The ivory watch tower

Why is the security department at Ben-Gurion University videotaping student rallies and informing police about students with certain political views?

By MEL BEZALEL
July 8, 2009 14:20
The ivory watch tower

filming 88 248. (photo credit: Ran Tzoref)

 
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There is a big apathy problem on Israeli university campuses, says National Union of Israeli Students (NUIS) president Boaz Toporovsky. "But it's not just students," he counters defensively. "There's a big problem of apathy and lack of hope among citizens in Israel." In Israel's general election earlier this year, just 65 percent of the country visited the ballot box - but this is a statistic that student union officials can only dream of. Tel Aviv University, for example, the nation's largest, boasting 26,000 students, could only convince 15% of its student body to vote for student union representatives in January. And other universities poll similarly. Despite the apathetic tendencies across campuses, student unions as well as the national union still manage to run successful campaigns. NUIS, for example, is currently spearheading an anti-drink-driving initiative and is encouraging social volunteering among students. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has led a "transportation revolution," making the university more accessible for its students; and on more political lines, TAU students have been fighting for its exam invigilators, who were fired two months ago, and successfully halted plans to shut the school of dentistry earlier this year. Demonstrations, petitions and leafleting are commonplace on most university campuses. Bar-Ilan University students are particularly well-equipped, with access to the Geha Bridge, which they regularly use for political campaigns, grabbing the attention of drivers stuck in central Israel's traffic jams. However, this clichéd image of students yelling through megaphones, clutching badly-painted signs and repeating hackneyed slogans as they march shoulder-to-shoulder, should not be taken for granted - a lesson that is becoming increasingly real for students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Until last April, BGU banned its students from protesting on campus, but a student appeal brought before the Beersheba District Court overruled the university's veto. Judge Ariel Vago rejected the university's claim that demonstrations threaten public order, stating: "The right to demonstrate on political or controversial matters is enshrined in the Students Rights Law." Political science and philosophy student Yoav Simhoni, 28, was one of the activists leading the campaign. "[Winning] was not surprising," says Simhoni, "as the university was really acting against the law." Students and faculty were delighted at the result, assuming that their right to freedom of speech and expression would consequently be as enshrined as their peers' at neighboring universities. However, one year on the situation looks bleak. Students are afraid to make themselves heard on campus, fearful of the university's security department, which has filmed protests both inside and outside the security gates, sent undercover police to demonstrations, requested a student's arrest and threatened students with disciplinary hearings. "It's important to stress that Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is an academic institution whose main activities are teaching and research," states BGU spokesman Amir Rozenblit. One only has to look at the chilling turn of events at last month's Hebrew University's student union election to see how student protests can get out of hand. There, a group named Im Tirtzu ("If You Will It") electioneered on campus, preaching "Zionist advocacy" which included Israeli flag-waving and chanting songs like "Am Yisrael Hai." This deteriorated into a conflict when some far-left students from an organization named Campus Lekulanu ("Campus For Us All") began Nazi saluting in response to the Zionist slogans. Students looked on in horror and soon the campus became an ugly news story. Not all student protests escalate into scenes like this, and although Rozenblit may have legitimate cause for concern over student activism, one might conclude that attempts to undermine activism can have the opposite effect, creating the very outbursts that the university is trying to avoid. Instead of immediately creating protest regulations after the court ruling last year, BGU maintained it was "working on it," and only 14 months after the ruling released a protocol on demonstrations. In the meantime, students were told to ask the security team for permission, as and when they wished to protest. "The university was using the security department as something to hide behind," argues 29-year-old Tal Baharav, who is studying education and political science. Nine months after the court ruling, after being refused permission to protest on several occasions despite there being no university regulations to quote or counter, Baharav organized a silent demonstration, attended by 200 students. "Any place where there is no law, no one can apply a law on us," states Baharav boldly. He and some peers had to attend a disciplinary hearing for the protest, at which, he claims, some student e-mails were presented by the security team as evidence of the students' plot. The e-mails on display were sent and received from university accounts a year before the hearing, mostly in the form of forwarded messages regarding times and places of various rallies. The university is within its rights to intercept e-mails, as all students know from reading the easily-accessible