Over the long Thingstaken weekend, which I spent blissfully alone, I binge-watched “The Lobby,” the multi-part Al Jazeera documentary which was censored right before its release date. The documentary follows Al Jazeera undercover reporters as they infiltrate Zionist organizations in the United Kingdom and the United States, exposing Zionist efforts to sabotage pro-Palestine activism and organizing. Despite the censorship which stopped its public airing, the documentary was leaked online earlier this month. Electronic Intifada published it, “simultaneously with France’s Orient XXI and Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar” (which provided French and Arabic subtitles).
I didn’t find the documentary to be “gripping,” in that it did not teach me anything I didn’t already know quite well: there is a highly organized, multi-pronged assault by Israeli officials and their American friends on pro-justice for Palestine activism in the U.S. and UK (and one can assume, by extension, various other countries), that targets everyone, from students to members of Congress. A lot of it is highly unethical, and oftentimes outright illegal: character assassination, attempts at ruining one’s personal life, career sabotage, spying on citizens for the benefit of a foreign country, bribing politicians so that they prioritize that foreign government over their own country’s interest, and their constituents’ rights.
But really, what are Israeli practices overall, if not highly unethical and illegal? Would one logically expect Israel, which refuses to recognize its own borders, violates the basic human rights of the people whose land it illegally occupies, enshrines apartheid despite this being a UN-declared “crime against humanity,” has maintained a genocidal siege on the Gaza Strip for over a decade, and continues to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian people to this day (more home and businesses were being demolished as I watched “The Lobby”) to somehow act ethically abroad?
Nevertheless, it is always sobering to be reminded of (though not surprised by) the extent of our politicians’ and mainstream media’s subservience to Israel, that there is no public outcry, not even an audible whisper, at the censorship of this documentary. To paraphrase Ali Abunimah, interviewed in the documentary, “if any other country, China, Russia, or Iran, intervened with U.S. domestic affairs like Israel does, if any other country was known to spy on U.S. citizens, there would be public outrage.” Instead, we have American politicians who defend Israel, and seek to criminalize a constitutionally-guaranteed right, our freedom of speech, so that we do not criticize Israel.
For anyone interested in details of the Zionist lobby’s mode of operation, and some specifics of the assault on our activism as we organize for justice, the documentary delivers. We get the names and positions of many of the Zionist “operatives,” pro-Israel alums of the targeted universities, recruited by AIPAC to disrupt student governments, employees of the Israeli Embassy whose job description apparently entails spying on their own American fellow-citizens, fundraisers whose sleight-of-hand launders electoral campaign contributions that go well above legal limits, and always, the concerted effort to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Many are recorded without their knowledge by the Al Jazeera undercover reporter who passes for a pro-Israel student himself. They speak candidly about the intentional smearing they engage in (discredit the message by smearing the messenger), the loopholes that allow them to bribe politicians, who return the favor of campaign money and lavish holidays with approval of military aid money to Israel. We see the cajoling and grooming of our so-called representatives—something which reinforced in me my already-great appreciation of the very few who speak out. And we are reminded of the immense network of pro-Israel groups in this country, from AIPAC to The Israel Project to StandWithUs, with their fingers almost everywhere, influencing the American “elite” to prioritize Israeli interests above all else.
Interestingly, I noticed that many of those Zionist organizers refer to anti-Zionism as “anti-Israelism.” Indeed, one could argue that modern-day Israel is the realization of the Zionist project. However, there is no mention of Israel being a settler-colonial project modeled upon 19th century European imperialism. No references to the early writings of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the “father of Zionism,” who modeled his project on the settler-colonialism which transformed Turtle Continent into Canada, the United States of America, and Mexico. Jabotinsky was quite clear about his projected enterprise in his 1923 essay The Iron Wall, as he wrote:
“Every reader has some idea of the early history of other countries which have been settled. I suggest that he recall all known instances. If he should attempt to seek but one instance of a country settled with the consent of those born there he will not succeed. The inhabitants (no matter whether they are civilized or savages) have always put up a stubborn fight. […] It is of no importance whether we quote Herzl or Herbert Samuel to justify our activities, colonization itself has its own explanation, integral and inescapable, and understood by every Arab and every Jew with his wits about him. Colonization can only have one goal. For the Palestinian Arabs this goal is inadmissible. […] Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population.”
Anti-Zionism, then, is a decolonial struggle. And yet, Zionists deliberately blur the distinction between “anti-Israelism” and anti-Semitism, and I did feel that overall, many of the younger Zionists involved in the censorship, stifling, delegitimization, and vilification of pro-justice activism may not themselves be aware of that distinction.
Which brings me to the one short segment in the entire document that made me smile, the comedic and failed astroturfing “protest” where the recruited students were clearly uncomfortable with the activity they had been paid to engage in, namely disrupt the SJP conference at George Mason University. (“Astroturfing” is “fake grassroots” activism, which relies on paid protesters or supporters). We are shown the astroturf students repeating after Yael Lerman Mazar, StandWithUs director of academic affairs: “SJP is a hate group, BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] is a hate movement,” but the lack of conviction is painful, almost pathetic, when the fakes come face to face with the real grassroots, the student organizers with SJP. I was reminded of my own encounter with “pro-Israel” student protesters when I gave a talk a few years ago at the University of California in San Diego. StandWithUs had found out, probably through their student spies, that I was scheduled to give a talk, and published a flyer about me to their students, with a list of eight questions that were meant to “stump” me, along with a strongly-worded caution not to ask other questions. Clearly, SWU does not trust its paid protesters to think for themselves. I announced that I had no intention of being derailed by the StandWithUs questions, and two rows of students walked out.
The lack of conviction of paid protesters could offer an opening in our discussions, assuming they have a modicum of moral integrity. But I have no illusions that anyone with a modicum of moral integrity would intentionally seek to end a professor’s career, or smear a conservative young woman’s reputation. And still the pro-Israel groups persist. As BlackLivesMatter activist Khury Petersen-Smith put it: “it’s appalling that a system in Israel has devised incredible and comprehensive ways to have a violent regime against Palestinians, [and] that they would also invest resources to shore up support for that oppression here.”
But that is, of course, because Israel is dependent on the diplomatic immunity the U.S. grants it, an immunity that is threatened by the success of BDS. And it is true that if the success of BDS were to be measured in its economic impact on Israel, then not only do we have a very long way to go, but we are even possibly losing. However, this is not how we measure our success. BDS is economic activism, yes. But we could boycott every single Israeli item available on every single shelf in every single grocery store in the entire U.S., we would likely not be making a dent in Israel’s economy, and if we did make a dent, the U.S. would promptly add a couple of million dollars to its annual aid package.
BDS seeks a discursive shift, a change in the narrative, and here we are winning. Despite the pervasiveness and rapaciousness of the Israel lobby’s interference with the impulse towards justice, equality, joint struggle, and anti-racism that unites grassroots activists everywhere these days, we are winning. The Israel lobby could not stop this year’s National Students for Justice in Palestine conference in Los Angeles, it did not silence the faculty it attacked, and it is alienating young people across ethnic and religious lines, who can see the reality of Israeli apartheid behind its tattered mask of “democracy for some.”
Overall, and once again, “The Lobby” justified my pride in us pro-justice organizers, who are still going strong after years of richly-financed officially orchestrated attack on our grassroots efforts. And it boosted my confidence that we will come out victorious. So I will conclude with the words of The Israel Project’s Eric Gallagher: “the foundation that AIPAC sat on is rotting.”
About time too…