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New Al Jazeera film uncovers 'rotting foundation' of U.S. Israel lobby

A new Al Jazeera documentary provides a sobering look at a lobby that continues to defend Israel’s control of Palestinian lives, despite the many Americans turning against it.

By Antony Loewenstein

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC Conference in Washington D.C. on March 6, 2018. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC Conference in Washington D.C. on March 6, 2018. (Haim Zach/GPO)

There’s a moment near the end of the four-part, Al Jazeera documentary on the U.S. Israel lobby — censored by its own network due to pressure from the U.S. government and incensed U.S.-based, pro-Israel lobbyists — where the show’s undercover reporter, “Tony,” films a key Israel advocate in Washington. Eric Gallagher was a senior manager at The Israel Project and admits that the dominant pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, faces an existential crisis.

“People at AIPAC know that something has changed,” Gallagher says. “They know something is wrong. They are not as effective as they used to be.” He worries that the day is coming soon when AIPAC wouldn’t be able to deeply influence the Israel lobby crafted in the U.S. Congress, as it does today, and that the pro-Israel lobby will have to operate without AIPAC’s power. “There’s this big bowling ball that’s being hurled towards them [AIPAC] and the response is to run faster,” Gallagher continues. “They need to get on the bowling ball and start dancing.”

Gallagher doesn’t explain why so many Americans are turning against Israel in public opinion polls. The latest figures from The Economist and YouGov, an online data analytics firm, find that U.S. liberals, millennials, and women have turned against the Jewish state in large numbers. The 50-plus year occupation of Palestinians and their lands, constant killings of civilians in Gaza, and the Trump administration’s obsessive embrace of Israel’s hard-right are all factors.

Republicans and conservatives still back Israel in large numbers, as do many in the evangelical Christian community (though younger members are more skeptical). For the foreseeable future, however, Israel will likely receive unprecedented financial, military, and diplomatic support from the United States.

Tony films Gallagher in a Washington D.C. café explaining that “the foundation that AIPAC sat on is rotting. There used to be widespread public support for Israel in the United States…I don’t think that AIPAC is the tip of the spear anymore, which is worrisome, because who is?”

It’s a telling admission in a documentary that’s full of them. Following Al Jazeera’s 2017 examination of Britain’s Israel lobby — a film that uncovered extensive Israeli government interference in the British political system, along with Labour Party operatives who aimed to silence critics of Israel with false charges of anti-Semitism — expectations were high for the U.S. version. They planted a convincing young, British, Jewish man, James Anthony Kleinfeld, within the American Zionist establishment, who filmed undercover for months to reveal pro-Israel lobbyists and Israeli government affiliates talking tactics and spewing racism against Muslims and Palestinians. Al Jazeera even admitted to planting an undercover reporter inside U.S. pro-Israel lobby groups in 2017, but the channel never broadcast the final product.

The Israeli and American flags are screened on the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, on May 13, 2018, ahead of the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. (Yontan Sindel/Flash90)

The Israeli and American flags are screened on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, on May 13, 2018, ahead of the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. (Yontan Sindel/Flash90)

Director and founder of Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, Clayton Swisher, has detailed the political reasons for this decision: a combination of Qatari government capitulation, pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington threatening to convince Congress to register the network as “foreign agents,” and false accusations of anti-Semitism against the producers of the documentary. A source told me that U.S. President Donald Trump’s first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, had even lobbied the Qataris not to screen the film. Whatever exactly Israeli, American, and pro-Zionist lobbyists did, it worked, though clips of the film started leaking in the last months. The full film can’t be far behind.

The leaks prove that the Israeli embassy, often working with pro-Israel groups, spies on pro-Palestinian students and attempts to disrupt the growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement across the U.S. Other Zionist lobbyists want students who support Palestinian rights to be criminally prosecuted. Fake Facebook accounts are created by Israel lobby groups that only occasionally mention Israel, because the Israel brand has become so toxic. The notorious Canary Mission website, used by the Israel government to target pro-Palestinian supporters on arrival in its country, is exposed as being funded by major pro-Israel donors in the U.S.

