The documentary Israel doesn’t want you to see

January 15, 2019

Mukund Rathi reviews The Lobby, a documentary about Israel’s efforts to undermine the movement for Palestinian rights with its vast array of dirty tricks.

A FOREIGN government is spying on Americans who are exercising their First Amendment rights to free expression. It is secretly giving money, intelligence and strategic advice to political groups that create fake social media pages, ghostwrite op-eds in major newspapers and push for legislation to support its aims.

These groups spend tens of thousands of dollars on “astroturf” protests against college student activists and have created anonymous websites to smear them. They are trying to redirect social justice movements like Black Lives Matter to support their own ends. And when journalists uncover these questionable practices and attempt to inform the public, this foreign government and its allied groups made sure they were censored.

No, I’m not talking about Russia. Or Iran. Or China. I’m talking about Israel.

IN JANUARY 2017, Al Jazeera (AJ) released a documentary titled The Lobby. The result of a six-month undercover investigation, it revealed how Israel and pro-Israel groups in the UK were attempting to influence British policy and public opinion.

AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr speaks at a 2018 policy conference
AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr speaks at a 2018 policy conference

Israel filed complaints about the documentary that the UK government rejected in October, at which point AJ made an announcement: it had conducted a similar undercover investigation in the U.S. and would be broadcasting a documentary with its results.

That broadcast never happened.

In February 2018, Haaretz reported from anonymous sources that the Qatari government, which funds AJ, informed pro-Israel groups that the documentary on the Israel lobby in the U.S. would not be aired. This was a week after AJ had sent letters to these groups informing them that their employees, who were secretly recorded during AJ’s undercover investigation, would appear in the documentary.

In April, the Zionist Organization of America boasted about this promise from Qatar, and while AJ denied that the broadcast was canceled, it didn’t offer any explanation for the delay. AJ’s own journalists were frustrated.

In March, the director of the seemingly canceled documentary wrote an opinion piece for The Forward, decrying a “series of unexplained delays in broadcasting” after the supposed meeting between pro-Israel groups and the Qatari government as well as AJ’s “non-response” to the claims of censorship.

Meanwhile, the Electronic Intifada website (and the Grayzone Project began publishing leaked clips from the AJ documentary about the Israel lobby in the U.S.

Secretly recorded scenes showed that Israeli government officials were directing U.S. think tanks to work for their own ends, revealed a primary funder of the reviled Canary Mission blacklist, showed how “astroturf” protests against Palestine solidarity activists were organized and more. Finally, in November 2018, Electronic Intifada published the full four-episode documentary.

It’s an astounding piece of journalism that deserves to see the light of day. Unfortunately, Israel’s efforts at censorship have had a real effect. For example, while the first episode of the AJ documentary on the Israel lobby in the UK has almost 735,000 views on YouTube, the first episode of the U.S. documentary published by Electronic Intifada only has 39,000 views.

Consider this review a pitch that you increase that view count by watching and sharing this great and urgent exposé.

THE LOBBY USA follows undercover AJ journalist Tony Kleinfeld posing as a visiting student from the UK. He spends five months working for and networking with members of the Israel lobby in Washington, D.C.

Episode 1 introduces Kleinfeld and the Zionist offensive against the BDS movement and provides a case study of the backlash against Palestine solidarity students who successfully passed a divestment resolution at the University of California-Davis in 2015.

Episode 2 focuses on the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Congress, including its possibly illegal fundraising operations, and also discusses the lobby’s attempts in 2016 to get the Tennessee legislature to squelch speech in solidarity with Palestine at the University of Tennessee.

Episode 3 explores smear campaigns against Palestine solidarity activists, including a University of California-Berkeley undergraduate student and Purdue University professor; exposes real estate mogul Adam Milstein as the primary funder of Canary Mission; and shows the likely illegal relationship between the U.S. think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the Israeli government.

Episode 4 discusses the lobby’s attempts to redirect Black Lives Matter in support of Israel, its astroturfing campaigns, and how it creates misinformation on social media and in mainstream news.

