Saturday, April 27, 2013

Israel's Campus Lobby

Most of us presumably remember when, back at the beginning of the year, Israel’s supporters in the United States went into paroxysm of rage when someone dug up an old video of then-Senator Chuck Hagel suggesting that the country had a lobby that sought to intimidate people.  It is clear that such a lobby exists.  It is less, clear, if the activities of this lobby are aboveboard and of a moral character, why its members and supporters should be so ashamed to own up to their existence as an interest group.

The very real existence of Israel’s lobby came roaring back into the faces of UC Berkeley’s campus community in the last couple of weeks, when after tense debate and, we now know, equally intensive lobbying, the student Senate passed a bill calling for divestment by the UC Regents from companies complicit in human rights abuses in Israel (the University is already forbidden from doing business with companies which might benefit many Palestinian groups complicit in attacks on Israel). 

That debate was followed by several uncertain days as the student body president weighed whether to or not to veto the bill.  He eventually acceded to itsnon-binding reality in a churlish statement which misrepresented the substance and the aim of the legislation in question—SB 160 (it later came to light that other ASUC senators might have been involved with Landgraf in some reprehensibly shady backroom negotiations). 

It is unsurprising that AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbies weighed in on the campus debate.  That is their right, and they should certainly feel free to make their voice heard.  But there are several problems with the way in which this particular lobby conducts itself, both on campus and in our nation’s capital.  Overly dependent on telling lies, on defaming their opponents, and on veering into corrupt waters, organisations like AIPAC and Jewish Public Affairs practise a dangerous form of lobbying.

On the same day that Landgraf exercised commendable if bad-spirited and disingenuous restraint and allowed SB 160 to stand, the San Francisco Bay Guardian revealed that he had been the beneficiary of a free trip to Israel in 2012 from Project Interchange, a conflict of interest he did not mention during his deliberations and was unwilling to confirm to the Guardian, evidence to the contrary.  The high pressure lobbying didn’t end there: “AIPAC [also] flew out student senator and divestment opponent Mihir Deo to its annual policy conference in February”. 

A central complaint of those opposed to the divestment bills is that they are one-sided, a claim Landgraf invoked in his statement.  While SB 160 is actually a remarkably even-handed and carefully-worded bill, giving the lie to the claim, it is nonetheless significant that the same opposition has no problem with the one-sided propaganda indoctrination they fund.  Project Interchange, for example (the organisation which sent Landgraf to Israel gratis) “brings opinion leaders and policy makers to Israel for a week of intensive travel and learning.  Participants experience Israeli society, connect with their Israeli counterparts and learn about Israel’s extensive contributions in their fields”.  The organisation’s central mission is to promote “understanding of Israel”.

The organisation’s ambitions are expansive, and are aimed at a wide swath of “opinion leaders” in the United States.  There are seminars geared towards U.S. energy experts; University Presidents; civil rights leaders; senior counterterrorism officials; Indian-American media and foreign policy leaders; city, county and state elected officials; Latino leaders; campus media; and California student leaders; all of these geared, it would appear, towards enforcing a particular narrative on individuals and bodies placed at strategic points within U.S. society and government, the better to ensure that Israel’s whitewashing of its colonial policy is permitted to persist. 

Direct “treatment” of student leaders by the lobby was not the only tactic deployed.  In what Landgraf described as “one of the worst [weeks] of his life”, he would also have received messagesfrom the anti-divestment public coordinated by the Israeli Action Network andthe Jewish Federations of North America on the subject of what they called a “one-sided and harmful bill”, a description which suggests that those who created the petition are either illiterate or dishonest.  Signatories were urged to tell Landgraf that the bill “is alienating and hateful”, and were cautioned from using “incendiary or offensive language that may detract from this important cause”. 

The petition itself described the bill as “one sided and biased”, and aimed at “delegitimize[ing] the state of Israel”, seeking to cast opponents of divestment as the real supporters of human rights, ending: “It is clear that this bill is using the guise of human rights to unfairly assign blame and tarnish the reputation of Israel, a world-leader in technology and innovation”.  At the risk of repeating myself, the bill itself was surprisingly even-handed, non-judgmental, and did not assign blame to either Israelis or Palestinians. 

Finally, once the bill had passed, the smears came rolling in, testimony towards the extent to which the lobby had managed to brainwash many of its knee-jerk supporters about the actual substance and character of the bill in question.  Commentary on news sites reporting the bill’s passage and Landgraf’s decision not to exercise his veto were greeted with claims of anti-Semitism, bigotry, racism, and invocations of Nazism.  The bill was said to propagate race- and religious-hatred.  Lacking a logical leg on which to stand, or any actual grievance, opponents of divestment launched ferocious, defamatory, and ill-informed attacks on the University, student leaders, and supporters of divestment.

It’s worth noting that SB 160 represented UC Berkeley’s second attempt at modest divestment.  In 2010, a similar bill was veoted by then-ASUC president Will Smelko, who came under pressure from the Israeli consul in San Francisco. 

That bill had passed, was vetoed, but stood in danger of being re-passed over the student president’s veto.  Josh Nathan-Kazis described the intensive lobbying that took place in the days leading up to the debate on the veto.  The campaign reported included Hillel, the Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC, the Jewish Community Relations Council, J Street, and members of the community.  Senators—some of whom changed their votes—complained of “undertones of intimidation”.  According to Nathan-Kazis, pamphlets which circulated instructed opponents of the bill, “Don’t try to deconstruct the bill.  Instead, focus on how it is an attack on the Jewish community”.  In translation: Don’t engage with the substance; instead, lie. 

It is worth quoting at some length from Nathan-Kazis’ illuminating article:

“In the weeks between the first vote and the attempt to overturn the veto, discussions about how to challenge Berkeley student senate support for the bill were held as faraway as Washington, D.C.  At an AIPAC conference in Washington in late March, AIPAC leadership development director Jonathan Kessler said that his organization would ‘make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote’, as recorded in a video taken at the conference by the JTA.  ‘This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s Capitol.  This is how AIPAC must operate in our nation’s campuses’, he said”.
 I was shocked to see such open statements about tactics that involve deliberate misrepresentation, and “taking over” democratic bodies through legal though corrupt lobbying and the liberal use of smears and defamation.  Perhaps I’m naive, but I would have hoped that lobbies on campuses and elsewhere would conduct themselves in accordance with a higher moral standard and with a greater respect for the truth.

It is a sign of how sensitive to its wrongdoing the Israeli state and its supporters are that even a modest threat like a non-binding bill on limited divestment, couched in non-threatening and even-handed language, is greeted with a full-throated campaign based on deplorable tactics and premises, which are as offensive as the system of colonialism practised by that state and excused by our own government.

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