These are all important revelations, and an international audience deserves to see them. There’s nothing remotely anti-Semitic in the film. It’s a sober and detailed exposé of a lobby that functions despite the demographic gravity pushing against it. It’s not just young Americans losing support for Israel, but American Jews who increasingly can’t abide by a foreign country that advocates chauvinism, occupation, and racism. The horrific Pittsburgh synagogue massacre has only deepened this divide between Israel and its vast Jewish Diaspora.

Mourners take part in a vigil for the victims of the shooting at Tree of Life Congregation, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 29. (Governor Tom Wolf/CC BY 2.0)

Mourners take part in a vigil for the victims of the shooting at Tree of Life Congregation, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 29. (Governor Tom Wolf/CC BY 2.0)

Banning the film shows the weakness of the Zionist lobby, not its strength, because it acknowledges that any criticism that shatters the illusion of how the lobby operates secretly cannot survive sunlight or public scrutiny. Nonetheless, it’s worrying that Al Jazeera continues to stonewall about the real reasons it has not scheduled the film.

Swisher’s documentary is a positive development, however, from the myopic discussions around the U.S. Israel lobby that greeted the 2007 book on the subject by academics Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer (who appears in the film). The authors were accused of anti-Semitism and scapegoating Jews. U.S. journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, now editor of The Atlantic, who is notorious for policing supposedly acceptable boundaries of debate around Israel/Palestine, called Walt, without evidence, a “grubby Jew-baiter.”

Yes, Swisher and his team have been accused of anti-Semitism, more than a decade after the Mearsheimer-Walt book. But the label no longer sticks effectively, apart from the rigid ideologues who won’t tolerate any criticism of Israeli actions. When real anti-Semitism is surging globally, it’s a damning indictment on those who abuse the term for shabby political ends. The Israel lobby does this around the world.

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A key theme throughout the film is the perceived need by Israel and its advocates to secretly and publicly smear supporters of Palestinian rights. That’s what being strongly pro-Israel means for the litany of Zionist lobby groups featured in the documentary, from The Israel Project to the Brandeis Center. It looks and feels grubby and desperate. BDS is framed as an existential threat to the continuation of the Jewish state, a severe exaggeration in the current moment, but it has undeniably achieved great psychological damage to the Israeli narrative and justification for indefinitely occupying millions of Palestinians.

One of the early reviews of the film, written by Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz, argues that the U.S. Israel lobby and Israeli government are “begging a bunch of amateurs for intel [on BDS supporters].” Although he later admits that the film shows a “self-harming campaign” that costs the Israeli government millions of dollars every year, he ignores the wider implications for the many targeted liberal Jews, pro-Palestinian activists and Muslims whose lives and records are smeared by the lobby for daring to defend Palestinian rights. Free speech around Israel/Palestine is now under attack in the U.S. and across the globe. The FBI is using Canary Mission as a reference point to harass pro-Palestinian activists.

This Al Jazeera documentary deserves a wide audience because it exposes the motivations and methods of individuals and groups that will spend the next 50 or 100 years defending Israeli control of Palestinian lives.

Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based, independent journalist, film-maker, author of My Israel Question and Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe and is currently writing a book on the global “war on drugs”, out in 2019. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine since 2003.