As a series, it is incredibly comprehensive and easy to digest, even if the revelations about the pro-Israel lobby’s nastiness are hard to stomach. The episodes can be watched on their own, but the series as a whole packs an especially powerful punch.

As we follow Kleinfeld, a variety of scholars and activists chimes in to provide context: John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago professor), Joseph Berman (Jewish Voice for Peace), Ali Abunimah (Electronic Intifada), Omar Barghouti (co-founder of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement), Hatem Bazian (University of California-Berkeley professor), Khury Petersen-Smith (Black Lives Matter activist), Craig Holman (Public Citizen) and many more.

We also hear from victims of the lobby’s smear campaigns, such as Berkeley student Sumayyah Din, Purdue Professor Bill Mullen and other activists, like Marcelle Obeid, then-President of Students for Justice in Palestine at University of California-Davis.

We see Kleinfeld attend a variety of conferences, where top figures in the lobby and the Israeli government — such as Israel’s Minister of Intelligence Yisrael Katz; Sima Vaknin-Gil, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs; Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at FDD; and Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America — discuss their strategies for combating activism for Palestinian human rights.

Vaknin-Gil, for example, argued that “the Israeli government can look at the bigger picture and actually create this coordination and cooperation” between parts of the lobby and, as an example, discussed how “we have FDD.” As Abunimah points out, this admission of an unregistered foreign agent is a “smoking gun.”

PROBABLY THE most damning and valuable parts of the documentary, though, are Kleinfeld’s one-on-one conversations with members of the lobby.

Eric Gallagher, a former AIPAC director and Kleinfeld’s boss at The Israel Project (TIP), tells Kleinfeld about how AIPAC “could get anything on the front page of the Washington Post,” discusses his concerns about how support for AIPAC is “slipping very, very quickly” among progressive Democrats, and drops the bombshell about Milstein funding Canary Mission.

David Hazony, a managing director at TIP, similarly decries “the Bernie Sanders people, bringing all these anti-Israel people into the Democratic Party,” and says this shows how “there is an actually important battle being fought on the campuses” — by which he means a battle for the ideas of a whole generation of young people.

We watch as Kleinfeld meets Julia Reifkind, then-director of community affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, at a coffee shop, and she discusses her reporting on the BDS movement to Israel and how the Israeli Embassy leverages pro-Israel students and faculty in the U.S.

Reifkind was a leader in Zionist groups during her studies at UC Davis and details for Kleinfeld how they worked with the Israeli consulate, AIPAC, StandWithUs and the David Project in fighting against divestment on campus.

She mentions that Davis is in the “top five most anti-Israel schools in the U.S.,” blaming BDS and the fact that “there’s a huge Muslim population in Sacramento,” the nearby state capital.

She discusses how after a divestment resolution was passed at Davis, the lobby got to work smearing the Palestine solidarity students. They published “50 op-eds in major news sources” decrying the resolution and shared a viral video of students celebrating with chants of “Allahu Akbar” in the student government room. Reifkind said this chant was “really nice for us” because “we caught them just doing what they’re doing.”

When a swastika was painted on a Jewish fraternity house, the Zionists blamed Palestine solidarity students, even though as Reifkind admitted to Kleinfeld, she thinks it was just “some random white supremacist-type people,” and not even students.

THE INTENT to smear pro-Palestine activists by deploying charges of anti-Semitism is revealed in many of Kleinfeld’s conversations with members of the lobby. This is particularly true of the Brandeis Center, which is committed to getting laws passed that equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

Kenneth Marcus — who at the time was president of the Brandeis Center but who now heads the Office of Civil Rights in Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education (yes, you read that right — tells Kleinfeld that their primary tactic against BDS is to portray the campaign as a racist hate group.

We watch as Kleinfeld attends an “astroturf” protest (as described by one of the paid interns in the group) against SJP — and StandWithUs legal director Yael Lerman Mazar reminds the protesters to “stay on message,” which is that “SJP is a hate group. BDS is a hate movement.”

