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The Forward: “Elite University” BGU Handles Protests

The Forward: “Elite University” BGU Handles Protests

May 3, 2024

Current events

Protests on campus by BGU students and faculty.

The Forward – As mass arrests have been made at more than 20 colleges in the two weeks since an encampment at Columbia University inspired a national wave of protests, it’s become clear that few university administrations have draped themselves in glory. Either protesters have been allowed excessive freedom to shout eliminationist, antisemitism slogans and disrupt campus life, or they have been met with over-the-top paramilitary confrontations — which has only inspired more protests.

Has any college president anywhere figured out a way to respond besides capitulation or chaos?

At least one has.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) President Daniel Chamovitz, made the fateful decision to engage the protesters before they protested. At the University, protesters were wearing keffiyehs, brandished Palestinian flags and cheered fiery speeches. Then everyone ‘went back to class together.’

Chamovitz’s defense against right-wing political attacks was a simple one. He reiterated that a University’s mission is to facilitate an open exchange of ideas in a framework of mutual respect. He stated, “I called the heads of the two groups together and said, you both want to demonstrate at the same time, how are we going to make sure that this is a peaceful demonstration?”

Together with the dean of students, they worked out rules of engagement. Deciding how far apart the two groups would remain, how many security personnel to ensure their sides stayed orderly, how long they could each demonstrate, and “who would be screaming at what time, and what was allowed to be said and what was not allowed to be said.”

He is reluctant to second-guess the decision of his American counterparts to call in police on students. When a next wave of protests comes, Chamovitz’s advice to administrators is to act quickly, before things get out of control, engage in a dialogue with students, and agree to rules of engagement.

Before October 7, Prof. Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder, BGU’s director of diversity, equality and inclusion, who is Bedouin, took two Arab and two Jewish Israeli students to American campuses to talk about shared society and how to have a dialogue with people you disagree with.

“The university campus is the first place where Arabs and Jews actually meet in a daily, equal way,” Abu-Rabia-Queder said during an August 2023 visit to San Francisco. “It doesn’t matter what you think. It’s important that you can express it in a safe space, but also in a way that will not threaten others.”

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