Israeli University Cancels Event for Arab Students Over Fear for ‘Public Wellbeing’

A month after canceling a performance by Arab singers due to fears for the ‘public’s wellbeing’ and ‘bureaucratic difficulties’, the administration at Ben-Gurion University banned parts of another event aimed at Arab students, leading to its cancelation. Students are convinced the administration is scared of ‘thugs from the right’

An event scheduled to take place on Wednesday to mark the opening of the academic year for Arab students at Ben-Gurion University in the southern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva was canceled, after the university’s administration decided to disqualify certain key parts of it without providing a reason.

The event, which was organized by the student union, included a daytime fair and a musical performance in the evening. However, the university refused to approve key elements of the daytime event — a Bedouin tent, and booths in which stickers with Arabic writing and traditional Arabic art were sold.

The university also disqualified two female artists, Rola Azar and Aya Khalaf, from performing at the event. Last month, the management canceled a performance by the East Jerusalem oud artist, Canaan Ghoul. The reasons given by the administration for canceling the performances were fear of incitement and harming the public wellbeing, as well as bureaucratic difficulties.

On Thursday, the university’s administration gathered for a Zoom meeting with the participation of president Daniel Haimovich, where it informed the event’s organizers that while traditional food and sweet stalls would be approved, setting up the Bedouin tent and displaying the stickers and art would not.

In addition, the management decided that the musical show will take place in a closed hall on campus which holds slightly more than 400 seats — less than a fifth of the number of Arab students at BGU — and not in an open area as was the case in previous years. The organizers were notified about the disqualification of the singers about a month ago.

‘Following the decision [to cancel the musical performances], we were informed that there are quite a few students who do not intend to come, so we canceled [the whole event] in order not to invest tens of thousands of shekels,’ said chairman of the student union in Ben-Gurion University, Barak Dvir.

Regarding the ban on the tent and booths, he said, ‘I don’t know the exact explanation. There are all kinds of difficulties with the building itself and safety permits, some things need certain licenses, all kinds of bureaucratic things.’ Activists on campus who have been involved in organizing larger and more complex events this year expressed bewilderment at these arguments.

According to a student privy to details of the production of the event, the university administration ‘made it difficult for the organizers in every little thing.’

‘They tried not to answer them [in writing] … so that there would be no documentation,’ she said, but added that the ban on erecting the Bedouin tent was justified for ‘political reasons,’ but that they did not elaborate further.

As to the singer Rola Azar, the student said that the organizers were told that she was ‘too political and harshly critical of Israel … and therefore endangers security.’ The other singer, Aya Khalaf, while she was ‘less political’ according to the administration, was banned because ‘there was something security-related about her as well.’

The student says that the management asked the organizers for a list of artists for them to approve, ‘from which they approved Eyad Tanos, a Christian singer who mainly sings love songs, and a young, unknown singer whose stage name is ‘Kookim’. The management’s method is to decide based on a Google search,’ she said.

The student added that ‘on the one hand, president Daniel Haimovich and university officials say they’re against racism and convey messages that they want Arabs students to feel at home here, but at the moment of truth they put a spoke in their wheels.’

‘The university is probably afraid of the new government and has also been ridiculed,’ added the student. ‘Are you really afraid of some stickers in Arabic? Of works of art with captions? They can translate the text without a problem and see that there is no incitement. It’s just an excuse,’ she said.

‘The university is informing the thugs of the extreme right that all they need to exert control over it is to issue threats,’ the student said. ‘It is good that the event was canceled, otherwise a message would have gone out that the Arab students agree to being censored and to the administration’s submission to the gangs of the far-right,’ she concluded.

The right’s strategy is working

In the case of the invitation extended to the East Jerusalem oud player Canaan Ghoul, the reasons for disqualification were more explicit, although inconsistent. On November 10, two activists from the ‘Al-Matrah’ student cell, Saja Abu Shakra and khattaf Al-Huzayel, asked the student union to hold the event. A week later, Mohammad Al-Krenawi, the union’s coordinator of Arab students, who is also responsible for censoring the fair and the show, told them that their application had been approved and that the hall was reserved for them on the 22nd of the month.

But two days before the concert date, it emerged that the university’s security office was banning it on the grounds that Ghoul was a BDS activist and had signed a letter calling for the singer Celine Dion not to perform in Israel.

Al-Hozeil appealed to the dean of students, Prof. Orna Almog, for clarification, and was told that “security officials believe, based on reliable information, gleaned from social networks among other things, that a near-certain danger exists to public order if this artist comes.” Almog added that the show could go on with another performer.

Attorney Dan Yakir, legal counsel at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel which accompanies the ‘Al-Matrah’ cell, says that Ghoul denies what the university’s administration attributed to him, and that it has not presented any evidence to substantiate their claims. In any case, he said, Ghoul’s ‘positions and views cannot be a basis for canceling his performance on campus.’

Yakir also noted that it was in fact possible to hold the performance, as had happened last week at Tel-Aviv University. Ghoul performed at an event held by the left-wing Hadash party student chapter, despite threats from right-wing activists.

The protest at TAU was against the rapper Tamer Nafar, and not against Ghoul who appeared before him on the same stage, but the university did not intervene and the two appeared under increased security in front of hundreds of students.

On the day that Ghoul was supposed to appear at Ben-Gurion, the university’s legal consultant, Tamar Mond, told Yakir that the performance would lead to ‘a real danger to public wellbeing.’ This conclusion, she says, is based on the ‘assessments of security officials,’ which, ‘although not detailed in the answer, are based on evidence and reliable and professional estimations.’

In conclusion, she stated that the rector of the university, Prof. Chaim Hames, is privy to details of the case, and will invite the students involved in organizing the event for a meeting.

In the meeting, which took place that evening, Hames offered the students to invite another artist or to hold the event at the sports center off campus, but they rejected both offers. The rector said that the university anticipates a protest by right-wing elements outside the campus, although he did not present concrete threats.

‘The management of the university proves that the strategy of the right is working,’ says Al-Huzayel. ‘They only have to threaten and everyone folds. The university appeases the right at the expense of Palestinian students’ freedom of expression and the basic right to realize our identity.’

‘Since the Nakba ceremony, the situation is such that we may be punished for expressing our opinions,’ he added.

Yakir, who also represented Watan Madi, the student who was convicted in a disciplinary case for quoting an article by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish that included the word Shahid (martyr) at the Nakba ceremony that took place in May, protested the repeated violation of freedom of expression on the Ben-Gurion campus. ‘The university is renouncing its basic duty to protect a minority group from those who threaten to harm it,’ he said

Ben-Gurion University responded: ‘The claim of censorship is puzzling in light of the fact that the university approves and even initiates tours and cultural activities to strengthen diversity and inclusion on campus. The student event in question was approved, including the planned food festival and cultural show. Unfortunately, the number of registrants was small and the student union had to cancel the event.’

The university refused to provide a reason for its decision to disqualify the musicians and ban parts of the student event.