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    COMMENTS

    1. lawrence

      Yeah, except that Walt and Mearsheimer’s book is indeed overflowing with antisemitic tropes, many of which could have been lifted almost verbatim from any number of European Jew-bating tracts predating the creation of political Zionism. Their premise, like that of their colleagues the Christisons (“formerly” of the CIA), seems to be that US foreign policy (especially in the Middle East) would be fine and dandy were it not for the interference of those pesky Jews… According to left-liberal stalwart Christopher Hitchens, “they think that they are smarter than the American imperialists. If they were running the empire, [Mearsheimer and Walt] wouldn’t be fooled by the Jews. They’d be making big business with the Saudis instead and not letting Arabs get upset about Zionism.” Given the track record of international military and political interventions in Central and South America as well as Asia and Africa from the time of the Spanish-American War, this rosy picture of US “diplomacy” is — to say the least — flawed (cf General Smedley Butler’s “War is a Racket”).

      For sure the people in AIPAC, its satellites, and various allied outfits are despicable wannabe Court Jews, exacerbating and fomenting rifts in the American Jewish community, and it’s laudable to expose them to as much public embarrassment as possible for their idolatrous pro-Israel antics and false accusations of antisemitism. But resorting to antisemitic fantasies about “Jewish power” is distracting; it’s the tail wagging the dog.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Lawrence: Ok, let people decide for themselves on this one: here’s Mearsheimer and Walt discussing the Israel Lobby and U.S. foreign policy ( Cambridge Forum – 1 hour 20 min)

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzXS3tmZrcU

        (as the moderator says in the opening, their original article claimed that the Israel Lobby was manipulating U.S. foreign policy)

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Lawrence, your indictment here does not rise to being very coherent or convincing, is a rather puzzling mishmash. The first paragraph of what you write seems to be an effort to throw up on the wall something about the Mearsheimer-Walt book to see if it will still stick to that greasy wall, despite Antony Loewenstein’s pointing out the lack of evidence for that indictment–why not try again you thought?–and the sad irony Loewenstein points out is that we have on the side of Israel’s openly Trump-adoring leaders a sleazy sociopathic demagogue of a US president who, it cannot be denied, was instrumental in the murderous bloodbath in a Pittsburgh synagogue a few days ago. Instrumental. Without Trump that would not have happened.

        Then you move on to what seems to me like a perfunctory credibility-establishing statement about false accusations of anti-Semitism, but replete with “Court Jews” which if a person of the Left said you’d probably deem an anti-Semitic trope, before closing in for the kill, i.e., the same kind of hackneyed anti-Semitizing trope you just got done denouncing: “antisemitic fantasies about “Jewish power” is distracting; it’s the tail wagging the dog.”

        As I said, it’s a mishmash that leaves one wondering just what is your point and how is it that Loewenstein’s article does not convincingly gainsay what you say. I think it does.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Mazyar

      There are no fair elections as long as lobbying and personal donation to politicians is legal. Lobbying is legalized bribery and there is no other way to understand it. People has no saying in such a political system.

      Reply to Comment
    3. D Wharton

      Having witnessed Isaeli brutality in Lebanon many years ago I have kept records of the daily attacks on the Occupied Territories and so fail to understand how any country can ignore the breaches of International Law. It is time the West woke up to their blind support if Israel’s barbarity.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Danielle

      I am already part way into part 2, compliments of Brendon O’Connell’s YouTube channel and this 4 part series is thus far, positively captivating. I plan on continuing to spread the word. So much falls to the wayside in “dumbed down” America. That simply cannot be the case with this documentary. People of America have the right to watch this and decide for themselves, considering the billions upon billions of foreign defense aid given to Israel by the American tax payer.
      Methinks Israel dost protest too much.
      Contrary to what some may believe, the truth is not ‘anti-semitic’ (I use the term loosely, as it is not even accurate/appropriate, something else most people with even a little bit of critical thinking ability are aware of).

      Reply to Comment
    5. Eric

      An excellent series, as was the British one, that should be widely seen (it’s now online at the Electronic Intifada).

      Under-emphasized, in my view, is that the large hasbara army that is fighting Israel’s war on U.S. campuses is paid (likely well) and richly resourced. Whereas Students for Justice in Palestine, its main target, is a genuine grassroots student movement with limited resources, I understand.

      Reply to Comment