Open Hillel: Drone by StandWithUs polices thought at Brown University [Updated]
[Editor’s Note: StandWithUs denies that, though piloted by their staff, they do not own the robot. Read their and Open Hillel’s follow-up statements.]
[pullquote align=right] The robot approached students and harassed them about why they were attending the event.
[/pullquote]In a dystopian twist, 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. At a March 3, 2016 event about Palestinian citizens of Israel 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, 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 man who appeared on the iPad told questioners that he worked for StandWithUs. The robot was accompanied by a man identified by event organizers as also affiliated with StandWithUs, and the two spoke together in Hebrew. Students believed that the technology being used was a “Double Robotics Telepresence Robot for iPad Tablet” from Brookstone, which retails at $2,299.99. It is unclear at this time whether the individual that brought the robot was a student or professional employee of StandWithUs.
Before the event began, students say, the robot 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. At the event itself, the robot and the StandWithUs affiliate remained in the back. During the question and answer session, the man briefly left the robot’s side to ask a question.
[pullquote align=left] It is no coincidence that a right-wing organization would deploy the newest form of surveillance.
[/pullquote]The event, “Suffocating Embrace? The Future of Palestinians in Israel,” was part of the Middle East Studies’ “Critical Conversations on Palestine/Israel” series. The event was keynoted by Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and a suspended member of the Knesset from the Joint List. The panelists were historian Shira Robinson from George Washington University, anthropologist Areej Sabbagh-Khoury from Columbia University, sociologist Gershon Shafir from University of California, San Diego, and Beshara Doumani, the chair of Middle East Studies at Brown. By all accounts, the presence of the robot did not interfere with an informative and riveting event.
Students estimated that between 100 and 150 people attended the event, which was held in Starr Auditorium and ran from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
It is not yet known whether this was the first use of a robot to monitor Israel-Palestine discourse on campus.
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. In October, the department announced an inaugural Palestinian Studies fellowship and it annually sponsors a conference titled “New Directions in Palestinian Studies.” Upcoming events include a lecture about Gaza and the architecture of Palestinian refugee camps. The department, it appears, is being targeted because it is promoting the study of Palestine and Palestinians.
[pullquote align=right] Open Hillel rejects any attempt to stifle or target student or faculty activists.
[/pullquote]Open Hillel opposes the attempts of groups like StandWithUs to monitor students and faculty. As a student-led grassroots campaign supported by young alumni, professors, and rabbis, 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.
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