DAN DIKER & YECHIEL LEITER
Protesters wave Palestinian flags at an anti-Israel demonstration in San Francisco, May 16, 2021. Credit: Raphaël Vinot/Wikimedia Commons.
Failure to expose and educate the American Jewish community about the roots and modus operandi of the disinformation campaign against Israel may result in a disaster of historical proportions.
(July 22, 2021 / Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs) The July 2021 Jewish Electorate Institute poll of American Jewish opinion on Israel has shocked the Jewish community. The poll, which has triggered sharp debate both in the United States and Israel, shows that 25 percent of respondents believe that Israel is an apartheid state, while 22 percent consider Israel guilty of genocide against Palestinians.
The online survey, conducted by GBAO, has raised questions ranging from the questionnaire’s methodological reliability to its survey bias to its overarching political context and objectives. The pollsters, under the direction of Jim Gerstein, a progressive Democrat, have conducted surveys for J Street, Israel Policy Forum, and other progressive Washington, D.C., think tanks.
Despite the many questions that arise from the survey results, they do not come as a surprise.
A disinformation campaign leveled at Israel’s very legitimacy has been percolating through the West for decades, and since 2000 has overtaken American public discourse on Israel. Despite the empirical absurdity of comparing Israel to Nazi Germany (by using the term “genocide”) or to the former South African apartheid regime, driven by notions of white racial supremacy, more and more people have uncritically accepted a progressive narrative in which facts and language have been reconstructed for the purposes of disinformation and deception.
The historical context of disinformation
Today’s intensifying ideological and rhetorical assault on Israel is modeled on the former Soviet Union’s use of disinformation—part of its program of “active measures,” a key strategy in its Cold War campaign against the United States.
One of the most successful Soviet disinformation campaigns, codenamed “Infektion,” involved a Soviet-planted story published in 1983, in a small English language newspaper, the Patriot, published in New Delhi, India. The article claimed that the United States had secretly engineered the HIV virus that caused AIDS in order to kill American gays and blacks. The Soviet campaign ultimately accused the Pentagon of planting the AIDS virus, while gaining “endorsements” from East German “scientists” who provided “proof” that the story was true.
The KGB-engineered campaign was effective. The story spread quickly across the African continent and then appeared in Western media, resulting in some 200 news articles in 25 languages in 80 countries. The action’s success peaked in July of 1987, when America’s top-rated news program, 60 Minutes, dedicated a prime-time broadcast to promoting the Soviet hoax.
Ultimately the campaign was disproved by Soviet defectors to the United States, together with a special team established by the U.S. State Department. By that time, the United States had sustained substantial damage by the smear campaign both domestically and internationally.
Soviet KGB defector Vladislav Bittman, who later took the American name Larry Martin, noted that the strategic objective of Soviet disinformation was to release “deliberately distorted information, secretly leaked in the communication process” in order to “deceive and manipulate” public opinion.
Following 60 Minutes’ trumpeting of Soviet disinformation, the State Department set up a special team—the Active Measures Working Group—which, in the span of a few months, documented the fabrication. Secretary of State George Shultz took the report to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and demanded an apology. Shortly afterward, in a meeting with President Reagan, Gorbachev issued an official apology and promised to end the disinformation campaign.
The case of “Operation Infektion” helps identify the three steps necessary to counter psychological warfare:
1. The recognition that disinformation is not merely propaganda but warfare by other means.
2. The establishment of special units that document and expose the enemy’s methods and objectives.
3. The unambiguous demand that lies and deception be considered acts of warfare and countered as such.
The Palestinians and the Soviet template
For decades, particularly since the signing of the Oslo II Interim Accords in 1995, and intensifying with the Durban Conference in 2001, the Palestinian national movement has used Soviet-style disinformation to discredit, delegitimize and demonize Israel.
Beginning in the late 1960s, PLO officials regularly underwent military and political warfare training in Moscow and other Soviet satellite countries such as North Vietnam and Cuba. The Soviets trained and supplied Marxist-Leninist terrorists, such as the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine, in training camps in Lebanon and other locations. They also provided education for PLO operatives at Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University, where Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas completed his doctoral thesis in 1982.
Abbas’s thesis, titled “The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism,” included Holocaust denial and assertions that Zionists “assisted” Hitler. These extremist themes have continued throughout his political career. For example, in 2016, Abbas claimed that Israeli rabbis ordered the poisoning of Palestinian wells in his keynote speech before the European Commission.
Active-measures strategies have been used by the PLO, Hamas and the Iranian regime. Ironically, the signing of the Oslo Accords intensified the phenomenon of disinformation and incitement rather than eliminating it.
The branding of Israel as a “genocidal apartheid country” began as a formal campaign at the September 2001 U.N.-sanctioned World Conference Against Racism at Durban, South Africa. It was rooted in PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s “Zionism is racism” speech at the U.N. General Assembly in November 1974. Although the Durban conference was planned as a worldwide effort to stamp out racism, it quickly became a “festival of hate” against Israel, as former Canadian Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler, a conference participant, noted at the time. The final WCAR NGO Forum declaration stated that Israel was guilty of “genocide,” “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing,” “settler colonialism” and “racism.”
Ironically, the Durban conference was held eight years after the historic Oslo Peace accord was signed, after a process that had established the P.A. proto-state, anchored its international legitimacy and expanded its international diplomatic and media influence.
