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Pro-Israel campus activists acting as agents of state propaganda and intimidation

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In May 2006, I went to Israel for the first time on a subsidized trip called Hasbara Fellowships. Having been raised with a traditional Jewish upbringing, I was very excited to go to Israel and experience the reality behind all of the hype I had been exposed to since kindergarten. The “Birthright” trips had filled up for that summer, so I was encouraged by my local chapter of Hillel at Queen’s University to attend a different subsidized trip. I was enticed by the prospect of extending the trip and having the opportunity to travel throughout the region. My best friend agreed to come with me, so I made the decision to go.

While I considered myself to be a supporter of Israel, I self-identified at the time as a “liberal Zionist”, which in essence, meant that I was uncomfortable with Israel’s occupation over the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, but was still committed to the Zionist vision of a homeland for the Jews in historic Palestine. I was, in other words, already critical of many of Israel’s policies and was interested in grappling with these issues further. As I was also raised with the Jewish tradition of rigorous debate and the importance of asking questions, I expected an intellectually rewarding experience. I quickly realized, however, that Hasbara Fellowships was not interested in my critiques of Israeli policies and did not want to engage me in discussion on these issues. Their raison d’être was made evident from the start: to block honest discussion of Israel’s human rights violations on North American campuses.

Hasbara Fellowships was started in 2001 by the right-wing Zionist organization Aish HaTorah and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Its declared goal is to train students outside of Israel how to promote the Israeli state’s image on their respective campuses. Aish HaTorah supports illegal Israeli settlements within the Occupied Palestinian Territory. From the perspective of international law and official Canadian public policy, Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are both illegal. “Hasbara”, which is the term used to describe Israel’s public relations efforts, is widely seen as a euphemism for Israeli state propaganda. When a government is engaged in criminal behaviour, it is helpful to have students on campuses of higher learning in allied countries to serve as de facto ambassadors. Hence the program Hasbara Fellowships.

I recall from the Hasbara Fellowships program that we were instructed to make use of a set of talking points in our campus-based advocacy, such as “Israel wants peace and is willing to make painful concessions”, and “Israel, like Canada, is a Western liberal democracy”. Regardless of the criticism against Israel being levelled, we were trained to respond with such talking points in order to convince those around us that Israel is, indeed, the “good guy”. Of course, the goal was never to discuss or debate the issue, but rather to obfuscate, and deliberately prevent our fellow students from engaging in critical thought with respect to Israel and its actions.

The following year on campus, I witnessed the degree to which this strategy was successful within certain segments of the university population. Jimmy Carter had released a book criticizing Israel’s ongoing occupation and human rights violations entitled Palestine Peace not Apartheid. Rather than discuss the merits of Carter’s arguments, the leaders of Hillel and the Hasbara community resorted to the familiar line: “Israel is a liberal democracy where Arab-Israelis hold seats in the parliament, so how could it possibly be compared to apartheid South Africa?” According to this logic—employed forcefully at the time by Israel’s key apologist, Alan Dershowitz— Carter was “anti-Israel” for even suggesting that Israel’s rule over Palestinians could be considered in any way comparable to apartheid.

I had read Carter’s book, and knew that his analysis focused on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, rather than “Israel proper”. When I mentioned this to my cohorts at the Hillel House, the talking point quickly shifted to “but Israel wants peace”. The knee-jerk responses to my honest observation only served to pique an interest on my part to learn more. So, I went to the library and did some research. To my amazement, virtually all of the books I could find agreed with Carter’s position and went further in factually demonstrating the ways in which Israel was behaving both immorally and illegally.

It was soon clear to me that what I had been raised to believe is based in mythology, yet is regularly preached as fact. Palestine was not a “land without a people for a people without a land”; Israel has never been the David and the Arabs the Goliath; Palestinians have never been offered generous proposals that they have turned down (including the UN Partition Plan); and Israel has never been interested in establishing a Palestinian state. My critical engagement with the historical record has compelled me to publicly challenge a range of Israel’s reprehensible laws and policies. In joining a dedicated community that works in solidarity with Palestinians for peace and justice, I have come to realize that Hasbara Fellowships is simply the tip of the iceberg of a global propaganda effort aimed at silencing criticism of Israel’s criminal behaviour.

