Ben Gurion University
Ben Gurion University. Photo by Eli Hershkovitz
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Ben-Gurion University has barred students from distributing a flyer on campus that criticizes various Knesset bills under the headline "Solidarity against fascism."

The flyer prominently features a picture of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party is behind some of the bills in question.

The dean of students said he banned the flyer because it constitutes libel. Other universities have permitted its distribution, and the students are appealing the ban, arguing that it violates their freedom of expression.

The flyer is the brainchild of a new left-wing organization called Solidarity Against Fascism that coalesced during demonstrations against the entry of Jewish residents into East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

The group has now begun setting up student organizations at various universities.

"Israel has recently been swept by a racist, nationalist mood," the flyer states. "Democratic values are being replaced by loyalty oaths, denial of citizenship and gagging. Israeli citizens are being asked to adopt extreme right-wing positions on the occupation and on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. Anyone who protests is immediately denounced as a traitor. This is making the state [into a place where] the supreme value is dangerously close to fascism."

The other side of the flyer lists various bills that "embody the march toward fascism." They include one to require naturalized citizens to pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, one to allow small communities to bar entry to new residents who don't suit their social and cultural character, and one to penalize groups or individuals who actively promote anti-Israel boycotts.

Ben-Gurion, like other Israeli universities, requires students to obtain permission to distribute flyers and leaflets. Three weeks ago, Dean of Students Ya'akov Afek approved this flyer, but a week later, he changed his mind.

"I don't approve the flyer's distribution," he wrote the students, "because it's possible to identify the person who appears on it" - namely, Lieberman. "I erred when I approved it previously, and I'm not obligated to repeat this mistake."

'Protection from lawsuits'

Responding to a query from Haaretz, the university said Afek changed his mind because he realized the flyer was libelous.

Ran Tzoref, a member of the group that distributed it, said that Afek told the students the ban was meant to protect both them and the university from lawsuits.

In their appeal against the ban, the students argued that "by virtue of his role as a party leader and cabinet member, the foreign minister serves as a senior, leading spokesman for a clear diplomatic and political line."

Therefore, "the foreign minister's partial identification with the messages against which the flyer is aimed cannot be considered libel."

Moreover, they insisted, the flyer "contains no linguistic of graphic element liable to harm the minister's dignity."

'No academia without freedom of speech'

"Freedom of opinion and speech are an essential condition for vibrant and meaningful academic life," the appeal concluded. "There is no academia without freedom of opinion, and there is no academic life worthy of the name without student activism that demonstrates concern and commitment toward what is happening beyond the campus. The university's obligation is to enable a multiplicity of opinions to be heard throughout the campus."

Tzoref accused the university of a deliberate attempt to silence the new group, citing a previous incident in which he and his fellows faced disciplinary action for demonstrating without a university permit.

But after that incident sparked protests both on and off campus, the university relaxed it rules on demonstrations two months ago.