'We Are Working on Foreign Soil and Have to Be Very Cautious': Shelved Al Jazeera Film Details Israel's ‘Covert War’ Against BDS in U.S.

Haaretz obtained Al Jazeera's four-part documentary about the Israel lobby, censored following pressure by Jewish-American groups on Qatar. This is what it shows

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

WASHINGTON – Al Jazeera’s censored 2016 documentary about the pro-Israel lobby in D.C. reveals new information about the work of Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry against critics of Israel in the United States.

The ministry’s director general, Sima Vaknin-Gil, is shown discussing Israel’s efforts against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which is increasingly vocal on American college campuses.

“We are a different government working on foreign soil and we have to be very, very cautious,” Vaknin-Gil is shown saying at an off-the-record session of a pro-Israel conference. “We have three different sub-campaigns which are very, very sensitive,” she adds. “Regarding data gathering, information analysis, working on activist organization, money trail, this is something that only a country, with its resources, can do the best.”

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Vaknin-Gil also talks about her ministry’s cooperation with different pro-Israel groups in the United States, explaining that “the Israeli government decided to be a key player, it means a lot. We can bring things that usually don’t exist in NGOs and civilian entities.”

The Strategic Affairs Ministry has an annual budget of hundreds of millions of shekels, and fighting the BDS movement is one of the ministry’s main priorities. The exact allocation of its resources is not publicly available.

>>Amateur hour with BDS: The real scandal in Al Jazeera’s Israeli lobby investigation | Analysis

The documentary – which Haaretz has obtained a copy of – was filmed by an undercover Al Jazeera reporter two years ago. The reporter, a British-Jewish student who was previously involved in pro-Palestinian groups, managed to get an internship at The Israel Project, a pro-Israel organization in Washington. At the same time, he also interacted with dozens of pro-Israel supporters in the U.S. capital, including one official in a pro-Israel group who was later appointed to a senior position in the Trump administration.

The undercover reporter also made contact with employees of the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the Israeli consulate in New York. He held parties at an apartment that Al Jazeera rented for him in downtown Washington, and that were attended by pro-Israel activists and junior embassy employees.

In December 2016, after Al Jazeera aired a documentary about the pro-Israel lobby in Britain, the undercover reporter in Washington vanished. Several attempts by pro-Israel groups to locate him over the past two years failed.

The film was supposed to be broadcast on Al Jazeera last year, but was suppressed as a result of pressure exerted by Jewish-American groups on Qatar, the Gulf emirate that owns Al Jazeera. The Qatari government ordered Al Jazeera to shelve the film, which has not been aired despite being ready for broadcast and the legal notifications that were issued months ago to those filmed in it.

In recent weeks, a number of excerpts from the film have leaked online.

This week, Haaretz blogger John Brown obtained the full documentary, which is divided into four episodes, each 50 minutes long. This weekend, parts of the documentary were screened in Bethlehem on the separation barrier built around the city during the second intifada.

The first episode focuses on the “covert war” against the BDS movement, including the Strategic Affairs Ministry's involvement. It also shows the Al Jazeera reporter meeting with the head of the “Israel on Campus Coalition,” an organization that monitors pro-Palestinian activities on college campuses across the United States.

The heads of the organization tell the Al Jazeera reporter, who used a hidden camera during the conversation, about the group’s intelligence capabilities, which allow them to monitor and track thousands of social media accounts of people engaged in political activity related to the Palestinian issue.

One official at the organization tells the Al Jazeera reporter: “We did add the Strategic Affairs Ministry to our operations and intelligence brief, which kind of goes back to how we get information about what’s going on American college campuses.”

The documentary describes the Strategic Affairs Ministry as acting not only against BDS activists, but also against people who boycott goods from the settlements. Vaknin-Gil herself explains that one of the problems facing the ministry is that young Jewish Americans don’t accept the Israeli military regime in the West Bank, and are distancing themselves from Israel because of it. Many people who appear in the film express concern about the low level of support that Israel has among younger Americans, including American Jews.

In response to Haaretz’s report, the Strategic Affairs Ministry stated: “The information in this story is a recycled version of an ‘investigative report’ by a TV station that is hostile to Israel. The quotes by the director general were made at a public event two years ago. She explained there that the government has to be cautions in its actions, which it is. The ministry works according to the law and any other claim is a total lie. The ministry will continue to fight attempts to hurt Israel through boycotts and delegitimization, even if that is to the detriment of Haaretz, which unfortunately has a clear worldview on this issue.”

Another entity mentioned in the report is Kela Shlomo, an Israeli intelligence firm with close ties to the government, particularly the Strategic Affairs Ministry, which is conducting research on BDS activists. One of the heads of the company is shown in the documentary discussing an initiative called “Israeli Cyber Shield,” stating that “this project is actually a civil intelligence unit that collects, analyzes and acts upon the activists in the BDS movement, whether it’s people, organizations or events, and we give everything we collect. We are using the most sophisticated data system in the Israeli market.”

One person featured in the documentary is Kenneth Marcus, who is currently a senior official in the Trump administration’s Department of Education. At the time of the filming, however, he was head of a pro-Israel group called The Louis Brandeis Center. In his meeting with the undercover Al Jazeera reporter, Marcus explains how he thinks the fight against BDS on American campuses should be waged.

“Right now, the challenge is you have people who say, 'You know what, anti-Israel politics have nothing to do with anti-Semitism,'” Marcus says. “What you [have] got to show is that they’re not the same, but they’re not entirely different either.”

Marcus adds his goal is “to have the federal government establish a definition of anti-Semitism” that will be similar to the one currently used by the State Department – a definition that includes “delegitimization, demonization and double standards” applied to Israel as a form of anti-Semitism.

Ever since he joined the Trump administration earlier this year heading the civil rights office at the Department of Education, Marcus has pushed for such a policy. His most notable decision was to reopen an old investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University, which stemmed from anti-Israel activism on campus. That investigation was closed by the previous administration, and Marcus decided to reopen it following pressure from right-wing Jewish groups.

The documentary also shows Al Jazeera’s undercover reporter interacting with David Ochs, a pro-Israel activist who invites the reporter to attend a closed-door fundraiser for a congressional candidate.

Ochs tells the reporter how the people at the event will each give the congressional candidate donations worth thousands of dollars on a personal basis. As a result, the candidate’s fundraising papers will not show any affiliation with a pro-Israel organization, but rather, just a list of private donors who all gave money on the same day.

This fundraising activity is presented during a segment of the film that deals with AIPAC. At one point Ochs says, “It’s the AIPAC group, it makes a big difference, it really does.”

However, there is no clear-cut connection between AIPAC and the fundraiser discussed by Ochs and the Al Jazeera reporter. “This is a group of the wealthiest people in Washington,” Ochs is heard saying. “It’s the best bang for your buck, and networking is phenomenal.”

An AIPAC spokesperson told Haaretz in reply: “AIPAC does not rate or endorse candidates but we encourage all of our members to engage in the political process, including supporting candidates who understand the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

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