Hasbara is a multi-billion dollar campaign carried out by several Israeli government ministries—some of which have their own Hasbara units— and engaged in internationally by hundreds of organizations whose purpose is entirely or predominately to promote a positive image of Israel abroad.  Within the Hasbara framework, campuses in North America are seen as “battlegrounds” against “anti-Israel” activists. Hence, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the main pro-Israel lobby group in Canada (with close links to the Israeli state), provides substantial resources for student groups involved in “Israel advocacy”. The Jewish Agency for Israel, which settles Jews outside of Israel into the Occupied Palestinian Territory, has even linked up with Hillel International to challenge activism in support of Palestinian human rights on Canadian campuses.

In an atmosphere where students are becoming educated about Israel’s very real system of apartheid, and grassroots organizing is creating effective campaigns to pressure universities to remove its investments from companies that are complicit in ongoing and massive violations of human rights and international law, Israel’s apologists regularly resort to the use of intimidation in order to stifle and ultimately silence these criticisms.

The most commonly used means of intimidating those who support Palestinian human rights on campus is to label them as “anti-Israel”, and even “anti-Semitic”. Oftentimes, these labels are used interchangeably to muddy the waters, blurring any difference in meaning between them in the mind of the reader. A recent example of this can be found in an article written by pro-Israel activists at McMaster University, who referred to successful efforts on that campus promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) as “anti-Israel and anti-Semitic initiatives”. These defenders of Israel conveniently ignore the fact that the BDS campaign opposes unequivocally all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, and that a significant number of Jews are active participants in it. BDS is a non-violent tactic used to support the human rights of Palestinians that in no way promotes a hatred of Jewish people. What Israel and its Hasbara supporters are really concerned about is that BDS is gaining serious traction on campuses and beyond.

Another commonly used means of intimidating Palestinian human rights activists and their supporters is to label them as “extremists” (oftentimes “Islamic”, playing into the Islamophobic rhetoric of the times) who are always “hateful”, and to give the impression that they are a tiny minority of the campus community. This is becoming increasingly difficult for Israel’s apologists to claim since at least fifteen student unions in Canada have voted to endorse the BDS movement, calling on their administrations to divest from companies profiting from human rights violations committed against Palestinians.

This tactic has recently been employed at York University, where a coordinated attack led by [email protected] has been directed at Students Against Israeli Apartheid’s (SAIA) divestment campaign; the campus-based union CUPE 3903, which has supported their divestment campaign; and the student newspaper Excalibur. Since CUPE 3903 supports divesting from weapons manufacturers which profit off Israel’s war crimes, its members are being labelled as “racist”. Excalibur, meanwhile, has been accused of being a mouthpiece for SAIA since it has published articles by SAIA members while allegedly restricting space for pro-Israel students. In the mainstream media, voices in support of BDS are rarely given a platform, so when campus-based newspapers give a voice to majority views in support of BDS, which have been heavily repressed by the administration, they are forcefully opposed by a campus-based pro-Israel lobby.

In an article published as a blog to the Times of Israel, York University student Danielle Shachar makes the case for why Excalibur is merely a mouthpiece for “anti-Israel” views held by SAIA. Shachar refers to SAIA’s mere criticisms of the Zionist movement—a movement that has dispossessed Palestinians of their homeland and continues to deny Palestinians equal rights simply because they are not Jewish—as reflective of SAIA’s “genocidal, unilateral ideology.” In an interview on Sun News, she told host Jerry Agar that SAIA activists are “radical extremists”. Interesting that she uses this language to describe human rights activists, considering she wrote this piece for the pro-settler organization Aish Hatorah, in which she writes that God has delivered the Jewish people who “continue to live as a free people in our ancestral homeland, in Jerusalem, in Netanya, in Be’er Sheva, in Eilat, in Ariel….” Readers might be interested to learn that Ariel is an illegal Israeli settlement located in the occupied West Bank of Palestine.

