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Anti-Israel Blacklist or Human Rights Protest?: How the media misreported a teacher union’s request in Brazil

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A story reported last week by Inside Higher Education read like a McCarthyist nightmare:  A Brazilian university administrator urgently requested “names of Israeli students and teachers” in order to comply with a request from “pro-Palestinian groups”.

According to the story, reported also by YNET, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and the Jewish Forward,  the administrator, Vice-Rector Prof. Jose Fernando Schlosser, was accused of anti-Semitism and an investigation opened against him. The university, the Federal University of Santa Maria (FUSM) claimed under the law, it was required to provide the information  in accordance with the law on freedom of information.

Reporting for Inside Higher Education, respected editor and journalist Scott Jaschik writes:

The idea that such information might be released to those [“pro-Palestinian”] groups has raised alarm in Israel and among Jewish groups in Brazil. Many have expressed fears that Israelis at the university could be harassed, and questioned why a university should be releasing such information about its foreign students.

Why indeed? Had anybody taken five minutes with Google and Google Translator (which led me to Brazilian peace activist, Moara Crivelente), the readers would have received a somewhat different story:

On August 28 2014, following Israel’s massive shelling of Gaza in which heavy civilians losses and damage were sustained, and amidst ongoing protests against  FUSM’s involvement with Israeli firm Elbit’s Brazilian subsidiary AEL Systems (involvement allegedly having to do with military microsatellite and space weapon research), a freedom of information request was made of the university’s president by three groups: the Trade Union Section of FUSM Teachers, the Central Directory of Students, and  the Association of FUSM Employees (misidentified as “Palestinian” or “pro-Palestinian” organizations in the media reporting.)  To their representatives’ signatures were affixed signatures of members of the Santa Maria Committee for Palestinian Solidarity.

The request, available here, begins with considerations that led to the request, including the military cooperative research,  and the recent Gaza operation. The request then contains the following five sections:

1) Does the FUSM have any participation in the Space Hub in [the Federal state of] Rio Grande do Sul? If so, in what way? What document underlies this relationship?

2) Does FUSM have any relationship with juridical Israeli persons (private companies, public entities, NGOs, etc.?), including through their Brazilian subsidiaries or, even if indirectly, through cooperation with other Brazilian institutions that might be related to them? Which document underlies this relationship?

3) Is there any action (Plan, Program, Project, Covenant or Agreement of Cooperation, Protocol of Intentions, etc.) registered and/or in effect with juridical Israeli persons, including through their Brazilian subsidiaries or, even if indirectly, through the cooperation with other Brazilian institutions that might be related to them? Which document underlies this relationship?

4) Are there, at the moment, or is there a prospect for the UFSM to accept Israeli students/professors/authorities/professionals? If so, through whose invitation/proposal?

5) Is UFSM, or will it be, beneficiary of any material or human resource of Israeli origin, even if indirectly, that is, through the relationships referred to at items 2 and 3 retro?

There is no request here for names of Israeli students and teachers. Even in the request sent out by the vice-provost, there was no request for names of Israelis students and teachers.

And the Teacher’s Union response, available here, makes clear its intentions, which was “to clarify press reports that the UFSM participated in  scientific cooperation agreements with companies that provide weapons and technologies to the Israeli war machine.”

Was the request itself justifiable? My personal opinion is the request, despite justifiable intentions, was carelessly, and much too sweepingly, worded. The organizations wanted to know whether there were Israeli students and professors invited to study in areas with implications for the military, and were there research agreements in areas with military-use implications. That is why they asked “at whose invitation or proposal” the Israelis were invited. But the intention should have been made clearer.

But is even that justifiable? Let us recall that in the US, Iranian students are prohibited from studying the following fields: “petroleum engineering; petroleum management; nuclear science; nuclear engineering; or, a related field” and “Individuals seeking to study in other fields, such as business, management or computer science, but who intend to use these skills in Iran’s oil, natural gas or nuclear energy sectors, are also ineligible for visas.” Clearly the petitioners were concerned, rightly or wrongly, with FUSM’s complicity with military-industrial complex.

But a poorly-worded request for information is not the same as creating a blacklist of opponents (for that idea see a pro-Israel website here.) Nobody asked for names of Israelis, and nobody was interested in harassing or harming Israeli students or professors.

But most sadly – nobody asked for the petitioners’ side of the story.

Inside Higher Education should publish a follow-up.

This post originally appeared on The Magnes Zionist could not have been written without the generous help of Moara Crivelente.

Jeremiah Haber

Jeremiah (Jerry) Haber is the nom de plume of Charles H. Manekin, an orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor, who divides his time between Israel and the US. His website is The Magnes Zionist.

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5 Responses

  1. Citizen on June 12, 2015, 1:47 pm

    So how’s the Israel lobby doing in Brazil?

