Tracking Israeli Students?

University in Brazil, acting at behest of pro-Palestinian groups, sought to compile information about students or employees from Israel on its campus.

June 8, 2015

An administrator at a university in Brazil sent a memo in May to other officials making an "urgent" request for information on Israeli students or faculty members at the institution.

The university said it was gathering information to comply with Brazil's version of a public records request -- in this case from pro-Palestinian groups on campus. The idea that such information might be released to those groups has raised alarm in Israel and among Jewish groups in Brazil. Many have expressed fears that Israelis at the university could be harassed, and questioned why a university should be releasing such information about its foreign students.

The controversy -- 6,500 miles away from Israel -- illustrates how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is turning up in unpredictable ways on college and university campuses worldwide.

The Federal University of Santa Maria has confirmed that one of its administrators did send out the memo, and that officials believed this action was required by Brazilian law to comply with the request from campus groups promoting the Palestinian cause.

But while the document, which has been published in the Brazilian press, is real, it featured a stamp that the university says is a forgery (at least as part of the university memo). The stamp says: “Freedom for Palestine, Boycott Israel.” Some of the original outrage over the request was based in part on the stamp. But even with the university disavowing the stamp, Israeli officials and others are reacting with anger to any activity that would assemble and potentially release lists of Israelis.

YNet News, in Israel, reported that the Foreign Ministry there released this statement: “This is a very serious incident and the Brazilian embassy and the Israeli consulate in Sao Paulo, along with the Jewish community, are acting immediately to address the ugly and racist initiative. The labeling of people and their blacklisting remind us of dark days of humanity's history. We hope that the Brazilian academy will pull itself together and come out against this initiative.”

Via email to Inside Higher Ed, José Fernando Schlosser, the administrator who sent out the memo, said he was saddened to be accused and to have the university accused of anti-Semitism. He said that “the controversy is caused by the deliberate confusion between Israeli nationality and Jewishness.”

He said that while he sent out the memo, no list of Israelis was ever prepared, and that he doesn't know how many Israelis are on campus. He also said that he acted under Brazilian law, which requires “disclosure of information by public officials.”

In hindsight, Schlosser said, the university might have handled the situation better by forcing the groups that wanted the information to sue for it, so it would have been clear that the gathering of information was not the university's idea. “I see that a better analysis of the request should have been made by analyzing its source,” he wrote, noting that he is not fluent in English. “But [the university] was not asked for any list of names and only the presence or expectation of receipt of citizens of this nationality. The request was not in our interest but who requested this information but I repeat, we should have denied and run the risk of being compelled to inform a court order, which could occur.”


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