What does Shachar expect will become of the Palestinians who are living under Israeli occupation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory? It is as if pro-Israel activists do not consider Palestinians to be human beings whose rights and needs are worthy of consideration. Sadly, this racist perspective, which denies Palestinians basic human rights, is being echoed by Harper’s government, whose ministers have said that BDS is anti-Semitic and have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of Israel to oppose it.

Considering the fact that [email protected]’s executive leadership is made up of Hasbara fellows, it is my view that they are serving as agents of Israeli state propaganda and can be accurately described as campus-based lobbyists acting on behalf of a foreign state. And now that Canada has aligned itself entirely with the policies of the Western world’s only apartheid state, these pro-Israel activists are echoing the Harper government’s propaganda.

We can expect the pro-Israel lobby to continue its intimidation tactics, both on and off campus. But I am convinced that activists will resist this intimidation as they continue to persevere in support of Palestinians’ human rights until Israel is transformed from an apartheid state into one that respects the human rights of Palestinians and Israeli Jews equally.

A version of this article also appeared on

Tyler Levitan

Tyler Levitan is the Campaigns Coordinator for Independent Jewish Voices – Canada. He is based in Ottawa on unceded Algonquin territory.

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23 Responses

  1. pabelmont on February 6, 2015, 3:19 pm

    Tyler Levitan lives on unceded Algonquin territory? OK. I hope he spends some time helping the Algonquins with their problems with Canada and BIG-OIL and also urging them to learn about and join him on Palestine. Putting that to the side, he has made an enormous voyage of discovery and change of perspective — terrific! (More than I ever did — I started in the Palestinian camp and don’t expect to leave it since I don’t expect them to become tyrants, as Israel has done, in my lifetime.)

    • CigarGod on February 7, 2015, 10:36 am

      Well, We can dream. But, there are factions in the Palestinian camp, too. The various factions are and will continue to fight for control. Why should they be any different than the USA?
      I’d be a terrible founding father…i’d already have fox, cnn, npr, personnel/executives…locked up as a national security threat.

  2. JLewisDickerson on February 6, 2015, 6:27 pm

    RE: “Sadly, this racist perspective, which denies Palestinians basic human rights, is being echoed by Harper’s government, whose ministers have said that BDS is anti-Semitic and have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of Israel to oppose it.” ~ Tyler Levitan

    SEE: “Canada’s Heart of Darkness” ~ By Jim Miles,, October 28, 2014

    [EXCERPT] . . . Over the past decade, Canada has made a clear and distinct turn towards its inner ‘heart of darkness’, becoming much more overt about its right wing militarized alignment with the U.S. empire and its demands. It has done so to the extent of front-running – or trying to out do – the hubris and arrogance of the U.S. in its declamations of its self-righteousness concerning international affairs (with similar impacts on domestic affairs).

    Much if not all of this is due to Canada’s (neo)Conservative government under Stephen Harper. Harper himself has declared that Canada will be a different nation when he is finished with his reign of office. Harper’s background is of a fundamentalist-dominionist Christian ideology that he himself hides reasonably well but which shows up quite frequently in his supporters and in caucus. He is determined to create a domestic order that is ruled by giving freedom to corporations, in alliance with the banksters, to do as they require to harvest the wealth of the country for their own benefit. . .


  3. SQ Debris on February 7, 2015, 1:33 pm

    Tyler brings up an interesting question of law. Should not Israeli and American students who are subsidized by the government of Israel to serve as propagandists on U.S. campuses be required to register as agents of a foreign government?
    “FARA is a disclosure statute that requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.”

    • piotr on February 8, 2015, 9:39 pm

      It is perhaps not totally direct precedent, but about 30 years ago there was a documentary on the bad effects of acid rain on forests and lakes in USA and Canada that was financed in part by a grant from Canadian government. Reagan administration issued an instruction that any showing of that movie in USA should be preceded with a warning that this is a foreign propaganda.

      • RoHa on February 8, 2015, 10:30 pm

        Such a warning should precede everything that comes from Hollywood.

  4. American on February 7, 2015, 3:44 pm

    Israel’s continued existence and ability for Jews to live in Palestine should be conditioned on its giving up Zionism.
    They have to renounce the Zionist concept of a officially enforced jewish majority and enforced jewish ethnic and religious rule and the ideology of separation of jews and others.

