Several alumni have accused the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education of censoring questions critical of Israel during a webinar in late June, which featured Dr. Mitchell Schwaber ’86, Director of the National Center for Infection Control of the Israeli Ministry of Health.
Schwaber told The Daily Princetonian that the organizers’ questions were not addressed due to time constraints.
On June 25, the Keller Center hosted Schwaber for an event centered around Israel’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One day before the event, Nourhan Ibrahim ’20, Sarah Sakha ’18, and Somi Jun ’20 published an open letter indicating their intent to protest. They planned to change their Zoom icons to images that represented Palestinian living conditions and send questions via the Zoom chat “highlighting the deadly repression of healthcare in Palestine under Israel’s military occupation and blockade on Gaza.”
Sakha is a former editor-in-chief of The Daily Princetonian.
In an email sent less than 24 hours before the event, the Keller Center reminded participants that the webinar would be “interactive,” with “the option to enable their camera.” When alumni entered the webinar, however, attendee cameras were turned off by default.
According to Ibrahim, protest organizers and an estimated dozen participants submitted more than 20 questions related to Palestine, but none were asked. The organizers have since accused the Keller Center of omitting those questions altogether.
“I can’t speak for the Keller Center, but I highly doubt anything was censored,” Schwaber told the ‘Prince.’
“Owing to the large number of questions submitted in advance, we did not have time to address all of these, nor did we get to those submitted during the event, which I was unable to read in real time,” Schwaber wrote in a statement.
“I addressed many of the submitted questions, including questions dealing with the Palestinian Authority, in my frontal presentation before the Q & A,” he added.
When asked to comment, Lilian Tsang, the Keller Center’s Associate Director for Outreach and Administration, directed the ‘Prince’ to an update posted on July 8, two weeks after the webinar.
“Event organizers are aware of protestor participation in this event, and respect the expression of their views,” the update reads.
The update further explained that the Keller Center had modified the webinar format after receiving more registrants than expected and requested questions beforehand to meet time constraints. Participants were not made aware of this change prior to the event.
Referring to the Keller Center’s July 8 update, Ibrahim said that the event’s organizers had treated the protestors as an “afterthought.”
“We weren’t able to participate since they completely changed the formatting, and if they respected our views, they would have addressed some of our questions or sent a follow-up,” Ibrahim said. “The complete lack of response to our emails and questions leads me to believe that there was no interest in engaging our views.”
In a statement, Schwaber wrote that he elected to give priority to questions submitted by undergraduates — rather than alumni and other participants — because the event was conducted primarily for the benefit of students in the Princeton Startup Immersion Program (PSIP), which matches students with internships at Israeli startups.
Schwaber added that he received a list of 40 pre-submitted questions on July 19, six days prior to the organizers’ open letter — a list that “grew in the following days.” The open letter was posted a day before the event.
In their open letter, the authors criticized the Keller Center for providing a platform for the Israeli government and its affiliates, which they say obscured the government’s actions toward the Palestinian people.
“To discuss the health infrastructure of Israel and their ability to respond to a pandemic without mentioning Palestine and Israel’s role in repressing Palestine’s ability to respond as well to the pandemic erases a very critical part of healthcare discussions,” they wrote.
The organizers also took offense at the Keller Center for promoting events affiliated with the Israeli government alongside demands for racial equality.
In a weekly newsletter sent out on June 4, Keller Center administrators placed the quote “I can’t breathe,” with an attribution to George Floyd, in enlarged text and expressed their commitment to combating racism in the United States. Under the quote, the Keller Center promoted a webinar with HealthIL, an Israeli digital health nonprofit, as well as the webinar with Schwaber.
Pointing to Schwaber’s position as a Medical Corps reserve officer of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the open letter’s authors criticized the Keller Center for conflating Floyd’s last words with events centered around Israeli technology and innovation.
They noted that Palestinians have reported that the IDF makes use of a knee-on-neck posture, similar to the one Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin fatally employed against Floyd.
The organizers also took issue with centering the Israeli government’s pandemic response, citing the “vulnerability and fragility of Palestine’s health systems as controlled by Israel.”
“There’s a normalization of innovation in healthcare and tech as being innocent when it’s helping some people,” Sakha told the ‘Prince.’ “The guest speaker was a reserve with the Israeli Defense Forces and people don’t really unpack that.”
Aside from the two virtual events, the authors of the letter pointed to the Keller Center’s sponsorships of Israel TigerTrek, a weeklong entrepreneurship program for college students, and PSIP, as active support of the Israeli state.
Although PSIP is managed and funded by the Keller Center, TigerTrek Israel is a student-run trip first organized in spring 2019 by Ron Miasnik ’22 and Daniella Cohen ’22, with support from the Keller Center and the Center for Jewish Life (CJL). The trip introduces participants to numerous Israeli start-ups and immerses them in Israeli culture.
Miasnik and Cohen declined to comment for this piece.
In a past ‘Prince’ article, Cohen noted that she and Miasnik chose Israel for its “unique start-up ecosystem” from which “anyone can benefit.” Israel spends over $414 per capita in venture capital investments, more than any other country in the world, and several prominent technology companies, including Wix, Waze, and Mobileye, are based in Israel.
Additionally, Miasnik described their collaboration with the Keller Center and the CJL as part of a broader endeavor “to make this a partnership across the University.”
“We’re living in an increasingly globalized world,” Miasnik said in March 2019. “It’s no longer reasonable or okay to just think about the US when you’re thinking about any issue, whether it be technological, political, anything.”
But the alumni protestors criticized the Keller Center for such engagement.
Majida Halaweh ’19, a Palestinian-American interested in entrepreneurship who provided input on the open letter, told the ‘Prince’ that the Keller Center’s response “is unsurprising for an organization that consistently has a disappointing history around Palestine.”