The Greatest Enemies of Free Speech in America: the Israeli Government

by | Sep 3, 2020

I know you might have thought it was the cancel culture crazies on Twitter. Yeah right. They’re nothing compared to the Israeli government and their traitorous American fifth column pushing to outlaw criticism of their lousy, lawless, Jim Crow, apartheid police state.

From the Jewish Daily Forward:

More than half of all American states have passed laws designed to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. No advocacy group was more important to this push than the Israel Allies Foundation, an American non-profit that supports a network of pro-Israel legislators across the globe.

It was the IAF that in 2014 connected a South Carolina politician with an Israeli legal scholar who drafted the first bill to ban state agencies from contracting with entities that boycott Israel.

After that law passed in South Carolina in 2015, the IAF successfully lobbied for nearly-identical anti-BDS bills in 25 other states, including Florida, Pennsylvania and Arizona. Now the group is backing another bill, which has already passed in South Carolina and Florida and been introduced in six more states, which would change civil-rights codes to define antisemitism to include anti-Zionism.

Public records obtained by The Forward show that the Israeli government approved a grant of more than $100,000 to the Israel Allies Foundation in 2019. The IAF has not disclosed this or any previous Israeli grants to the United States government, in possible violation of laws requiring American political advocacy groups to disclose foreign-government contributions.

The IAF, which reported $1.4 million in revenue in 2018 and features a testimonial on its website from Vice President Mike Pence, did not respond to four emails seeking comment.

It is one of 11 American groups that received Israeli government funds, according to the documents, which show that the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and a quasi-governmental organization it created have given at least $6.6 million to U.S. organizations since 2018. These grants, along with millions more that went to groups in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Israel itself, were to further the country’s public diplomacy efforts, particularly against BDS.

The Israeli government’s gifts to pro-Israel American entities — including more than $1 million each to Christians United for Israel and Aish Hatorah’s Hasbara Fellowships — were publicly unknown until the last few weeks, after a politician not from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party took over the ministry and dropped its longstanding stance against releasing its public records.

According to the Israeli documents, most of the grants to the American organizations were intended to send those groups’ members — and selected guests — on chartered trips to Israel, which often included meetings with Israeli officials. Spending these funds abroad, rather than inside the United States, may have allowed them to avoid onerous federal disclosure requirements designed to thwart foreign influence campaigns.

But documents also suggest that some of those trips included instructions for pro-Israel advocacy back home — in statehouses and on college campuses — which legal experts say may expose not just the recipient groups but also anyone who went on their trips to fines and even prosecution for violating disclosure rules. …

Many of the payments that Israel made to the IAF and the other American groups were delivered through an organization that was set up, an Israeli official acknowledged in a Knesset hearing this summer, to mask the money’s source. But several experts said that the existence of such an intermediary does not remove the disclosure requirements. …

Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs was once a backwater agency with unclear purpose. That changed in 2015, when it was placed under the control of the hard-charging, hawkish Gilad Erdan, who convinced Netanyahu, a fellow member of the Likud Party, to quintuple the ministry’s budget and add fighting BDS to its portfolio.

Ever since, the ministry has been tasked with waging war in the battle of public opinion against Israel’s critics, especially on social media. It has fought in court to keep some of its activities classified, but it has also published dossiers on pro-BDS activists and hired an Israeli influencer popular on the U.S. college-lecture circuit as a consultant.

But as the Forward previously reported, Erdan found that when the ministry offered money to Jewish-American groups in 2017, it was often rebuffed — out of concern about the FARA disclosure requirements, that they’d be accused of “dual loyalty,” or that the grants would complicate their claims that they represent American Jewish interests, which are often similar but not identical to Israeli ones. Such refusals included several prominent American Jewish groups like the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council of Public Affairs. A spokesperson for the Anti-Defamation League said this month that it, too, had turned down a grant. One official whose organization was solicited, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the Israelis were “anxious and frustrated” by the rejections. …

By December 2017, the ministry largely stopped trying to directly give money to major Jewish advocacy organizations. Instead, it helped create a “public-benefit company” to fight BDS — and put a buffer between itself and the American groups. The company was originally called Kela Shlomo, or Solomon’s Sling, but less than a year later, its name was changed to Concert. In keeping with their penchant for secrecy, officials in the ministry and the company refused to explain the name change to journalists.

The ministry pledged to match private donations to Concert, up to $37.5 million over four years. The company’s sole purpose was to provide grants to Israeli and Diaspora advocacy groups. It had an independent board, but its steering committee was chaired by the ministry’s director-general.

This approach meant potentially doubling the amount of money available for the cause, by consolidating private and public funds, and creating an entity much nimbler than the Israeli government to quickly respond to BDS victories or social media spats.

Ronen Manelis, the ministry’s new director, also said this summer that the strategy was designed in part to make it easier for American groups to accept the grants, because Concert’s ties to the Israeli government, while not secret, were also not well known.