    That would be my response to their demand to be recognized as a jewish State.

  5. Pixel on February 8, 2015, 12:19 am

    Thanks, Tyler!

    So, it’s really called a Hasbara Fellowship, eh?

    Well, well. well.

  6. dx on February 8, 2015, 12:36 am

    I read Jimmy Carter’s book about Israel when it came out and was quite surprised by what I found in it. (As an aside: His recent book about the treatment of women world-wide is both frank and raw and well worth reading.) Anyway, I read Carter’s book on Israel again recently after I had a visit from an Israeli in the summer of 2013 that reminded me of the book.

    My friend was not open at all to discussing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. She called them “Arabs” and would only insist that they go “back” to live in an Arab country and leave “our land”. Her family is from Europe and moved to Israel after WWII, and I pointed out that the Palestinians had put in much more time there than her family did. (And if we’re going to talk ancient history, how far back do you go? Because my best estimate is that all humans should be living in Africa if we’re going to go back as far as we can to where everyone got their start.) She really had no argument. Nothing to say about the settlements. Nothing to say about UN violations. Nothing to say for the PM insulting our President and regularly lying in public. It was like dealing with a pouty, sulky child. Immature. Refusing to think about anything that doesn’t fit with her view.

    She also kept insisting that Israel was “just a tiny dot” and perpetually under threat. To which I said: a small country with one of the largest armies in the world (the fourth largest, I think) and with nuclear weapons is not a weak, defenseless country. And why aren’t the nukes acknowledged? Of course, I just got the same repeated “tiny dot” response.

    She struck me as having a unique form of national narcissism and self-pity–full of arrogance and feeling victimized at the same time. She was well inculcated with certain phrases and beyond that had no cogent thoughts of her own.

    I stayed quite agitated after her visit and re-read Carter’s book.

    When the Gaza War rolled around, I was upset to see propaganda cartoons on her twitter feed from her government. The pictures were juvenile and simplistic and ridiculously clownish, but they were upsetting because they reminded me of the black and white cartoons I saw in textbooks back in high school depicting Jews as bad and less than human. These were color cartoons that depicted all Arabs as bad and inhuman in exactly the same way.

    I expressed some, but not all of my views about Gaza. Her response was that she was extremely angry with me, but decided that “the media” was the reason for my opinions. I laughed out loud. Clearly, she knows nothing about American media. I get more information from Jewish and Israeli publications and sites like this. But it was another indication of the tidy little way of thinking she has so she doesn’t have to challenge or, heaven forbid, change her mind.

    It is really astounding to me that Israel works so hard to exercise so much thought control on its own citizens and expects it to work in other countries with its “hasbara”–which is a new word for me. I honestly thought it simply meant propaganda. The very idea of hasbara is just insulting in and of itself.

    I can no more be friends with this person than I can be with a member of the Klan. I see no difference between a white supremacist and a Jewish supremacist. The very idea of building a country around one religion or ethnicity is anathema to me as an American. (I have experienced some religious and ethnic discrimination–very, very minor compared to other people so I don’t often think about it–but enough to know to never talk about or acknowledge my religion at work. ) I do know there are some Israelis who are trying to change things, but it doesn’t seem to be working. What I know for sure and certain is that Israel is not a democracy, no matter how hard they try to convince us otherwise.

    • annie on February 8, 2015, 12:43 am

      thanks for your story dx. i am curious, how did you know this person. an ex an old classmate or what?

    • oldgeezer on February 8, 2015, 1:39 am

      Your post mirrors my own experience and viewpoint to an amazing degree. Obviously because of that I would say great post so… Great post and thank you. It may seem obvious but you expressed it so well.

      If I can chime in though “The very idea of building a country around one religion or ethnicity is anathema to me” as well. This was the political environment of the old world and the history books are filled with the wars and genocides engendered by that approach. That people exist (in several religions really) that want to drag us back to those days is mind boggling. There are many other reasons for war and conflict but we really don’t need this one.