When discussing supposed anti-Semitism at the University of Tennessee with Aviva Vogelstein, a director at the Brandeis Center, Vogelstein casually admits to Kleinfeld that after actually talking to Jewish students there, she found their main concern was not Palestine solidarity students but Christian students who kept trying to convert them.

Kleinfeld meets up with Reifkind again at a party, where she continues discussing her work, including the multiple fake Facebook profiles she creates to spy on Palestine solidarity activists.

Secrecy is important: she mentions that pro-Israel students are always cautioned against mentioning their support from AIPAC. I laughed when Kleinfeld asks her what she thinks of Al Jazeera, and Reifkind replies that they have “a lot of interesting liberal videos,” but that she is disappointed when they post things like “Why Israel is an apartheid state.”

Jacob Baime of the Israel on Campus Coalition made it very clear to Kleinfeld that the lobby aims at nothing less than conducting “psychological warfare” against Palestine solidarity students and other activists.

He brags about their use of anonymous websites to smear people, grinning with dubious denial when Kleinfeld asks if they know who runs Canary Mission, and says that if a “terrorist” disrupts a pro-Israel event on a campus, they try to dig up bad stuff about them online.

Sumayyah Din was one target of such tactics. When she announced her campaign for student government at UC Berkeley, she used the slogan “Dintifada,” a combination of her last name and “Intifada,” the Arabic word for uprising. Joshua Cahn, who graduated from UC Berkeley and now works at AIPAC, tells Kleinfeld about how pro-Israel students asked StandWithUs to “attack this girl.”

I felt sick watching Din recall her sleepless nights and terrified days on campus as the documentary showed the StandWithUs Facebook page, which deemed her a supporter of terrorism and encouraged its followers to threaten her with physical attacks and deportation.

Cahn himself admits that while his group asked StandWithUs for financial and political support, Cahn didn’t want to use the StandWithUs name or logo because their followers are “crazy” and make “death threats.”

BILL MULLEN, a professor at Purdue University and co-founder of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, has also been targeted on numerous occasions. As part of a smear campaign, an anonymous letter was sent to his wife that included the name of their daughter. Mullen realized that “they’re capable of doing anything” to silence advocacy for Palestinian human rights.

This includes bending and breaking the law. There are a number of likely illegal practices revealed in the documentary, including the smoking gun linking the Israeli government to FDD.

Another example is AIPAC’s bribery operations. David Ochs, an AIPAC fundraiser, plainly tells Kleinfeld: “Congressmen and Senators don’t do anything unless you pressure them,” and “the only way to do that is with money.”

Ochs discusses how Wall Street hedge fund manager Jeff Talpin met up with then candidate and current Rep. Anthony Brown of New York at a campaign fundraiser. In a classic backroom meeting, Talpins explained to Brown the pro-Israel political agenda he supported and then gave Brown “an envelope with 20 credit cards” that could be swiped for $1,000 each.

At a normal fundraiser, money would be pooled and given to the candidate. The candidate would have to disclose the identities of the individuals, the pooling process and details of the event. Here, though, the candidate is just being given credit card information, so only the individual identities have to be disclosed.

Here’s the part that’s likely illegal, as explained by Public Citizen’s Craig Holman. There is a $2,700 cap on individual contributions to campaigns. But at these events, as Ochs tells Tony, some people are giving $5,000. Talpins redistributes that money among contributors so no one is over the cap, and then it’s all given as credit cards so the pooling and redistribution is hidden. That’s called money laundering.

I’ve described some, but by no means all, of the more shocking revelations that the documentary contains. In a way, shocking isn’t even the right word, because Palestine solidarity activists like myself already knew that the Israel lobby regularly dug deep in the bag of dirty tricks.

But Kleinfeld and his fellow journalists at Al Jazeera performed a great public service by seeking out the facts and documenting them.

It’s shameful that this documentary was censored, but it also goes to show just how unprincipled and shameless Israel and its fellow apartheid supporters are.

Thanks to Electronic Intifada, you now also have the opportunity to watch it, and it’s an opportunity worth taking.

Further Reading

From the archives