Opinion

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.

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So how’s the Israel lobby doing in Brazil?

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… Read more »

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.?