Time to call out the campus Israel Lobby

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
on 7 Comments

Imagine you are a student activist trying to get tobacco products banned from your university. You insist that cigarettes cause cancer, as so much research has shown. Your opponents are other students who claim the connection is tenuous and controversial, that student government should not make judgments on complex health issues, and that some students are so attached to their cigarettes that their very identities would be under attack if such a measure were passed. What if these students called themselves regular smokers, but were in fact trained and sometimes paid representatives of Philip Morris and Marlboro? How much credibility would they have on campus?

The answer depends on whether opponents of tobacco products buy into the frame of two symmetrical student groups – “pro-smokers“ and “anti-smokers,” or whether they call out their opponents for being representatives of external bodies.

One of the biggest failings of pro-Palestine student movement in many U.S. schools is buying into the symmetry frame. We’ve largely accepted the idea that efforts to divest from Israeli apartheid are promoted by pro-Palestine student groups, and opposed by pro-Israel ones (“the Zionists”) – as if these are two symmetrical parties.

But this is a completely false picture. Groups like Students for Justice in Palestine truly are grass-root organizations. Despite persistent rumors about their secret Saudi oil money, SJP chapters hold bake sales to send students their national conferences. On the U.C. Berkeley campus, attention was diverted from SJP’s cookies and brownies by the College Republicans, who put on a lavish spectacle involving students in swimsuits. The SJP sale raised a little under $6.

Such financial improvisation is one of the hazards of truly independent student organizing. But contrast that with a recent complaint from a “pro-Israel” student: “students are bombarded with funding opportunities to engage in pre-formed activities from a dozen different organizations. There is little opportunity to be creative and scant motivation to develop programming that comes from students themselves.”


It is in fact misleading to characterize this student as simply “pro-Israel,” or “Zionist,” any more than a representative of Philip Morris is simply “a smoker.” She is a Hasbara Fellow, a trained advocate for an external organization founded in 2001 by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She will be paid back a deposit of $250 if her activism is considered satisfactory. The program is currently run by Aish HaTora International, a huge international Jewish outreach organization with private donors that works closely with the Israeli government. Aish operates “dozens of full-time branches and programs on six continents.” It is based not in the U.S. but in East Jerusalem, and supports continued settlement of the West Bank.  This organization tells its members that the occupation is nothing more than a “myth,” and disseminates hardcore islamophobic materials, like the films Obsession and Third Jihad (which were produced in millions of copies by an offshoot of Aish International).

One of the features of Hasbara Fellows’ activism is a relentless attempt to smear pro-Palestine students as anti-Jewish. In a failed lawsuit against her former university, U.C. Berkeley, this student claimed that Jewish students’ experiences, especially as a result of protests against checkpoints, are comparable to “incitement, intimidation, harassment and violence carried out under the Nazi regime and those of its allies in Europe against Jewish students… during the turbulent years leading up to and including the Holocaust.”

When routinely compared to Nazis (a comparison considered extremely offensive if made in the opposite direction), pro-Palestine students often get defensive. They protest that they’ve succeeded in drawing the line between anti-semitism and anti-Zionism, and display some of their Jewish members as proof. By doing so they implicitly accept the idea that what is at stake here is the feelings of Jewish American students, and that these students should therefore be the main parties to the debate. This framing doubly undermines our own work: first, it reproduces the very structures of power and prejudice that marginalize Palestinians in the first place. Secondly, by obscuring the voices of Palestinian American students it contributes to the perception that human rights abuses happen far away – an international issue so complex that U.S. students cannot form an opinion about it, much less act on it. But the most compelling arguments are the ones that draw connections between companies our schools are invested in and human rights abuses suffered by students in those same schools – from H.P.’s equipment for checkpoints to General Electric’s parts in helicopters which are used to attack civilians in Gaza. Palestinian students who’ve been impacted by these horrors are the experts, and they are students on our campuses. They are our best advocates. 