rules regarding university e-mail accounts. However, the fact that the e-mails mentioned were mostly benign protest reminders from the previous year, demonstrates that the university's security team consciously keeps tabs on student activism, possibly fearful of a united student front. Rozenblit denies that campus security reads student e-mails, holding that "these actions are illegal and the security department acts only according to the law." The university's protest regulations, finalized at the end of June, state that to hold a demonstration, students must request permission from the student dean and security department; can only protest in areas designated by the university and may be asked to pay up if protests incur any costs. These protest rules are a "political tool" to prevent campaigning by students that might embarrass the university, maintains Simhoni. "Instead of working with the judge's ruling, they decided to get around it." Students were incensed by the new regulations, but university management did not share the same sense of urgency. When The Jerusalem Post asked student dean Yaakov Afek at the end of May when the final rules were due, he responded: "It's not so important, one more day, two more days… this is not a critical issue [that's time-constrained]… I hope next week we will have the final [document] and I think everything will be OK and all will be satisfied." Students and teachers alike have taken issue with the regulations. They argue that demonstrations should be seen and heard, and if the university determines the locations, protests could be banished to the periphery of campus, drawing little attention. But more crucially, they hold that the introduction of a monetary element may discourage poorer students from making their voice heard, which is undemocratic - a point contended by political science lecturer Dr. Neve Gordon. "The state picks up the tab because one of the rights in a democratic state is the right of assemblage and the right to protest, and you cannot limit that right only to the rich," says Gordon. The first draft of the regulations, circulated by students six weeks ago, created a stir that has continued to pick up pace - impressive for students who are branded "apathetic" by the current trend. Just a few days after the first draft was seen in May, MA student Noa Slor, 27, was arrested for handing out flyers outside the campus gates. Slor, along with four Arab students, was distributing literature in opposition to the Nakba Day Knesset bill. After being asked to stand at least a meter away from the university gate and taking up the issue with a university security guard, the security team called the police and Slor alone was arrested by police for trespassing on university property and humiliating a public official - the security guard - and questioned at the Beersheba police station for three hours. Just before her questioning reached its conclusion, the university's security team called the station to drop the charges, on direct orders of university president Rivka Carmi. Slor believes the phone call was a result of pressure by staff, who expressed outrage at her arrest. Despite the charges being dropped, Slor's criminal file is still outstanding, six weeks later. That night, in support of Slor, 60 students formed a last-minute silent protest to coincide with an academic ceremony attended by the university's board of governors and VIPs. There students stood for an hour, with tape covering their mouths to signify being gagged by the university, and holding placards reading: "Security department = secret police." One month later, the consequences of the protest were to reveal themselves. Simhoni received a letter from the university, requesting his attendance at a disciplinary hearing for participating in the silent protest, following a complaint filed by student dean Afek. Although Simhoni did attend the protest, he did not organize it. It was pure coincidence that he had applied and been denied permission to protest at that same time, during the ceremony. Simhoni had hoped to hold a freedom of speech rally regarding the newly-drafted protest regulations, but after having his application rejected with the university ruling that he could hold it another time, he did not go ahead with the event. Simhoni broke the rules by attending an unauthorized protest, but so did 60 other students who stood alongside him. Though he was acquitted with a warning at the end of June, Simhoni believes he was singled out to stand trial because the university was attempting to scapegoat him for the security controversy - a personal attack because of his well-known involvement in freedom-of-speech issues at the university. The protest regulation drafts and the controversial incidents unfolding as a result of their reception has put the security issue in the spotlight, with students and staff members alike coming forward to share their experiences. Most notably, testimonies came to light in early June when staff members organized a panel discussion on the topic, inviting students, academic staff, the university's head of security, dean of students and director-general to attend. Subsequently, only students and staff members showed up, which disappointed members of the audience who had expected an open dialogue on the issue. Several students and staff members addressed the audience from the podium. Ran Tzoref , 23, described how a peaceful protest against Operation Cast Lead outside the campus gates in December of last year was filmed by the university security unit without the students' knowledge. Tzoref and four Arab students were arrested by police and questioned for eight