Palestinians march defiantly in immediate aftermath of October 7

Gaza and militarisation

Toby Abse reports on the links between Italian universities and Israel’s war machine. Inevitably anyone who dares protest is branded an anti-Semite by the rightwing media

Although university and school students have been at the forefront of the pro-Palestinian solidarity demonstrations over the last six months, the wave of protests sweeping through Italian universities over the agreement between Italy and Israel on industrial, scientific and technological cooperation is not simply a response to the war in Gaza. It has to be understood in a wider context - the increasing militarisation of research in Italian universities.1

Given the persistent presentation by the rightwing, and much of the liberal, press of the student protests against the agreement, and the favourable response to such protests by the academic senates of a few institutions - most notably Italy’s prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa,2 and the University of Turin - as rabidly anti-Israeli, if not downright anti-Semitic, it is absolutely essential to spell out what the controversy over the agreement is really about.

Firstly, this controversy is not about some permanent blanket boycott of all relations between Italian and Israeli academics. Whatever view one takes about the merits or defects of the boycott, divestment and sanctions strategy advocated by many in the global Palestinian solidarity movement, this Italian opposition to the agreement is not really an academic boycott of the kind that in Britain led to a major row in the University and College Union seven years ago, but a response to particular projects of a scientific and technological nature that are either directly related to the military or have a ‘dual use’ character - in other words, a military as well as a civil application.

There should be no misunderstanding that this opposition to the agreement is in reality some call to ostracise Israeli historians, economists, sociologists, literary scholars and so forth - a misunderstanding actively and continuously promoted by Italian government ministers, that seems to have had a quite widespread impact in Israel itself. This can be seen in the negative view expressed by the Israeli anti-Zionist historian, Schlomo Sand, in a recent interview with Il Manifesto, in which he raised the standard objection to a blanket academic boycott: it would not help those Israeli circles most inclined to a pacific resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians, by which he obviously did not mean those engaged in work on drones, robots, artificial intelligence, etc.

Secondly, the controversy is closely related to opposition to the Italian arms industry - particularly to Leonardo, the largest Italian arms firm, in which the Italian government’s ministry of economics and finance has a 30% stake.3 Leonardo’s turnover in 2022 was €15 billion, putting it in 13th place in the international table of arms manufacturers, as well as placing it at the very top of the EU league of armaments firms.4 Since 2021, Leonardo has had what the Italians call a ‘foundation’ - in British terms a ‘think tank’ - called Med-Or. Med-Or is, as some readers may have guessed, an abbreviation of ‘Medio Oriente’ (Middle East).

Whilst Med-Or collaborates with the Tel-Aviv Institute for National Security Studies, its overseas connections are not confined to Israel. Its international council includes a former head of Saudi intelligence, the Egyptian former minister, Rachid Mohamed Rachid, and the Qatari, Khalid Al-Khater, as well as the former head of US intelligence, John Negroponte, and the former head of British intelligence, Sir Alex Younger. Equally important in the Italian context is that no less than 16 rectors (the Italian equivalent of vice-chancellors) of Italian universities are members of its ‘scientific council’. Given that, to put it bluntly, Med-Or is merely an intellectual front for Leonardo - organising seminars on geopolitical questions - it is hardly surprising that in 2022 Leonardo itself declared it had made five important agreements with Italian universities, as well as actively collaborating with more than 90 others.


If anybody doubts the closeness of Leonardo’s relations with the Israelis, it should be emphasised that in February 2023 it signed two agreements - one with the Israel Innovation Authority and the other one with Ramot, a technology transfer company that promotes the intellectual property of the University of Tel Aviv. Leonardo has also been directly present in Israel for the last two years, through the company DRS Rada Technologies, created after Leonardo purchased the Israeli company, Rada Electronic Industries, specialising in radar for short-range defence and anti-drone technology. The relevance of all this to the current Gaza war should be self-evident, even if one presumes it is ‘defending Israel against Hamas and Hezbollah attacks’, rather than bombing civilians in Gaza, Lebanon or Syria.

Whilst the 2023 balance sheet of Leonardo indicated that it invested €2.2 billion in research and development and “product engineering” in collaboration with “90 universities and research centres in the world”, it chose to make no declaration about how much of this sum was invested in Italian institutions. However, it is obvious that a very large proportion was given to Italian universities - probably for the most part the 16 whose rectors sit on the Med-Or ‘scientific council’.