“The understanding was that it would be easier for them to come to terms with a public-benefit company than with an action that the Israeli government is behind,” Manelis testified in July at a Knesset oversight hearing. “In the end, you see a bank transfer from a non-profit organization, and not a bank transfer from the Israeli government. That’s the idea.”

In the end, Concert granted around $10.5 million, a little more than half of which went to American groups. Several groups got more than $1 million each; the smallest grant was $15,000.

The company’s internal documents identify some organizations it funded, but others are redacted. The language describing those beneficiaries’ activities is vague: “defensive and offensive” campaigns, research on “corporate responsibility,” “amplification units” that would provide “support for organizations in a pro-Israeli network.” …

None of the American organizations known to have taken money from Concert, or from the ministry directly, have filed FARA paperwork with the Department of Justice. At first glance, most are able to avoid this disclosure because the payments were designated for activities outside the United States — but in some cases, the details raise questions. …

One of the most prominent beneficiaries of Concert funds — and of the foreign-travel disclosure loophole — was Christians United for Israel, the largest pro-Israel group in America, which was awarded nearly $1.3 million in February 2019 for 10 week-long pilgrimages to the Holy Land, each containing 30 of what Concert documents call “influential Christian clerics from the U.S.” Concert’s board also approved hundreds of thousands in subsidies for trips run by smaller groups, such as the America-Israel Friendship League.

CUFI did not respond to a request for comment. AIFL executive director Wayne Firestone said that Concert had given them approximately $33,000 for one of its trips — around a third of the amount the Israeli company approved. Firestone also said that he didn’t know Concert was a subsidiary of the ministry, that no amount of the grant was spent inside the United States, and that his group didn’t believe it needed to register under FARA.

FARA experts said those groups needn’t have disclosed the grants if they were indeed solely for travel. But minutes of Concert’s board meetings suggest that some groups’ activities in Israel were closely tied to the politicking on American soil that is the heart of FARA.

For example, in discussing the Israel Allies Foundation in January 2019, Concert’s board noted with approval that the group “has many achievements in promoting pro-Israel policy and legislation,” specifically citing the anti-BDS state laws. The board then approved a grant of $118,000 for the foundation to hold a conference in Israel “with the organization’s top lobbyists to enable the concentration of efforts and the construction of a common strategy among all members.” Attendees would also meet with Israeli leaders, from whom they would be “expanding and deepening the relevant knowledge, creating and strengthening ties.” …

In December 2019, the IAF indeed held a conference in Jerusalem, convening 24 lawmakers from 21 countries, including one American: state Rep. Alan Clemmons, the original sponsor of the IAF’s anti-BDS law in South Carolina.

The attendees met with several Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu; the opposition leader, Yair Lapid; and a member of Knesset named Orit Farkash-Hacohen, who five months later became Minister of Strategic Affairs. They also met with Eugene Kontorovich, the Israeli lawyer who wrote the anti-BDS law that Clemmons and the IAF had helped get passed back in 2015.

Clemmons, who was first elected in 2002, is also on the board of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that creates and disseminates “model legislation” to a network of conservative politicians around the country. After the success of his anti-BDS campaign, Clemmons was focused on getting colleagues in other states to pass bills equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism, as he had already done in his state.

In the two months after the IAF conference in Jerusalem, legislators introduced such bills in eight statehouses. In five of them, the bill’s primary sponsor is, like Clemmons, involved with ALEC. …

Documents also show that Concert in May 2019 gave more than $1 million to support Hasbara Fellowships, the program run by the Orthodox group Aish Hatorah that takes college students to Israel and trains them to advocate for the Jewish state on campus. Concert’s subsidy followed a similar grant, of $882,000 from the Strategic Affairs Ministry to Aish in 2016.

“The ministry is satisfied with the activities of the organization that creates the necessary infrastructure for pro-Israel activities on U.S. campuses and with the training of students for this activity,” Concert said in a May 2019 memo, making clear the connection between Hasbara’s Israel tours and their participants’ campus activism, as well as the ties back to the Israeli government. …

Still, the combined public and private funds gave Concert a total of around $10.5 million – at least $6 million of which was given to American groups. Whatever the group’s future, the ministry maintains the portfolio of fighting BDS and the delegitimization of Israel around the world.

Read the rest here.

About Scott Horton

Scott Horton is director of the Libertarian Institute, editorial director of Antiwar.com, host of Antiwar Radio on Pacifica, 90.7 FM KPFK in Los Angeles, California and podcasts the Scott Horton Show from ScottHorton.org. He's the author of the 2021 book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism, the 2017 book, Fool's Errand:Time to End the War in Afghanistan , editor of the 2019 book The Great Ron Paul: The Scott Horton Show Interviews 2004–2019 and the 2022 book Hotter Than The Sun: Time to Abolish Nuclear Arms. He’s conducted more than 5,700 interviews since 2003. Scott lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, Larisa Alexandrovna Horton.

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