Did This pro-Israel Superstar Work as a Secret Agent on College Campuses?

The Israeli government paid Hen Mazzig for 'campus campaigns' at the same time he toured American college campuses. That could violate U.S. laws

Hen Mazzig's Twitter account
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In the world of pro-Israel activism, Hen Mazzig is an icon.

A veteran of Israel’s military, he is a popular writer and campus speaker — a high-profile fighter in the war for Israel’s reputation.

His eloquent op-eds, published in nearly every Israeli and American Jewish publication (including the Forward), and his speeches to students across North America and Europe, have garnered him legions of fans, including more than 18,000 Twitter followers.

Now a Forward investigation has revealed that he also worked directly for the Israeli government. He doesn’t seem to have told anyone that, however — neither the sponsors of his speeches, nor the students who listened to them. Because he kept quiet, and because those payments are related to his political work in the United States, he might have violated an American anti-espionage law, according to experts consulted by the Forward.

This law is called the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). It’s premised on the belief that Americans should have the right to know to what extent foreign governments, even allies, are trying to shape internal debates.

“The whole purpose is transparency,” an attorney who specializes in FARA cases, Amos Jones, told the Forward. “The policy behind FARA is, yes, lobbying will happen. The key is for the American people to know when it comes to foreign influences, who’s pulling the strings.”

Mazzig’s case, then, encapsulates the question of when “hasbara” — Israel’s public relations campaign, which translates literally into “explaining” — turns into lobbying, and runs up against FARA.

Mazzig admits he was a paid contractor for the government of Israel. He says that the official government advertising agency hired him to inform them about issues on American campuses. But he insists that the government never told him to do anything, or paid him for anything other than his advice — which was based on information and insights he gathered during his time on American campuses.

“The consulting that I gave to the [government] was about fighting anti-Semitism,” Mazzig said in a phone interview. “I gave information about being attacked for being LGBT, being a Jew of color. That gives me the understanding of how to combat anti-Semitism, racism and LGBT phobia. And that was the consulting I gave to the agency.”

However, lawyers consulted by the Forward say that even if that’s true, Mazzig still probably should have registered as a foreign agent, as required by FARA.

And if Israel gave Mazzig some kind of orders, or paid him for his American political activities, then it would be even more likely that his work was covered by FARA.

After Mazzig gave his statement about “fighting anti-Semitism,” a representative of The Lawfare Project, a pro-Israel legal network, contacted the Forward and urged delaying this article until lawyers for Mazzig could speak on his behalf, basing their comments on his consulting agreement with the government. The Forward hoped to speak with Mazzig’s lawyers and view the agreement, and agreed to hold the story for three and a half days, but did not hear back from Mazzig’s lawyers by that time.

“It does sound like FARA could be implicated by these activities,” said another expert, who asked for anonymity to speak freely. But whether Mazzig was required to register or not would be governed by a variety of factors, including whether Mazzig did any of his consulting remotely from the United States, whether his contract just asked for “consulting services” or whether it went into detailed requests, and whether he also had any verbal agreements or other unwritten understandings with Israel, this person said.

“This is one of those cases where the facts are really going to matter.”

What is FARA?

A former military officer in the West Bank, Mazzig spent five years in the Israeli army instead of the required three. He speaks movingly about his family’s immigration to Israel as refugees from Iraq and Morocco, and his experience coming out as gay to his fellow soldiers.

During his talks, Mazzig discusses his close encounter with a Palestinian suicide bomber as a child, his army experience working as a liaison to the Palestinian Authority, his advocacy for LGBT rights, and why although he publicly disagrees with some elements of Israeli policy, his experience leads him – and should lead his audience – to support Israel.

“I’ve heard [Mazzig’s] story beforehand, and had to be here,” a Pennsylvania State University student told his college newspaper in November 2017.

FARA was passed in the 1930s. It requires people in America who are paid by or act at the behest of foreign governments to register themselves with the Department of Justice and file disclosures explaining in detailed fashion what they are doing to further that government’s aims. (For the full text of the law, click here.)