hours, but charges were dropped. Tzoref explains: "[After I was released] I got the investigation notes and in there was a letter from someone at the university security to the police, and there he stated that he had filmed us… and later sent [the tape] to the police." "We didn't know this was the state of the university," continues Tzoref, "that someone from the university can film you when you're in a demonstration outside [the campus], when it's none of their business, and then send it to the police without informing us." Last month, taking a different approach, Tzoref and some students filed a request for a campus demonstration on freedom of speech, which was granted. However, Tzoref maintains that the security team intimidated participants by sending undercover police to the rally. "We thought if we did everything with the approval of the university, it would be OK," says Tzoref. "And what did we have? The university security invited two undercover police officers." On the issue of filming protests, Rozenblit states: "As for filming protests, this does occasionally happen according to the evaluation of the situation; in order to keep public order, there is a need to document these demonstrations… which have legal intent." However, speaking to The Jerusalem Post at the end of May, then-head of security, Naftali Presler (who was replaced in June), revealed that "every event at the university is filmed," explaining that filming takes place so security knows whom to hold responsible if a protest violates rules or a protester has a conflict with a security guard. Presler additionally admitted that his team previously handed a protest tape to the police: "The cameraman of the police came and used our camera. He asked us if he can use our camera and we said yes, because we can and it's not against the law. If the police ask for our help, we help them." Twenty-five-year-old political science and government student Daud Affan, one of the Arab students arrested alongside Tzoref last December, told the students how he and some Arab peers had been pointed out to police by university security at the Gaza protest and that he believed it was a discrimination issue. A few days after the police investigation, Affan and the same Arab friends were IDed and photographed by Presler in a university café without any explanation. Affan also mentioned an on-campus event he organized about Nakba Day in mid-May. On his way to meet security to finalize the event details, he received a last-minute call from security, requesting that he bring his checkbook, which made him 10 minutes late. When he arrived, Presler told Affan the event was cancelled due to the student's tardiness. "And we didn't forget what happened during the war," Presler added, referring to Affan's participation in the Gaza protests. Under the dean's instruction, the event did take place a week later, but Affan was asked to hand over a check for NIS 120, as a guarantee. After the event, Affan was told he'd receive his check back if he brought another for NIS 118.30. "They said it was compatible with the rules, for the security who were safeguarding the event," Affan explains, although the regulations had not yet been issued. Asked why for that specific amount, Affan says "They wanted to make fun of me." Affan subsequently relayed the events to the dean, who cancelled all payments. Despite Affan's testimony on the Arab discrimination issue, Rozenblit denies all allegations of racism: "The people who work at the [security] department do not perform surveillance on students from specific ethnic minorities, and as for the accusation about discrimination of citizens belonging to specific ethnic minorities on campus, there is no basis and no element of truth to it." Also addressing the audience at the panel debate was Ma'ayan Gerber, 24, who last year lobbied the university to improve working conditions for cleaning staff on campus. Gerber told the audience that she discovered the security team keeps files on politically active students. Timor Melamed, a senior lecturer in the electrical and computer engineering department of the university, described how the security unit filmed a faculty strike two years ago. Arab student Arij Huleilah, who witnessed Slor's arrest, reported how the security team refused to give any answers about why some flyers were permitted for distribution and others not. Another student noted that almost every classroom on campus is furnished with CCTV. On one occasion, she described, she and her friends accidentally obstructed a camera and within minutes, members of security burst in to warn the students that if it happened again, they would face a disciplinary committee. Testimonies are fallible, underlines Rozenblit, commenting that some who have raised claims against the security unit are doing so "with the aim of provoking quarrel and making the headlines." "The purpose and role of security are obvious and usually do not need to be explained," says Rozenblit. "However, it is important to emphasize them, especially due to the recent events where the staff working for the security department are slandered on videos that are being posed on different forums, on the Web and in other places, where they are accused of abusing students at the university." The Web site Rozenblit is referring to is "Security Watch" (bgufreedomofspeech.blogspot.com) a blog established by BGU students to document the alleged actions of the security team. The testimonies from the panel discussion are posted on this site alongside photographs and other information on the issue. Testimonies may be subjective accounts, but many of the charges, such as the claim that all