians as they reach for the remnants of their future before it is lost to the negligent celebrations of history’s political leaders.