Startup ‘Jewish News Service’ peddles neocon propaganda as news

Israel/Palestine
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Jewish News Service officers, Amelia (left) and Joshua (center) Katzen, vacationing in the West Bank, near Ma’ale Adumim, 2013. (Photo: Amelia Katzen/Google Plus)

There is a new neighbor in the niche world of Jewish news organizations. Its name is innocuous, the Jewish News Service (JNS). Its quick rise, two years, to success in the époque of journalism’s spinal snap has turned heads. And this ascension merits pause, because the wire service is not a purist love-Israel affair. Last week The Forward’s Josh Nathan-Kazis profiled the lightning rod of the Jewish news market, detailing how it was seeking to replace the neutral (and well-respected Jewish Telegraphic Agency). The New Yorker has also mentioned the JNS.  

But neither of these reports expose the gamut of the media outlet’s neoconservative and pro-Israel ties.

All three of the JNS officers listed on the organization’s 990 tax returns from 2011 [PDF] — yes, it’s a charitable organization– are board members and/or paid staff for neoconservative groups known for reports that push America on the war path, and Israel on the conquest path. JNS has a serious conflict of interest going on. Like the president who sits on the board of a lobby group known for creating spin publications. Yet none of this background has made it into the public forum.

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Joshua and Amelia Katzen with their son Eli.

(Photo: Friends of the IDF)

Husband and wife Joshua and Amelia Katzen are the media outlet’s president and treasurer, respectively, and settlement supporters. The pair have posted pictures of themselves online vacationing in Israeli settlements. The couple chronicled their stop to Israel National News‘s office in Beit El, near Ramallah, and a sunset ATV ride in the West Bank hills outside of Jerusalem, a popular tourist activity that often takes place inside area E1. And their son serves in the Israeli Defense Forces. 

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Joshua Katzen (right) on a West Bank ATV ride. (Photo: Amelia Katzen)

When he’s not being Easy-Rider-in-the-occupation, Joshua is a board member of Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), the self- proclaimed “voice for Americans who support a strong defense at home and for Israel.” JINSA has a 35-year record of lobbying Washington. The groups is funded by private donors, including settlement mogul Irving Moskowitz, Friends of the IDF, two American military charities, and a major U.S. defense contractor. Its board of advisers boasts the upper echelon of American neoconservative political and military elite. The current and former highlights are Ambassador John Bolton, Rep. Eric Cantor, Dick Cheney, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and former Senator Joseph Lieberman.

The organization also runs a training program for American forces to take lessons from the IDF. The Law Enforcement Exchange Program (LEEP) has sent 400 military officials to Israel, plus a cadre of cadets and midshipmen, according to their website. In a similar program JINSA shuffled 11,000 American law enforcement agents to Israel for military training. A rational assumption of the secretive program is that the U.S. police squads were educated to treat American streets like combat zones. A video teaser for the LEEP program advertises, “A lesson learned in Tel Aviv could very well save a life in Seattle.”

Following 9/11, Joshua Katzen’s organization linked up with other neoconservative groups pushing for a preemptive U.S. invasion of Iraq. JINSA joined the warmongering collaborative, the Project for a New American Century, to “direct American military support, to effect a regime change in Iraq.” Former secretary of state Colin Powell blamed the war plans on the “JINSA crowd.” 

But JINSA’s real pro-Israel work is in the realm of publishing. JINSA creates news start-ups similar to JNS to sway public opinion in favor of neo-realism U.S. foreign policy, anti-Islamic sentiments, and expansionist pro-Israel policy.

From the Institute of Policy Studies’ project My Right Web:

In addition to […] regularly published pieces, JINSA has maintained a number of publications over the years, including the Journal of International Security Affairs, a biannual academic-style journal edited by Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC) and a “contributing expert” for the Israel-based Ariel Center for Policy Research. Other publications have included the Observer, “a quarterly review of U.S.-Turkey-Israel cooperation” copublished by JINSA and the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, and the Islamic Extremism Newswatch, a rundown of media stories covering the activities of everyone from the Palestinian Liberation Organization to al-Qaeda.

In theme, JINSA content is strikingly similar to JNS and it’s no wonder that articles from JINSA have shown up on JNS. In July 2012 an article on Israel and the Arab Spring authored by Gabriel Scheinmann, a fellow at JINSA, was published by JNS:

Hamas abandoned its cozy headquarters in Damascus, fearful of aligning itself with the heretical Alawite sect against its Sunni Muslim brothers, and continues the political tug-of-war with Fatah in the West Bank. Even beyond Israel’s immediate borders, the “Arab Spring” has uncorked ethno-religious conflicts. PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) attacks on Turkish military targets have spiked, fighting continues between Arab, African, and Berber tribesmen in Libya, and two new independent states have been declared, the Tuareg state of Azawad in northwestern Mali and South Sudan, marking the first loss of “Arab” sovereignty in 45 years.

Of course Hamas is not “headquartered in Damascus” and the notion of “Arab” sovereignty reflects a rhetoric of East versus West. This general homogenization of Islamic societies as monolithic aggressors is seen throughout JNS’s content, be that Islamic enemy Iranian, Turkish or Palestinian.

