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March 11, 2016 5:30 am

‘Open Hillel’ Decries Robotic Intimidation by ‘Right-Wing Pro-Israel Group’ During Brown U Panel Discussion

avatar by Andrew Pessin

Shahar Azani, StandWithUs. Photo: Roey Tzetzana

Shahar Azani, StandWithUs. Photo: Roey Tzetzana

When a representative of a pro-Israel group could not physically attend last week’s Brown University panel discussion on “The Future of Palestinians in Israel,” he attended virtually instead. This decision was promptly denounced by a recently launched campus group that advocates for “opening” campus Hillels to anti-Israel, pro-boycotting voices, who called it “the latest development in the attack on open discourse by right-wing pro-Israel groups.”

According to a statement posted by Open Hillel on Facebook,

At a March 3, 2016 event … sponsored by Middle East Studies at Brown University, a robot attended and accosted students. The robot used an iPad to display a man from StandWithUs, [a pro-Israel group] which receives funding from Israel’s government.

The robot wore a suit and tie, and had an iPad in the place of its head, which displayed the StandWithUs employee …The robot was accompanied by a man identified by event organizers as also affiliated with StandWithUs, and the two spoke together in Hebrew …

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Before the event began, students say, the robot approached them and harassed them about why they were attending the event. Students declined to engage with this bizarre form of intimidation and ignored the robot. At the event itself, the robot and the StandWithUs affiliate remained in the back …

It is not yet known whether this was the first use of a robot to monitor Israel-Palestine discourse on campus …

Open Hillel opposes the attempts of groups like StandWithUs to monitor students and faculty… Open Hillel rejects any attempt to stifle or target student or faculty activists. The use of robots for purposes of surveillance endangers the ability of students and faculty to learn and discuss this issue. We call upon outside groups such as StandWithUs to conduct themselves in accordance with the academic principles of open discourse and debate.

A rather different perspective on the episode was offered by Roey Tzezana, the man responsible for the robot. Tzezana posted a response directly on Open Hillel’s Facebook page:

Dear Open Hillel,

… I’m the co-founder of Tele-Buddy – a company that brings robots everywhere so that people will be able to log into them and share their opinions.

A few days before the event, I contacted Prof. Beshara Doumani (the organizer) and asked for permission to bring an Israeli using the robot. He confirmed, saying that the event was open both for human beings and robots. I also promised that since the robot can (and should!) be used to enrich any discussion, I would be happy to host another person who couldn’t come with his/her biological body in the next panel: whether it is a Palestinian, a Chinese, a North-Korean or anyone …

Anyway, Mr. Shahar Azani from StandWithUs took control over the robot in the event. I can personally testify that he absolutely did not “harass” anyone. He talked with people, and if they didn’t talk back – he just went on talking with other people. It was fun, and people took pictures and were interested to hear about Shahar and the robot.

As for surveillance or Israeli support for this venture: you’re absolutely wrong. No footage of what the robot “sees” is being saved anywhere, and the Israeli government has absolutely no connection to this use of the robot. It was strictly my idea, and I stand behind it: if we can enrich debates with more points of view, to reach more meaningful insights about the future, how can we allow ourselves not to do so?

StandWithUs also released a statement, reported by the blog Legal Insurrection, noting, “To the best of our knowledge, the [robot] is meant to enrich discussions and conversations by allowing remote participation in an interactive manner…”

StandWithUs is an international organization that, according to its website, is “dedicated to informing the public about Israel and to combating the extremism and antisemitism that often distorts the issues.”

The March 3 panel discussion at Brown featured as Keynote Speaker Israeli Arab Knesset Member Haneen Zoabi, who, as Legal Insurrection reports, “regularly engages in outrageous statements against Israel including backing the Intifada, participating in the Gaza Flotilla, and inciting against Israeli Arab policemen.”

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