Needless to say, the rectors who have proved most hostile to student protests about Israel’s war crimes in Gaza and Italian university links with the arms industry are those sitting on that ‘scientific council’, such as Rome’s Antonella Polimeni, whose enthusiastic support for Giorgia Meloni was first shown by her hard-line response to anti-fascist protests by her students a couple of weeks after the neo-fascist premier was sworn in.

In view of the media emphasis on students allegedly intimidating university authorities, it is worth pointing out that nearly 2,000 Italian university lecturers and researchers sent a letter to foreign minister Antonio Tajani in February, pointing out that the agreement between Italy and Israel contained the danger of the Italian state financing projects with a “dual use”. So the recent decisions by the academic senates of the Scuola Normale Superuiore and Turin University were not just a response to protests by radical student collectives, but reflected the concern of some of those employed in the university sector. That is despite the fact that many of those teaching and researching in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are probably indifferent to the source of their funding, or the possible military application of their research projects. The ministry of education has reduced the funding allocated to basic research, whilst Leonardo gave 32 doctoral scholarships to 17 universities for projects related to AI, robotics and digital technologies in 2023.

The entourage of Meloni’s under-secretary, Giovanbattista Fazzolari - a particularly diligent and enthusiastic member of her neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party - has already evoked the spectre of the 1970s terrorist Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) in relation to student protest, in a document described as an “informative note for internal use”, setting the pace for defamation of the student movement. On March 26, the neo-fascist president of the Senate, Ignazio Benito La Russa, told the hard-right newspaper La Verità: “The Years of Lead started like this”.5 The degree of coordination in governing circles can be seen by the fact that on the very same day Anna Maria Bernini, the minister for universities, contacted both the head of the Italian police, Vittorio Pisani, and the minister of the interior, Matteo Piantedosi, propounding an equally hysterical assessment of the situation in Italian universities.

While the response to protests about the agreement by neo-fascists and hard-right newspapers like Il Giornale, La Verità, Libero and Il Foglio is no surprise, relatively liberal papers like the centre-right Corriere della Sera and the centre-left La Repubblica have been equally willing to treat any criticism of Israel as rabid anti-Semitism. They have attempted to mystify their readers by treating demands for a temporary freeze - for the duration of the Gaza war - on particular scientific and technological projects with an actual or potential military application as if they were a blanket refusal to have any relationship with Israeli universities.

Sanctimonious remarks by Benini on the evening news of Italy’s main state television channel, Rai 1, about the importance of scientific exchange and diplomacy - along with her proclamation that universities are ‘neutral bodies’ that should not take sides in a war - are about as hypocritical as one can get, given that the freeze is directed at military or ‘dual use’ research on drones, robots and the like.

Finally, one might observe that it is somewhat ironic that most of these governing and mainstream journalistic circles have for the last two years favoured, and attempted to implement, what amounts to a total cultural (and not just academic, let alone merely scientific and technological) boycott of anything Russian, including works by writers and composers, such as Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky - who, of course, died long before Vladimir Putin was born.

  1. This phenomenon has been analysed at length in a recent book - Michele Lancione’s Università e Miltarizzazione (Milan 2023). Lancione teaches geography and political economy at the Politecnico di Torino - which, as he courageously points out, is one of the main partners in Italy’s leading arms manufacturer, Leonardo.↩︎

  2. It was modelled on the Parisian École Normale Supérieure, and has the same sort of role in relation to the rest of the Italian academic sector as Oxford and Cambridge in relation to other British universities.↩︎

  3. Whilst it is, of course, true that Leonardo da Vinci had some interest in weapons systems, amongst a myriad of other things, the renaming of the old Finmeccanica after the man who painted the Mona Lisa is as disingenuous as the EU’s decision to call its arms fund for Ukraine the ‘European Peace Facility’.↩︎

  4. Although it is not my intention in this article to discuss in any detail Italy’s role in the general, and increasingly frantic, rearmament drive of Nato and the EU over the last couple of years, it needs to be stressed that Italian arms sales increased by 26% in 2023, that Italy has continued to sell arms to Israel since October 7 2023 in blatant breach of its own law banning arms sales to countries actively engaged in armed conflict. Further, one of the Italian arms industry’s best customers is Qatar, the main source of arms to Hamas - a point that Italy’s Green leader, Angelo Bonelli, has often raised when his pacifist line on Gaza has been described as ‘pro-Hamas’ by government ministers.↩︎

  5. The ‘Years of Lead’ long ago became establishment shorthand for the 1970s - emphasising the bullets of ultra-left terrorists, rather than neo-fascist bombs.↩︎