  2. just on June 12, 2015, 7:03 pm

    Thanks for clearing this up, Jerry.

    wrt Iranian students, I remember reading about UMass @ Corey Robin’s blog:

    “My sister Melissa just sent me a piece from today’s Boston Globe on the UMass Iranian student situation. The big blockbuster in the piece is this:

    The college’s new policy, which appears to be rare if not unique among US universities, appeared to catch the US State Department by surprise…

    The State Department had no idea that this policy was in the offing, and more important, seems to believe or suggest that the policy may be unnecessary.

    A US State Department official said that the department was aware of news reports about the UMass decision but that there had been no changes in federal policy regarding Iranian students and he could not say why UMass would change its policy. The department will contact UMass to discuss the decision and will answer any questions from other academic institutions about the law, the official said.

    “All visa applications are reviewed individually in accordance with the requirements of the US Immigration and Nationality Act and other relevant laws that establish detailed standards for determining eligibility for visas and admission to the United States,” the official, who declined to be quoted by name, said in an e-mail.

    “US law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering,” the official continued. “Each application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis.”

    Got that? It is not US law that prohibits Iranian nationals from applying and enrolling…; it is UMass itself that is doing that.”

    http://coreyrobin.com/2015/02/14/state-department-expresses-surprise-over-umass-policy/

    ~and~

    “UMass issued the following announcement today:

    The University of Massachusetts Amherst today announced that it will accept Iranian students into science and engineering programs, developing individualized study plans to meet the requirements of federal sanctions law and address the impact on students. The decision to revise the university’s approach follows consultation with the State Department and outside counsel.

    “This approach reflects the university’s longstanding commitment to wide access to educational opportunities,” said Michael Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement. “We have always believed that excluding students from admission conflicts with our institutional values and principles. It is now clear, after further consultation and deliberation, that we can adopt a less restrictive policy.”

    Federal law, the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, requires that the U.S. Department of State deny visas to Iranian students wishing to engage in certain fields of study related to the energy sector, nuclear science, nuclear engineering or a related field at U.S. colleges and universities. To comply with the law and its impacts, UMass Amherst will develop individualized study plans as appropriate based on a student’s projected coursework and research in conjunction with an offer of admission. The plan will be updated as required during a student’s course of study.

    NBC News has more on the story.

    Thanks to everyone who wrote to the university to express their opposition to the university’s policy of prohibiting Iranian nationals from applying to select departments in engineering and the natural sciences. This was a story, I’m proud to say, that we broke here at this blog (thanks to a tip from a professor in Colorado), and which rapidly got picked up in the national media. …”

    http://coreyrobin.com/2015/02/18/we-won-umass-backs-down/

    In other FOIA news:

    “Judge orders University of Illinois to release Steven Salaita emails

    Illinois Circuit Judge Thomas Difanis today ordered the University of Illinois to release thousands of pages of emails that may cast light on the state institution’s decision to fire Steven Salaita last August.

    The decision in the Champaign County Court was a big victory for Salaita, who brought a lawsuit against the university under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

    Difanis rejected the university’s claims that the request would be too burdensome and agreed with Salaita’s lawyers that there was a significant public interest in whether hiring decisions by the university have been unduly influenced by donors.

    At issue were about 9,000 pages of emails from or to about a dozen senior university officials, narrowed down from earlier requests that the university said would have run to tens of thousands of pages.

    In a separate federal lawsuit that is still in its early stages, Salaita is suing university trustees, administrators and donors for breaching a contract to hire him and violating his constitutional rights over tweets he made critical of Israel’s attack on Gaza last summer.

    “Kardashians”
    Difanis issued his ruling after a 40-minute hearing in which Salaita’s attorney Anand Swaminathan of Loevy & Loevy argued back and forth with university counsel Charles Schmadeke of Hinshaw & Culbertson.

    The judge said that previous scandals at the university – including the so-called “clout list” that gave preferential admission to politically-connected applicants – were examples of why the public had a right to know the information Salaita was seeking.

    At one point, Schmadeke argued that there was no genuine “public interest” in the Salaita case but rather “public curiosity” similar to that around reality TV’s Kardashian family.

    Swaminathan responded that “Steven Salaita is no Kardashian.” He cited not just extensive national and international interest in the free speech and academic freedom issues raised by his case, but the fact that numerous national academic bodies, notably the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a report on the case.

    He gestured toward the two dozen people in the public gallery, including many students and faculty who would have been working with Salaita in the American Indian Studies program at the Urbana-Champaign campus had he not been fired.

    Difanis also rejected university claims that the work of sorting the emails outweighed the legitimate public interest, even if it required hiring temporary staff in order to complete the job.”…

    More @ http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/judge-orders-university-illinois-release-steven-salaita-emails

  3. RobertHenryEller on June 13, 2015, 10:46 am

    Meanwhile would any Zionists upset about what the Brazilians were doing, care to rationalize the activities of the people behind canarymission.org, which is naming, “shaming,” and deliberately trying to cause material and social damage to supporters of the BDS movement in the U.S.?

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