Court: TAU Bowed to Chinese Pressure Over Falun Exhibition

Tel Aviv University closed an exhibit of artwork by members of the Falun Dafa (Falun Gong) sect last year due to economic and political pressure from the Chinese Embassy, the Tel Aviv District Court ruled yesterday.

It also found that Dean of Students Prof. Yoav Ariel acted extremely unreasonably by ordering the exhibit closed without even seeing it.

It therefore ordered the university to host the exhibit for another full week during the upcoming semester, and to pay the two organizers - students Tamuz Itay and Yaniv Nitzan - NIS 45,000 in court costs.

Judge Amiram Benyamini said the plaintiffs proved that the Chinese Embassy finances various activities at the university, including scholarships for students who study in China, a campus Confucius Center where students can study Chinese, and conferences on Buddhism and Chinese philosophy. "It seems that Prof. Ariel feared endangering these activities," and therefore closed the exhibit, he wrote.

The exhibit opened on March 3, 2008 and was supposed to run for two weeks. Instead, it was shut down four days later. The organizers then sued the university, saying it had given in to pressure from the embassy. The Falun Dafa sect is banned in China.

During the trial, Ariel admitted that the embassy had asked him to close the exhibit, but insisted that had nothing to do with his decision. Rather, he said, he closed it because the university does not allow political activity or religious proselytizing on campus.

But Benyamini said the artworks involved no proselytizing, while "there is not a shred of truth to the claim that the university does not allow political activity on campus."

He also said Ariel submitted no evidence to back his claim that Israeli students in China and visitors to the exhibit had both asked him to close it.

"It is inconceivable that a university, which is entrusted with sanctifying freedom of expression, should engage in censorship," Benyamini concluded.