Middle East studies in the News
Was StandWithUs Robot Surveilling Brown University Israel Talk?
by Nicole Zelniker
In the last few years, robotic technology has made tremendous strides. We can now use the technology to open doors or even move cars.
As of this year, we can also use robots to attend campus events.
On March 3, pro-Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs partnered with the technology company Tele-Buddy to send a robot to an event at Brown University titled "Critical Conversations: Suffocating Embrace? The Futures of Palestinians in Israel," about Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
"I saw all the speakers [at the event] were coming from ... one point of view," said Tele-Buddy cofounder Roey Tzezana in a phone interview. "We do all we can to encourage multiple points of view."
Brown's Middle East Studies program runs a public discussion every semester. This semester, panelists included Gershon Shafir, a founder of the settler-colonial approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Shira Robinson, author of Citizen Strangers, a book about colonial rule of Palestinians in Israel; and Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, who studies the role of left-wing Zionist collectives in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
According to Shahar Azani, the Northeast director of StandWithUs, Tzezana contacted SWU after receiving permission from the event's organizers to send the robot.
"He reached out to one of the organizers ... and said, 'I would like to [engage]'," said Azani in a phone interview.
Not all of those involved with the event were thrilled about StandWithUs' use of robots.
"My brain refuses to comprehend that StandWithUs is using drones to surveil students," said University of Central Florida junior Mia Warshofsky. "It feels very dystopian."
Future events sponsored by the Middle East Studies department at Brown include a lecture on Gaza and another on Palestinian refugee camps.
An initial statement by Open Hillel published in Jewschool speculated that StandWithUs targeted this department intentionally because it promotes activism for Palestine.
Open Hillel declined to comment on that and a subsequent statement, saying that StandWithUs would be able to better explain their intentions.
In the original statement, Open Hillel wrote, "It is no coincidence that a right-wing organization would deploy the newest form of surveillance at an event sponsored by Middle East Studies at Brown University ... The department, it appears, is being targeted because it is promoting the study of Palestine and Palestinians."
StandWithUs denied that allegation: "To call [that] inaccurate would be a mild description," Azani said. "It's really sad to see that this happened."
Warshofsky said regardless of the intention, she and others still felt attacked.
"It removes the humanity from students," Warshofsky said.
"Curiosity drives learning and by sending a robot to monitor what's being said, it shows that StandWithUs views university students learning as so dangerous that they will invest time and money into harassing young adults."
Whether or not Tele-Buddy choses to attend events like this in the future or partner with organizations like StandWithUs, the technology used to partake in Brown's event will continue to develop.
"We're enabling people to connect ... everywhere in the world," Tzezana said.
Nicole Zelniker is a student at Guilford College.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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