We’ve all heard of Israel’s prowess in science and technology, but this is ridiculous.
Ha’aretz reports that right-wing advocacy group StandWithUs sent a “robot-spy” to a panel discussion on Israel/Palestine held last week at Brown University, featuring MK Haneen Zoabi of the Joint Arab List as keynote speaker. The outlandish apparatus is shown in the photograph above wearing an overcoat and scarf beneath an iPad displaying the smiling face of Shahar Azani, the organization’s northeast executive director. It is said to have locomoted on wheels.
Azani told the paper that StandWithUs had “completely innocuous” intentions in dispatching the device, which allowed him to attend the event remotely: “We were not policing the thoughts of anyone, it was just enriching the conversation.” Some attendees got a different impression. In a statement, Brown’s Open Hillel said the automaton “approached students and harassed them about why they were attending the event. Students declined to engage with this bizarre form of intimidation and ignored the robot.”
The cybernetic golem was built by an Israeli engineer named Roey Tzezana, whose LinkedIn page lists his current employment as research fellow at the Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology and Security at Tel Aviv University. (His location, however, is given as “Providence, Rhode Island area”.) Tzezana holds a Ph.D. in nanotechnology from the Technion, Israel’s prestigious scientific research institute, and has worked with “private companies, government ministries, the Israeli police force and the European Union”, according to an about.me page that appears to be his. He seems to have strong interests in technological futurism and strategic forecasting; also, Ha’aretz says he is cofounder of a firm called Tele-Buddy.
Strange as this episode is, in a sense it makes perfect sense. For some time, pro-Israel advocates have viewed college campuses, where understanding of the Palestinians’ plight has been on the rise, as key battlegrounds in the meta-conflict over whose cause is more just. This is especially true of elite universities, where the country’s intellectual and managerial elites are molded. And just as Israeli firms have been on the cutting-edge of robotics for the world’s literal battlefields, so StandWithUs has taken the first step of deploying an android in the war of ideas.
An admittedly awkward first step, probably not destined to enter the annals of Israeli innovation. The hasbarabot was nowhere near as successful as, say, Israel’s spectacularly effective use of unmanned aircraft beaming real-time images to the air force as pilots destroyed the Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries in the Beka’a Valley in June 1982. That attack deeply impressed the U.S. government, bolstering the case for Israel as a Cold War asset. As Benny Morris explains, “If Israel could wipe out a SAM network with such ease, perhaps NATO could do the same in Eastern Europe.” That fascination with the sophisticated products of Israel’s workshops of war has continued: as Noam Chomsky has often noted, a WikiLeaks cable listing sites critical to U.S. strategic interests included a Rafael Military Industries installation outside Haifa, “where a lot of the drone technology was developed and much else.”
This continuing supremacy in technologies of surveillance and domination is the flipside of Israel’s friendly image as the “startup nation”, incubator of life-enhancing technologies and source of investment for Internet leviathans like Apple and Google. For all the PR energy expended on the latter, the former is more important to Israel’s remaining in the world’s good graces. As the Israeli-American activist Jeff Halper has argued, far from being an object of global opprobrium, the occupation (and related wars) has become a diplomatic asset for Israel, as the weapons lab of occupied Palestine proves a selling point in the development of bilateral relations:
Without an occupation and an interminable conflict, how would Israel sustain its strong international standing? The Occupation represents a resource for Israel in two senses: economically, it provides a testing ground for the development of weapons, security systems, models of population control and tactics without which Israel would be unable to compete in the international arms and security markets, but no less important, being a major military power serving other militaries and security services the world over lends Israel an international status among the global hegemons it would not have otherwise. Israel is a small country scrambling to carve out a niche in the transnational military-industrial complex. Where would it be without the Occupation and the regional conflict it generates?
Open Hillel seemed to allude to this dark, authoritarian reality in its condemnation of the StandWithUs stunt, which it dubbed a “dystopian twist” in the struggle over campus expression: “The latest development in the attack on open discourse by right-wing, pro-Israel groups appears to be the use of robots to police academic discourse.” The hasbarabot may have been an especially clumsy attempt to monitor and influence discussion about the conflict—suggesting that the startup nation is now in its decadent phase—but its vaguely threatening presence is a reminder of Israel’s ultimate tragedy: the application of so much ingenuity, resourcefulness, and talent to such an ignoble purpose as dispossessing another people.