For example, an American gastroenterologist and pro-Israel advocate named Dr. Joseph Frager had to file with FARA earlier this year after being paid to advise the government of Qatar on how to improve ties with the American Jewish community.

Mazzig has never registered himself with the Department of Justice. However, he received more than 180,000 shekels ($49,000) from the Israeli government from February 2017 to April 2018, according to a payment spreadsheet acquired from Israel’s Government Advertising Agency via a freedom of information law request.

It lists payments to Mazzig and one of his employees with line items like “campuses-apartheid campaign” and “campus campaign for pro-Israel people,” alongside dates — many of which line up with his North American campus tours.

If Mazzig had been receiving instructions from the government of Israel as to what he should do in the U.S. during these “campus campaigns,” he could be considered to have acted as an “agent of a foreign principal,” according to the law, and would need to register his activities with the DOJ, the experts say.

An agent of a foreign principal “is someone whose ‘activities are directly or indirectly … financed, in whole or in major part,’” explained Caleb Burns of the Washington, D.C. law firm Wiley Rein.

“What seems clear from the payment ledgers is that we have strategic communications, strategic contexts, strategic objectives, ordered by a foreign government to influence political affairs inside the United States of America,” Jones, the attorney who specializes in FARA cases, told the Forward after being sent a translated version of the government spreadsheet. “If that is what is going on, then one can clearly conclude reasonably that we have registerable activity under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.”

“It appears as though the line items on the invoices may have indicated that there was a request or an understanding that this consulting would undertake activities in the U.S., and if that’s true, I think that would be problematic,” agreed the expert who requested anonymity. “If, however, the understanding from the government was purely for activities outside the United States, that’s a different story and FARA may not apply.”

Did Mazzig work for the Ministry of Strategic Affairs?

The document acquired by the Forward, which has never before been made public, details not just the total payments ordered, but also breaks them down into individual deposits.

It shows that Mazzig was paid by the Israeli government’s ad agency, known as “LAPAM,” which transliterates a Hebrew acronym. However, the deposits were requested by another entity, which was listed as “Prime Minister’s Office-MLS,” with MLS comprised of the Hebrew letters mem, lamed and samech.

A source with knowledge of Israeli bureaucracy told the Forward that MLS stood for the Ministry of Strategic Affairs – in Hebrew, Misrad Lenos’im Estrategim.

The Ministry of Strategic Affairs is the Israeli government’s primary body tasked with fighting the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against the Jewish state. Its actions, including creating an official blacklist banning Jewish supporters of BDS from entering Israel, have been controversial in some American Jewish communities.

The Israeli magazine The Seventh Eye reported in September that the ministry was working with hawkish American charities on a project called Kela Shlomo, which, the Forward wrote last month, “appears to be an effort by Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, at least in part, to fund anti-BDS activities outside of Israel that won’t be attributable to the government itself.”

Indeed, the director general of the ministry, which has a budget of hundreds of millions of shekels, said in comments caught by a hidden-camera Al Jazeera documentary that it is active on “foreign soil.”

“We are a different government working on foreign soil and we have to be very, very cautious,” director general Sima Vaknin-Gil was recorded saying at a pro-Israel conference, according to Haaretz.

At least four major American Jewish advocacy groups rejected working with the ministry on a secret project because they feared doing so would mean they would have to register with the Department of Justice under FARA, the Forward reported in May.

Was Mazzig working for the Ministry of Strategic Affairs in addition to — or instead of — the government ad agency, LAPAM?

When Mazzig was interviewed on the phone by the Forward on Oct. 11, he said that the payments were for consulting work he had done for the “ministry – no, not the ministry, the agency.” Maybe this was a misstep by someone speaking in a non-native tongue.

However, the line item of the final payment to Mazzig listed in the spreadsheet, on Apr. 10, 2018, says it is for “Strategic activity for the ministry // Jan. 18.” The Hebrew word for “ministry” is not used in the name of LAPAM.

'I’m advising them'

Mazzig was adamant in the Forward interview that no one from the government had ever ordered him to do anything. He also insisted that the government did not pay for his campus activities at all.