A better way of countering these endless accusations of anti-Semitism would be to clearly distinguish the diverse community of Jewish students in each university from advocates of particular external groups. Many accusations of anti-Semitism are made by Hasbara Fellows, members of an organization that disseminates extreme islamophobic materials, as mentioned above. Similar accusations of antisemitism come from student representatives of AIPAC, whose group seeks to cut aid to Palestinian refugees, is pushing the U.S. towards war with Iran, and has a long history of preventing recognition of the Armenian Genocide. In 2010 after a divestment resolution was initially passed at UC Berkeley (before it was vetoed), an AIPAC official promised “we’re going to make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote…This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s capital. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.”

This year, a student body representing the University of California system passed a resolution distinguishing anti-semitism from criticism of Israeli state policies and affirming the legitimacy of calls for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. In response, several current and former student senators published an open letter that contained the following language:

“UCSA’s resolution refers to “Israel’s illegal occupation” and charges Israel with “racism and Apartheid in the context of Israeli policies” without recognizing the level of debate and dissension constantly occurring around this hostile rhetoric. Furthermore, the resolution takes a stance “in strong opposition to…the racism of Israel’s human rights violations” and “encourages all institutions of higher learning to cleanse their investment portfolios of unethical investments” in companies that do business with Israel. This extreme language alienates a significant portion of the campus community, especially those whose identities are closely tied with the Jewish state. As a governing body, it is the responsibility to create a safe campus environment and avoid making comprehensive statements that can be perceived as an attack on those UCSA claims to represent.”

This letter is being disseminated by the AIPAC representatives in each school. Imagine students openly representing Exxon disseminating a letter that called any talk of global warming “extreme language” that creates an unsafe environment for students whose identities are closely tied to purchasing oil. Most students would see this as absurd. But pro-Palestine students have been very hesitant to draw these connections. Part of the reason lies in conflict avoidance: why criticize fellow students who already say (or are told to say) we are hurting their feelings? Shouldn’t we be gentler with them? 

Again, being gentle to trained representatives of an advocacy group makes as much sense as reaching out to a Bank of America employee who is about to foreclose your home. Of course there is no need to deliberately offend. But if external advocacy organizations are like big corporations, pro-Palestine students can borrow from the rich traditions of anti-corporate activism. Where are our adbusters? What can we learn from Naomi Klein’s No Logo? Why should paid advocates of external bodies have unrestricted access to student newspapers, without providing full disclosure? Shouldn’t we be demanding a protocol to pre-empt that? What transparency do they owe if they serve in elected student bodies? How can the Freedom of Information Act be used to expose their typically covert lobbying? You’ve seen Shit Zionists Say – how about Shit AIPAC Says? What about a “Who Advocates?” website, modeled on Who Profits? When will “Hasbara Fellow” become a familiar term that every student associates with a tiny group of advocates for external anti-Palestinian groups – instead of seeing them as representing the voice of Jewish students? In 2011 there were only 250 Hasbara Fellows in 80 U.S., universities, an average of 3 students per school, yet they consistently speak in the name of entire Jewish communities.

While Hasbara Fellows themselves are concerned that their student groups could be seen as “a façade for multi-million dollar organizations,” the pro-Palestine movement has rarely attempted to call out the Israel Lobby on our campuses. We cannot tell our local AIPAC representatives from the Hasbara Fellows. We do not even know the names of other external advocacy groups. Serious and well-documented research on each school can engender new and creative strategies to challenge these champions of the status quo, who are blocking crucial action to end Israeli apartheid in all its forms. There is no time to waste, especially after the latest slaughter in Gaza. It’s time to call out the campus Israel Lobby. 

