Analysis |

Amateur Hour With BDS: The Real Scandal in Al Jazeera’s Israel Lobby Investigation

Though interesting, ‘The Lobby’ fails to ask the only important question: Why is the State of Israel, with its fabled intelligence services, begging a bunch of amateurs for intel?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Screenshot from the investigation by the Al Jazeera Network.
Screenshot from the investigation by the Al Jazeera Network.Credit: Screenshot, Al Jazeera
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

In 2016, Al Jazeera carried out undercover investigations on pro-Israel organizations operating in the United States and Israel. The British version, which consisted mainly of a junior temporary employee of the embassy in London being caught making boastful remarks about government ministers, caused a minor scandal – leading to the firing of the employee and an apology from Israel’s ambassador, Mark Regev.

The American version has never been broadcast. The head of Al Jazeera’s investigations, Clayton Swisher, announced he was taking a sabbatical, and more than hinted that at the behest of Jewish-American organizations, the Qatari regime had decided to put its foot down and suppress the show.

Haaretz recently obtained the entire four episodes of “The Lobby” and, having finally watched them, I can honestly say there was no reason to suppress it.

Al Jazeera’s undercover reporter spent five months working for The Israel Project – an organization that makes no secret of its attempts to influence media coverage of Israel. During that period, he went out of his way to befriend as many Jewish activists as he could. “Tony” seems to have been a professional and social success, but in all the hundreds of hours of covert footage he obtained, there is absolutely nothing that was not known before.

The most “damning” evidence of Israeli cooperation with Jewish-American organizations in fighting the boycott movement comes in two speeches by the director general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, Sima Vaknin-Gil. But these speeches were made in public forums and were reported at the time. Besides that, there are stories of clashes at a couple of American colleges between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel students. Again, both were reported at the time, and while Al Jazeera does an interesting job of dissecting the forces at play, the fact that vicious battles are being fought over Israel and Palestine on campus is hardly news.

What else was there? A few worn accounts of how AIPAC is an aggressive lobby. How well-known campaign finance loopholes are exploited. Advocacy groups pressure news organizations. And, despite Swisher’s contention in a piece he wrote for The Forward that they discovered how Israel influences American foreign policy, the only instance mentioned in the four episodes is the hoary old chestnut of AIPAC pushing the United States into the Iraq War back in 2004.

Nothing illegal, nothing we didn’t know about for years. There were a couple of allegations which, had the show managed to stand up, would be interesting: Omar Barghouti, the founder of the BDS movement, claiming that his website had been afflicted by denial of service attacks; and two pro-boycott activists claiming that online sexual allegations against them originated with “the lobby.” Intriguing, but Al Jazeera didn’t even try to present any proof.

The facts reported in the “investigation” are so out in the open that many of them are actually proudly mentioned in the “lobby” organizations’ promotional videos that are used in the show. But if all that was needed was a quick trawl of the organizations’ websites, why waste five months on an undercover operation?

None of this is to say that the Al Jazeera show isn’t interesting. It is, because it shows how amateurish the network of organizations with grand names like Stand With Us and Israel on Campus really is. How employees spend their days boasting to the new guy at the office of their exploits, and how even former Brig. Gen. Vaknin-Gil – who was once a serious intelligence officer – is reduced to making ridiculous analogies of real military missions when she’s appealing to American-Jewish organizations to work with her superfluous ministry. She offers to “fill in the gaps,” which it turns out means supplying the ministry with information.

Al Jazeera’s “investigators” don’t think to ask the obvious question. Why is the State of Israel, with its fabled intelligence services, begging a bunch of amateurs for intel? And why, if the threat of BDS is so terrible, does the Israeli Embassy in Washington rely on one young American woman, barely out of college, to collect information on it?

The real answer is that the Strategic Affairs Ministry exists only to placate jobless Israeli ministers and it deals with BDS because no serious government department, like the Foreign Ministry, or the Mossad, believes it’s worth wasting resources on a nonexistent problem.

Yes, Vaknin-Gil was once a pro, but now she’s making a living running a fake ministry that has resorted to using information from a muck-raking-and-smearing website called Canary Mission.

Sima Vaknin-Gil, director general of Israel's Strategic Affairs Ministry.Credit: Alon Ron

There are, of course, real concerns about the “Ministry for Silly Affairs” and its wasteful campaigns. Haaretz highlighted some of these, like the private corporation the ministry set up to carry out its dirty work and secret liaisons; the database its minister, Gilad Erdan, sought to set up of disloyal Israeli citizens; and the fact that, denied access to the databases of the security services, its personnel have been reduced to relying on Canary Mission.

The Forward has also published some valuable information on Canary Mission and its sources of funding, shamefully also from at least one major Jewish federation. That’s real journalism. Having an undercover reporter is good for cool footage, but in this case didn’t yield any worthwhile details.

Perhaps the most illuminating moment in “The Lobby” isn’t from one of the undercover sequences, but an interview with a pro-Palestinian activist at the University of Tennessee, reflecting that the online barrage she experienced from Jewish activists “made it seem as if there’s this huge Palestinian liberation movement in this state.” She never realized her tiny group were so threatening.

The only reason to have suppressed “The Lobby” was to hide how much money Jewish organizations, donors and the Israeli government are wasting on this amateurish and self-harming campaign. Perhaps that’s the real scandal uncovered by Al Jazeera.

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