During February, March, April and June 2017, Mazzig received payments from the Israeli government with the line items “Campuses-apartheid campaign (Hen Mazzig+Ross)// Jan. 2017.” In May and July, he received payments for “Campus campaign for pro-Israel people (Hen)// May 2017.” (Mazzig says “Ross” refers to one of his employees; a man named Yaakov Ross also received payments from “Prime Minister’s Office-MLS” with many of the same line items.)

Mazzig’s March-April 2017 college tour was organized by CAMERA, the pro-Israel media watchdog organization that also has a large campus arm. The group helped arrange for Mazzig to tour 16 universities in North America, including Brooklyn College, George Washington University and Ohio State University. Two students from different universities who were involved in arranging Mazzig’s talk at their respective schools told the Forward that CAMERA paid for everything.

Indeed, CAMERA spokesman Jonah Cohen told the Forward: “CAMERA’s understanding is that the 2017 spring tour was funded entirely by CAMERA.”

So what was the state of Israel paying for, then? According to Mazzig, consulting services for LAPAM.

LAPAM helps create, place, and pay for government ads and public service announcements in Israeli newspapers and TV channels. It pays those media outlets for the ability to advertise with them, the same as any other ad buyer.

But LAPAM also plays a “hasbara” role: It creates and spreads viral videos and other social media products designed to support Israel’s diplomatic efforts and burnish its image abroad.

“I’m [advising] them on how to combat anti-Semitism,” Mazzig insisted, referring to LAPAM.

Mazzig said the relationship between him and the government was unidirectional — he advised them on what to do, not the other way around.

He also maintained that his work was only for LAPAM – not the Ministry of Strategic Affairs – and indeed, his name and the sum of his payments from LAPAM show up in the agency’s publicly available disclosures.

However, the FARA experts consulted by the Forward said that even if Mazzig’s account is true — even if Mazzig only gave LAPAM advice and not vice-versa, and even if his activities on American college campuses were totally independent of government oversight and limited to sharing intel with ad execs about the American campus scene — he may be required to register as a foreign agent in the FARA database anyway.

According to the experts, it would not be against the law for a veteran of the IDF, which most Israelis are, to advocate for his or her country while in the United States. It also would not be against the law for someone to engage in political activities in the United States while being employed or paid by the Israeli government — so long as they have either registered through FARA with the Justice Department or acquired a diplomatic exemption from the State Department.

Mazzig, by contrast, appears to have been a paid contractor of the Israeli government, engaging in political advocacy in the United States. He didn’t notify the American government, and he didn’t make a full disclosure to the Americans he was trying to influence.

“The reason that the United States laws require such registration is transparency for the persons targeted, in this case, probably scores of college campuses and thousands or tens of thousand of college students,” said Jones, the FARA attorney. “They as American voters would have a right to know who is [paying for] the material influencing them.”

FARA does have exemptions for journalists and for “religious, scholastic, academic, or scientific pursuits,” but they likely wouldn’t apply to Mazzig. He is not a professional journalist, he’s not an ordained religious leader and the scholastic and academic exemptions almost always apply to professors.

“It would have to be bona fide scholarly work in order for the exemption to apply,” the anonymous expert explained. “And there would have had to be no other political activity for the exemption to apply.”

Mazzig may not think that FARA applies to him, but the fact that American campus groups didn’t know about the Israeli government’s payments to Mazzig – or to any other guest speaker they bring in who isn’t a formal government or military official – could be consequential, Jones warned.

“As to a U.S. nonprofit collaborating in a foreign interest with an agent of a foreign principal to achieve the objective of a foreign principal, what you may have in a case like that is an almost obligation to register, particularly if the nonprofit knew that their shared agent was doing the bidding of a foreign principal,” he explained.

The student organizers reached by the Forward also say they don’t remember Mazzig disclosing his contracting work, either beforehand or during his speeches — but some welcomed the news.

“I would say, I would hope he was doing stuff like that,” said University of Central Florida senior Jesse Slomowitz. “Bring back how to combat this stuff. It’s definitely a major issue for Jewish students on campuses.”

