The Deadly “Start-Up Nation”

Three McGill course trips to Israel have something in common: Under the guise of promoting technological innovation, they tout the name “Start-Up Nation.” This moniker derives from the 2009 book Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, that examines how such a young state now boasts the highest number of start-ups per capita in the world. Adopting this narrative, the Desautels Faculty of Management and the Faculty of Engineering lead heavily subsidized, accredited courses on touring the supposedly innovative tech start-up scene of Israel. In these courses, the faculties portray technological innovation as an apolitical, neutral force striving for progress and social good. 

In reality, these start-ups produce the technology foundational to Israel’s surveillance system. By way of cameras, drones, and satellites, Israel uses this tech to illegally profile, detain, prosecute, and kill Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Critics of Israel are not alone in recognizing the connection between start-ups and violence—the Start-up Nation authors themselves note that the omnipresence of the Israeli military is a major factor in the concentration of tech start-ups. However, the authors consider this link to be a beneficial byproduct of young soldiers honing their leadership, rather than a direct consequence of American and Israeli funding that fuels technological and imperialist innovation for military and police activities. These operations, which uphold occupation and perpetrate genocide, are justified through the discourse of opportunity and innovation. Under the guise of entrepreneurial spirit and evident across several faculties, McGill’s contribution to Israeli settler-colonialism is extensive and in a long history of reciprocal collaboration between McGill and genocidal Israeli institutions.

Although course descriptions for the Start-Up Nation courses are coded with the innocuous language of Silicon Valley innovation, they are not far from the land-grab tactics used to entice white Europeans to settle Turtle Island with promises of cheap, fertile land. Touted as a trip to the nation of opportunity, the promotion for the Engineering course FACC 501 encourages McGill students to pitch business ideas to Israeli venture capital firms aiming to attract foreign business owners. Additionally, during the FACC 501 course, McGill students frequently learn from model start-ups which are, in reality, military contractors for the Israeli Occupation Forces. In 2022, Professors Jiro Kondo and Brian Rubineau, Desautels Faculty Scholar in “EDI and Ethics,” brought students to visit Au10tix, an Israel-based facial recognition company that provides intelligence for airports and border control and is affiliated with Shin Bet, the Israeli Security Agency. 

Israel’s start-up economy is not an organic phenomenon—it is a continuously manufactured attempt to legitimize Israel’s statehood amidst its project of settler colonialism. Domestically, the Israeli regime relies on imperialist tactics of military dominance to maintain its occupation. On an international scale, Israel needs investments from foreign capital to establish economic legitimacy and independence in a global market system. In the Global North, programs such as McGill’s FACC 501 are essential in facilitating this influx of capital. Particularly in the tech market, Israeli investors incentivize the migration of new business ventures to Israel, benefitting from government and military subsidies for “innovation.” By way of direct financial incentive, McGill students participating in the FACC 501 course are encouraged to establish new businesses in Israel, thereby expanding Israel’s settler economy. Thus, student meetings with venture capital firms do not serve as innocent networking opportunities—they are a necessary component of Israel’s colonial project, and ultimately, a form of settlement.

The Start-Up Nation courses stand out at McGill because they are heavily subsidized, advertising that nearly all participant expenses are covered by gifts from external donors. One major donor is Heather Reisman, Indigo Books founder and former Governor of McGill, who also created the HESEG foundation for ‘lone soldiers’ to provide funding to foreigners who join the Israeli military. Whether sponsoring university students networking with military contractors or funding young Canadians who join the Israeli regime, Reisman’s “philanthropy” serves a clear purpose. By facilitating the export of Canadian capital and personnel, Reisman’s donations at McGill bolster the system of international economic and settler exchange that legitimizes the Israeli state—and by direct extension, the violence of its occupation of Palestine. The Start-Up Nation courses stand as undeniable evidence of our university’s deep-seated support for the Israeli occupation and the genocide of Palestinians—a stance which echoes McGill’s many histories and ongoing participation in colonial violence. 

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