Over the past several decades the Palestinian leadership has prosecuted a campaign of disinformation typifying the Durban declaration. Arafat’s wife Suha accused Israel of poisoning Palestinians. P.A. official Jibril Rajoub compared the West Bank and Gaza to Auschwitz. In 2020 former PLO official Hanan Ashrawi tweeted that Israel drowned an Arab boy in eastern Jerusalem (this was retweeted by Rep. Rashida Tlaib). The accusation was later revealed as baseless.
Last year, P.A. Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayeh accused Israel of intentionally infecting Palestinians with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Throughout the May 2021 Gaza conflict, the combination of terms “Israel” and “genocide” was tweeted hundreds of times per hour throughout the 11 days of fighting. On May 14 alone, the terms were retweeted more than 2,000 times per hour.
YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social-media platforms have served as viral breeding grounds for the modern-day version of medieval blood libels against Jews.
U.S. Campuses as hothouses of support for Hamas
The JEI poll found that in the under-40 age group, 20 percent of respondents agreed that Israel has no right to exist.
This finding stems in part from the influence of Hamas propaganda on U.S. campuses since the 2019 Gaza “March of Return,” an Iranian regime strategic initiative. In recent years, Hamas’s “Great March of Return” has rebranded the organization as a human rights movement, reorienting Western public opinion on U.S. campuses away from Hamas murders of dissidents, war crimes and violations of human rights.
Disinformation on American university campuses has metastasized in recent years via both student and faculty groups. Students for Justice in Palestine, with over 200 branches on American college campuses, has become a main advocate for Hamas. SJP has also invited former convicted Palestinian terrorists, such as the PFLP’s Rasmea Odeh and Leila Khaled, as keynote campus speakers. SJP sponsors the annual “Israel Apartheid Week” on hundreds of campuses across the United States and Europe, which has led to anti-Semitic assault and harassment against Jewish students.
PACBI, the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, a companion organization to SJP, was launched in 2004 and has also mainstreamed the disinformation discourse promoted by SJP-affiliated students and faculty.
High profile and prolific Palestinian-American professors such as Rashid Khalidi, Noura Erekat, Hatem Bazian (a co-founder of SJP) and Saree Makdisi, and activists such as Omar Barghouti (co-founder of both PACBI and the BDS movement), have advanced the “apartheid” narrative as mainstream academic discourse at leading U.S. universities including Rutgers, Columbia, UCLA, UC Berkeley and George Mason. Bazian was documented as a former mid-level Hamas affiliate.
Jewish academic and rabbinical groups fan disinformation
Some Jewish groups have promoted disinformation campaigns that emanate from the PLO and Hamas. In the May 2021 Hamas rocket war, 200 rabbinical students signed a letter calling to “hold Israel accountable” for racist violence and apartheid.
In the same spirit, scores of Jewish and Israeli academics signed a public letter of condemnation in 2016 excoriating the German Bundestag’s resolution that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic.
Anti-Zionist groups including If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace have actively advocated the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state have also gained prominence.
In 2017, Jewish Voice for Peace published a report that falsely accused Israel of training U.S. law enforcement forces to abuse African Americans, which triggered a racially motivated backlash around the time of the George Floyd riots, and racialized Israel as a “white supremacist entity.”
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Other organizations, such as J Street, which claim to be pro-Israel and pro-peace, have regularly hosted leading advocates of the apartheid disinformation campaign such as former P.A. and PLO senior official Saeb Erekat and Bashar Azzeh, as well as writer Peter Beinart, who called for Israel’s dissolution as a Jewish state in 2020.
In this way, Jewish groups have normalized a propaganda narrative against Israel rooted in Soviet ideology and terminology such as “settler colonialist,” “imperialist” and “racist.”
Disinformation in Congress
Progressive American Jews have also been influenced by the vocal public positions of popular progressive leaders in the U.S. Congress, including Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who have led the disinformation campaign against Israel, unprecedented in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Defeating disinformation: obstacles and opportunity
The challenge in overcoming disinformation is formidable. In the same way, the State Department established an “Active Measures Working Group” to mobilize the fight against Soviet disinformation, the Jewish community needs to undertake a parallel effort to expose deception and rhetorical misinformation, mal-information and disinformation on Israel.
Former Soviet Jews such as Natan Sharansky and Wilson Center scholar Izabella Tabarovsky have warned of the Soviet ideology penetrating the Western discourse, and particularly the United States. Israeli former deputy prime minister and “prisoner of Zion” Sharansky has noted, “History has come full circle. And just like in the good old days of Stalin, when they spoke of Zionists they meant Jews, and when they spoke against Jews they meant Israel.”
American Jewish leaders must now take an unambiguous stand against the PLO and Hamas-led disinformation campaign in America that has become the progressive discourse. Israel, too, has largely failed to recognize and counter this decades-old political warfare campaign that has continued to undermine its international legitimacy and distance growing numbers of young American Jews while even succeeding to draft others into the ranks of disinformation advocacy.
The failure to expose and educate the American Jewish community as to the roots and modus operandi of the disinformation campaign against Israel as the Jewish collective may well result in a disaster of historical proportions.
Dan Diker is a Senior Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is director of the Project to Counter BDS and Political Warfare. His recent book “Israelophobia and the West” can be downloaded from JCPA.org or ordered from Amazon. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Yechiel Leiter is director of the International Department of the Shiloh Policy Forum and a former chief of staff to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his term as finance minister. He previously served as the deputy director general of Israel’s Education Ministry.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.