      I’m an atheist that tecnically qualified as a WASP before becoming one .. hmmm… 55 years ago? I truly welcome all the religions and cultures and ethnicities to this country. I not only welcome but thank them for being part of the nation’s fabric. We all learn from each other. With knowledge comes understanding and acceptance. One less reason.

      While there are those who feel things can’t change they are deluding themselves if they believe culture is static. It never has been and never will be. While it can be forced on a small group for a short time it will ultimately fail. None of our cultures have been unaffected. I say bring it on. The sooner we get to know, and learn, from each other the better.

    • RoHa on February 8, 2015, 1:41 am

      “Because my best estimate is that all humans should be living in Africa if we’re going to go back as far as we can to where everyone got their start.”

      We should never have left the ocean.

      • Mooser on February 8, 2015, 8:40 pm

        “We should never have left the ocean.”

        Sometimes I think we would have been better off if we all had stayed ungulates. But no, we had to evolve.

    • oldgeezer on February 8, 2015, 1:49 am

      “but enough to know to never talk about or acknowledge my religion at work. ”

      Even wasps don’t talk about their religion where I live and only acknowledge their religion if explicitly asked. Being asked is rare. I could count on two hands the number of times I was asked in all my years if I could remember them all. I actually only remember twice in my whole life. Where I hail from the history of Catholics killing Protestants (aphabetical and/or vice versa) isn’t that distant. Not Ireland.

      What’s wrong with religion being private.

      No more relevant to the job than your gender or sexual identity. And surely we can work together or like/dislike each other for other better reasons if they exist.

      • Walid on February 8, 2015, 5:06 am

        Oldgeezer, you mentioned the killing between Catholics and Protestants where you hail from and that new to me. I was under the impression that the conflict was about the English Protestants lording it socially and economically over the Catholic French from the days of pre-1867 up to the days of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, but not in your area..

      • oldgeezer on February 8, 2015, 12:46 pm


        There were a lot more beatings than killings but they did occur. I can’t be sure of the roots of the conflict but they certainly were reflected in the economic status of both groups. The issue was largely dealt with by my time but it was still common to use the epithet of micks (Catholic) and blacks (Protestant, the Royal Black Institution maybe?). We had denominational education and large scale fights between groups occurred (riots almost). The group I hung with had a couple of parent’s houses where we couldn’t go. Even standing on the walkway would get some of the group chased off. I had a great uncle who was a minister who was bushwhacked and left for dead while travelling around his ministry. Orange Lodges and Knights of Columbus still exist but are primarily philanthropic now.

        Today it’s largely gone. The denominational system has been eliminated (although probably only about 20 years ago to much wailing). You still can hear the occasional “S/he is a … you know” whispered but it’s vary rare. You can only roll your eyes and shake your head.

        The economic disparity is gone. Or in today’s world it’s more appropriate to say that poverty is more equally shared.

    • eljay on February 9, 2015, 8:12 am

      >> dx: … She struck me as having a unique form of national narcissism and self-pity–full of arrogance and feeling victimized at the same time.

      Aggressor-victimhood is a tough gig. A rapist likely feels the same way: Forever a “victim” of the society that doesn’t understand and respect his “right” to self-determine himself in women.

      >> I see no difference between a white supremacist and a Jewish supremacist.

      That’s because there is no difference.

  7. Walid on February 8, 2015, 4:34 pm

    “We had denominational education and large scale fights between groups occurred…. ”

    I know the feeling.

  8. CigarGod on February 8, 2015, 9:18 pm

    I’ve always fancied Nudibranch’s…that’s a sea cucumber, right?

    • piotr on February 8, 2015, 9:58 pm

      Wrong. Sea cucumber is an echinoderm (like sea star)
      nudibranch is a mollusk, a type of snail

      Some sea cucumbers look superficially similar, but in motion, they are not similar at all.

      • RoHa on February 8, 2015, 10:29 pm

        If you insist in going to sushi restaurants, you have only yourself to blame.

      • piotr on February 8, 2015, 11:13 pm

        One more thing: for human consumption, sea cucumbers are OK, but nudibranches are usually poisonous.

      • CigarGod on February 9, 2015, 7:50 am

        Beautiful, but deadly?

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