About Tom Pessah

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7 Responses

  1. DICKERSON3870
    November 30, 2012, 10:04 am

    RE: “Time to call out the campus Israel Lobby”

    ALSO SEE: “The Trial of Israel’s Campus Critics”, by David Theo Goldberg & Saree Makdisi, Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2009

    [EXCERPT] . . . It is an extraordinary fact that no fewer than thirty-three distinct organizations – including AIPAC, the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Congress, and the Jewish National Fund – are gathered together today as members or affiliates of the Israel on Campus Coalition. The coalition is an overwhelmingly powerful presence on American college campuses for which there is simply no equivalent on the Palestinian or Arab side. Its self-proclaimed mission is not merely to monitor our colleges and universities. That, after all, is the commitment of Campus Watch, which was started by pro-Israel activists in 2002. It is, rather (and in its own words), to generate “a pro-active, pro-Israel agenda on campus.”
    There is, accordingly, disproportionate and unbalanced intervention on campuses across the country by a coalition of well-funded organizations, who have no time for — and even less interest in — the niceties of intellectual exchange and academic process. Insinuation, accusation, and defamation have become the weapons of first resort to respond to argument and criticism directed at Israeli policies. As far as these outside pressure groups (and their campus representatives) are concerned, the intellectual and academic price that the scholarly community pays as a result of this kind of intervention amounts to little more than collateral damage. . .

    ENTIRE ARTICLE – http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/sept_oct_09_goldberg_makdisi

  2. pabelmont
    November 30, 2012, 12:06 pm

    Nice points, well made.

  3. Joseph Glatzer
    December 1, 2012, 10:07 pm

    Well-written and much needed article. I have broached a similar issue in my article for this website from 3 years ago, http://mondoweiss.net/2010/03/the-israel-lobby-campus-edition-cal-state-northridge.html

    I feel the exact same way Tom. I can at least have a conversation and disagree or agree with someone, but if you are a paid lobbyist then I can’t have any respect for you. Like you said, it’s like having a debate on climate change with a BP or Shell funded lobbyist. It’s a joke. The president of the students for Israel on my campus was a Hasbara fellowship person. He and another lady who was a paid lobbyist for CAMERA submitted awful editorials to the newspaper, then I submitted my own in response, and it is so unfair myself and these paid shills are put on the same level. As if you can compare a grassroots activist with a paid lobbyist.

    It is one of the most frustrating things about my experience with SJP. We had no money and little support on CSUN campus, then you look over and one day there’s this students for israel table on club day with brochures talking about gay rights in Israel. It’s really disheartening. They are so well-funded and well-organized by outside groups. Anyways, this article is very important and we need to implement the suggestions.

  4. Joseph Glatzer
    December 1, 2012, 10:10 pm

    Oh yeah, and I told the newspaper they should put a disclaimer with these people’s affiliations as paid lobbyists, and they refused. They just said they didn’t know before they published it, and they wouldn’t be publishing them again. In fact, I was told that no more articles on the subject of Israel/Palestine would be permitted anymore! So, that was a great experience!

  5. Mooser
    December 2, 2012, 12:46 pm

    Got to wonder if any of the hasbaratchniks who post here have earned their $250.00 back yet. Wait a minute! You pay them $250.00 and you can earn it back? Gosh, maybe there’s more to that AJ+15IQ than I thought. Hmmm, or maybe less.

  6. Cliff
    December 3, 2012, 2:33 am

    This is an excellent article. I think recognizing the corporate nature of Israel advocacy groups is intuitive but to convey that understanding so completely with documentation makes it a matter of historical record – which is essential and indispensable to Palestinian-solidarity activists.

  7. piotr
    December 3, 2012, 10:38 pm

    As a smoker I am almost offended by the analogy.

    Of course, anti-smoker activists would make me feel uncomfortable, and perhaps even sad, and because many members of my ethnic group are smokers, this could be investigated as a hate speech with ethnic prejudice (or perhaps a prejudice against sexual preference called “a cigarette after”).

    Then there is a question of activist recruited by companies or well-funded organizations opposing activists that are active for free, even spending their own money. Clearly, the second group may contain many dangerous radicals, while the first is motivated at least in part by profit, motivation that is the engine of free market, economic progress and freedom in general. Elimination of profit is the hallmark of Marxist totalitarianism and correlates with genocide like excesses of Pol Pot. While one can be ambiguous in the case of prejudice based on sexual orientation (they are hard to enumerate, “cigarette after”, “booze before”, “kissing ass of our most adorable ally”, “only for money” etc.), opposition to profits is the real black mark against this post.

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