Treasurer Amelia Katzen is an attorney and environmentalist by profession. She is also the director of the Islamophobic media watchdog CAMERA, where JNS publisher Russel Pergament is on the board of directors. CAMERA is known for fact-checking Israel-related content and pressing mainstream publications for corrections. Their website disingenuously states the organization is a “media-monitoring, research and membership organization devoted to promoting accurate and balanced coverage of Israel and the Middle East.” They are bullies who are far more aggressive than simple fact-checkers. During the duration of Katzen and Pergament’s tenure with JNS, CAMERA used activist tactics in late 2012 and earlier this year to work with shareholders of both the CBS [PDF] and The New York Times Company [PDF]  to strong-arm editorial changes on Israel articles.

The group spearheaded a campaign earlier this year, along with the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, to remove two Palestinian journalists from an exhibition at the Newseum in Washington DC. The pro-Israel advocates maliciously stated that Mahmoud al-Kumi and Hussam Salama, two Palestinian media workers killed by an Israeli air strike in Gaza last fall, were not journalists protected by international conventions. CAMERA described them as “terrorists.”

In addition to his position with CAMERA, Russel Pergament is a Massachusetts publishing mogul well known for decades of pro-Israel columns, and censoring criticisms of the Jewish state in his papers. In one notable instance, Pergament fired a columnist at one of his New York papers because he didn’t like the content of one post on Israel/Palestine. The journalist, Rory O’Connor who did not typically write about the conflict, even offered a re-write. But Pergament sacked him instead.

Pergament has also endorsed the Levy report, Israel’s most serious attempt to construct a mirror framework to international law. The report’s findings ruled the West Bank was not occupied territory and proposed regularizing outposts that are illegal under Israeli law. Pergament’s ideological leanings reflect the most right-wing elements of the Israeli government and reject negotiated sovereignty for the Palestinian people.

Then there’s JNS staff writer Alex Traiman. Traiman’s name should sound familiar; he is the CEO of the Islamophobic documentary firm, Clarion Productions. He wrote and directed Iranium, a jingoistic and absurd film highlighting Iran’s human rights violations and procurement of uranium as threatening a nuclear attack on America. Of course there is no evidence in the IAEA’s reports that Iran is building a nuclear weapon.

One of the so-called experts interviewed in Iranium surfaced recently in a report for the JNS by Traiman. The article,  “Gaza flotilla apology may have ramifications beyond Israel-Turkey relations,” quotes Dr. Harold Rhode, a discredited former U.S. Department of Defense official with ties to numerous neoconservative think tanks including the Gatestone Institute, the Hudson Institute, and the Clarion Fund (the parent organization of Clarion Productions).  Years ago Rhode was also implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal over clandestine meetings with foreign agents and Iranian dissidents.

Here’s a relevant quote by Rhode from Traiman’s article describing Turkish President Erdogan:

Erdogan is clearly aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. ‘Together with the Saudis and Qataris, Erdogan has been supporting Sunni fundamentalists in the region, particularly in Syria,’ said Rhode. (But even here, the Saudis, Qataris and Erdogan disagree about which Sunni fundamentalist factions within the Syrian opposition they support.)

‘All three are supplying and arming the fundamentalists that hate America and hate Israel,’ Rhode said.

JNS has the trappings of a perfect-storm advocacy tool similar to Clarion Productions, sophisticatedly passed off as journalism. Despite a dearth of material produced by JNS, it is able to present itself as a legitimate news service. Some articles reflect trends in Judaism (“Punt the pomegranate: Five seriously new fruits for Rosh Hashanah“). But a lot of the political pieces read like propaganda.

A closing example: JNS has dedicated a number of articles to a row over a Palestinian-Israeli Christian leader advocating for Christians to enlist in the IDF (currently they are exempted from conscription). A few days ago JNS published another piece that printed a baseless accusation that Member of Knesset Hanin Zoabi threatened Father Gabriel Nadaf, the religious leader calling for military service. JNS reports:

According to the Likud MKs, some in the National Democratic Assembly (a predominantly Arab party), including MK Hanin Zoabi, were outraged over Nadaf’s comments and tried to pressure him and the Christian Officer Forum to retract the statements. This pressure was allegedly accompanied by threats. Chief Superintendent Revital Karako, who represented the Israel Police in the hearing, told the committee that Weinstein had summoned the Arab MKs for questioning.

Reading the above excerpt one is led to believe MK Zoabi threatened one of her colleagues, a charge that implies violent if not criminal activity. This is greyly libelous, and concretely irresponsible writing. What are the threats being made? What evidence is there that they even took place? Anything can be alleged, but the difference between propaganda and journalism is that journalism is supported by fact and not politically convenient rumor.

A variety of earnest opinion is healthy in the press, even when some of those opinions lead to repugnant conclusions. But fictitious allegations like those in the Zoabi article are not normative statements, they are either empirically true or false. JNS‘s output does not meet basic standards of journalism. And the media outlet is more than a lightning rod of the Jewish news market: It is a strategically planned operation peddling polemics of expansionist pro-Israel and interventionist U.S. policy in the Middle East.

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