protests are filmed and that students are repeatedly threatened with disciplinary hearings, are supported by other students and even staff members, some of whom did not want to be named for fear of repercussions from the security unit. Many were glad to be named, however, and summed up their feelings on the issue: "People are afraid", says Tzoref. "The problem is double," explains Tali Lerner, 25. "They don't allow activism on campus… and the security guards are trying to scare people off by threatening, by calling the police on activists…" "We're not supposed to express our opinions freely and in a public institution that's talking about freedom of speech, that's meant to be democratic and liberal, it's really ironic," states Slor. "Younger generations already feel they can't change anything and the security unit is making that trend worse," says Noa Genusov, 24. "I think what they're trying to do is intimidate those who wish to protest," claims Gordon. Some faculty members are concerned about the security issue affecting the institution's reputation, including one lecturer who asked to remain anonymous, and who hopes the university will reconsider its position if it wants to stop its reputation getting tarnished. "The feeling among several people among the faculty and students is that the security department somehow has too much power and the way they use the power and the way they behave are as if they were some sort of Israeli Security Agency (Shin Bet)… There is no place for something like that in a university and in a state that considers itself to be democratic," said the lecturer. Gordon echoes those sentiments, arguing that universities should be encouraging their students to be active in order to create better citizens. "We want students to protest for the rights of the weak," says Gordon. "That's exactly the students we want in this university… These security [guards] get a salary to do one thing: protect a student body and protect the faculty… The students who are active for the weaker segments of society do not feel that they are protected by security, but rather feel that they are intimidated and harassed by security, and that is not their role." What disappoints and concerns students most is that they see little evidence of the university's recognizing the urgency or reality of the situation. "No one from the university thinks it's a problem," says Tzoref. "We talked to the president, we talked to the dean of students and they don't see a problem." However, Rozenblit emphasizes that all charges made against the security team are taken seriously, commenting: "Any complaint made against the functioning of the security department - as with any other department - will be thoroughly investigated… Like other big systems, sometimes there are cases which are not perfectly conducted. These cases are interrogated and taken care of in the most professional way there is without favoritism." However, despite the accusations laid at the university's door, Rozenblit still maintains that "the university administration stands behind the security department and supports it." According to some students, the university's student union habitually sides with the university administration. Union spokesperson Yonat Atlas refuses to comment on the security situation and instead recounts how the union works well with university management. "We're not against them and they're not against us… It's a good relationship, we have an open door with [university president] Rivka Carmi and we can talk to her about anything, whenever we want," she says. The question is, then, why the union isn't taking the security issue on as a campaign of its own, instead of watching its students carry the burden in their absence. "We have a lot of students involved in the association and our door is always open for students who want our help," Atlas concludes. Not so, says Tzoref, who approached student union vice-president Amit Elbaz after Slor was arrested. "He didn't want us to demonstrate [against Slor's arrest]," recalls Tzoref, "and when we told him we were going to demonstrate… he said he had to inform security of our intention to protest." Baharav also came into contact with the union and found that the student representatives mainly acted behind-the-scenes. "Every now and then they wrote a letter saying they do support [us], but they weren't active," he says. "They did cooperate but they didn't treat it as their own [issue] ever." Since freedom of speech became the central issue on campus a few months ago, attempts have been made to resolve the issue, though these have primarily been made by students and staff. Apart from the panel debate last month and several calls to table discussions at various university administrative meetings, a petition signed by staff and students was submitted to university management at the end of June. The document, coordinated by politics lecturer Dr. Dani Filc, demands that political activity, as it is legal and accepted by the law outside the university gates, be permitted within the gates. Also, the signatories, which include 52 staff members, are calling for the establishment of a supervising committee comprising faculty, students and university administration, to counterbalance the security unit. After quizzing dozens of students about the security issue on the BGU campus, it rapidly became clear that most students know little or nothing about their protest rights and the recent goings-on. On the whole, answers ranged from "everything is fine," to "I've heard mutterings but nothing concrete," to "I'm too busy studying to notice anything else."

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