Others think the Israeli government could spend its money more effectively. The students who attend Mazzig’s talks are already avid Zionists.

Brown University senior Micah Rosen, who helped arrange Mazzig’s talk there last year, isn’t bothered by the possibility that Mazzig relayed his words or sentiments on to the Israeli government.

But he doesn’t think it will be very helpful, he said: “Communicating indirectly isn’t the best way to have campus voices heard.”

Ari Kelman, a professor at Stanford University who studies Jewish students’ attitudes towards the campus Israel debate, raised a similar point.

“Whatever information he’s taking back to the Israeli government as part of this deal is, in all likelihood, profoundly skewed,” he said. “Because you have a self-selected group of students attending, and a self-selected group of students volunteering information. To pretend that’s indicative of what’s going on an American campus is ridiculous.”

Money talks

Over the last decade, and particularly in the last few years, the amount of money spent by outside groups to influence the Israeli-Palestinian debate on campus has risen sharply.

In addition to American Jewish donors heavily increasing their funding for pro-Israel campus advocacy groups, foreign governments and other unaccountable entities are also inserting themselves into the collegiate fray.

“My concern is that [Mazzig’s talks are] a misrepresentation,” said Dov Waxman, a professor of Jewish studies at Northeastern University, where Mazzig was hosted by the Hillel on Friday evening, October 19. “It’s not giving students all the info they need to evaluate what the speaker’s saying.”

Leaving aside the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs’ interventions, there’s also the Jewish Agency for Israel, whose “Israel Fellows” often advise campus pro-Israel advocacy groups in addition to organizing “falafel nights” and leading Birthright Israel trips, as well as the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, whose “Mosaic United” initiative has donated millions of dollars to Hillel International, Chabad on Campus and the Orthodox campus outreach group Olami.

“There is precedent for the Israeli government doing these types of things, but the most problematic part about [this case] is that so much of that has been pushed under the table,” Josh Spitzer-Resnick, a senior at University of Minnesota and an organizer with the left-wing grassroots group Open Hillel, told the Forward.

He connected Mazzig’s lack of disclosure with the anti-BDS blacklist website Canary Mission, which, the Forward revealed, was being supported by funds connected to major Jewish federations.

“A lot of its power has been that it is, or has been for so long, very much anonymous, and there’s no one to really hold accountable for that,” Spitzer-Resnick said.

Pro-Palestinian campus groups are less well funded than their opponents are, but if anything, the origins of their financial backing are even more opaque.

Congressional testimony from Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president of the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, disclosed links between leaders of organizations that fund Students for Justice in Palestine and the terrorist group Hamas.

WESPAC, a New York-based not-for-profit that is one of the largest funders of SJP, does not disclose its donors and was described by Schanzer as a “black box.”

And nearly every campus BDS success is trumpeted and amplified by Al Jazeera and its popular social-media-savvy service AJ+, both of which are funded by the government of Qatar.

The reporting requirements for FARA are very strict. “Agents of foreign principals” have to file within 10 days of agreeing to assist the foreign government, and then document every piece of material they disseminate. But the consequences for violating them are usually just being made to complete the paperwork they should have done in the first place.

“I would wager that if this conduct were unregistered, the problem would be resolved by retroactive filings at the Department of Justice,” Jones said.

But while FARA has historically only been enforced on alleged violators assisting non-friendly countries, that doesn’t mean that allies are totally off the hook.

“It would be reasonable to make an inquiry,” the former head of the Justice Department’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, David Laufman, said after the Forward described its findings to him. Laufman ran the department that oversaw FARA from 2014 until February this year.

“If I were in my previous job, and was presented with a set of facts that someone was going on college campuses making speeches as if they could have being written by a foreign government, and there were allegations that he was doing this at the behest of … a foreign government, that would give rise to an inquiry to seek information as to whether they would have to register,” he said.

“We were color-blind to whether the foreign country at issue was an ally or adversary,” he added. “It makes no difference whatsoever under the law.”

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