Some pro-Israel activists have twisted efforts to give sexual assault survivors stronger voices by using fake harassment claims as ammo in their fight against Palestine solidarity activists.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A leaked Al Jazeera documentary detailing the tactics of the Israeli lobby in the United States and elsewhere has revealed that pro-Israel groups regularly invented smears, including false accusations of sexual assault, to discredit professors and students on U.S. university campuses that support equal rights for Palestinians and the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS is a non-violent movement that seeks to use economic pressure on Israel’s government so that it complies with international law, ends the military occupation of the West Bank, and halts the decades-long blockade of the Gaza Strip.
In the third episode of the Al Jazeera documentary “The Lobby”, which was leaked online by the website Electronic Intifada, focus is given to the efforts of pro-Israel advocacy groups on U.S. universities, particularly the efforts of these groups to use aggressive information warfare tactics to discredit and smear activists. The documentary further reveals that these smear campaigns are incredibly well-funded – to the tune of millions of dollars – and involve coordination with the Israeli government’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs.
In one instance, Bill Mullen – a professor of American Studies at Purdue University and a well-known supporter of Palestinian rights and BDS – was accused of sexual harassment, supporting terrorism and other misdeeds by nearly two dozen anonymous web pages purporting to have been created by Mullen’s former students in 2016.
Mullen told Al Jazeera that within 48 hours of learning of the smear sites, he discovered that they had been created within moments of each other and appeared to be operated by the same individual or group. After the websites used the name of his daughter and were anonymously sent to his wife, Mullen told Al Jazeera that “these people will do anything, they’re capable of doing anything” to discredit pro-Palestinian solidarity activists.
The documentary further revealed that this tactic is promoted by pro-Israel campus organizations including the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC). For instance, ICC executive director Jacob Baime discussed how “the anti-Israel people” are targeted by groups like the ICC who put “up some anonymous websites” and targeted Facebook ads that make false sexual harassment claims and other personal attacks as part of an effort to discredit them and their activism.
Baime then stated that this tactic is a form of “psychological warfare” that was “modeled on General Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq” and that those tactics have “been working really well for us.” Baime appears to have misspoken, given that McChrystal’s strategy emphasizing “offensive information operations” was focused on Afghanistan, not Iraq.
However, Baime recounted that these efforts are often very successful, from his perspective, telling Al Jazeera’s undercover reporter that the activists targeted by smears “either shut down or they spend time responding to it and investigating it, which is time they can’t spend attacking Israel.”
Baime went on to state that ICC, which works closely with other pro-Israel university groups like StandWithUs, has a budget of $2 million for “research” used in such smear campaigns. He further admitted that his group and its affiliates coordinate with Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which employs a large number of former agents of the Mossad.
The recently leaked episode of “The Lobby” documentary shows that some pro-Israel activists have twisted efforts to give sexual assault survivors stronger voices by using fake harassment claims as ammo for their “psychological warfare” tactics against Palestine solidarity activists.
This use of fabricated sexual harassment smears to target pro-BDS activists threatens the recent high-profile efforts of the #MeToo movement and other related activist groups who seek to help promote an environment where the experiences of sexual assault survivors are more readily accepted.
Defamation and libel as a propaganda ploy
In addition to the use of falsification and smears against BDS supporters, the documentary showed evidence that employees and volunteer pro-Israel campus groups were instructed to call BDS a “racist hate group” and were asked to produce multimedia content such as memes that even their own employees considered to be dishonest and “bigoted.”
An employee of the Israel Project who was featured in the documentary, Amanda Botfeld, told Al Jazeera’s undercover reporter that much of the pro-Israel advocacy work she had been asked to do made her feel “uneasy” and “uncomfortable” because it smeared Palestinian rights activists as “anti-Semites” and “racists” for criticizing Israeli government policy.
Another practice that made Botfeld feel uncomfortable was the creation of multimedia content for StandWithUs that featured “pictures of Palestinian kids with a knife” and other images that were used to paint young Palestinians that had been killed by Israeli police and soldiers as “terrorists”. Botfeld opined that the content she was asked to make while working with the Israel project was “bigoted” and she “was embarrassed to be associated with it.” Botfeld also said that one of her supervisors told her to insert the word “racist” in reference to BDS activism as often as possible.
The fact that even the employees of these pro-Israel groups are so acutely aware of the biased, bigoted nature of their response to the growth of the BDS movement underscores how these tactics are used to discourage and chill the atmosphere of debate by maligning and defaming activists and their message.