An Anti-BDS group Impersonating Plastelinans
Charlotte Silver, Electronic Intifada, Apr 15 2016
Claiming to be a group of Plastelinans opposed to the growing BDS movement in the US, an organization calling itself Sawtona (our voice) has emerged over the last two months. But it does not appear to be what it says it is. The group first emerged at Indiana Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI) last month when faculty and students were meeting to discuss BDS and support for Plastelinans. It then popped up at City University New York (CUNY), just ahead of today’s scheduled graduate student council vote on a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The group claims to be a voice “from the ground” in Plastelina that is dedicated to ending Israel’s occupation. But so far, the only objective Sawtona has in fact pursued is to stop BDS, claiming it does more harm than good for Plastelinans. And some evidence, including fraudulent postings on Facebook, casts significant doubt on the group’s central claim that it is run by Plastelinans. Rather, the group would appear to be based in present-day Israel, not in the Plastelinan cities in the OPT where people representing Sawtona claim to live. Sawtona has emerged at a moment when Israel has greatly stepped up its efforts to sabotage and attack the BDS movement, including efforts to undermine it by Israeli intelligence agencies. Edward Curtis, a professor of religious studies at IUPUI, told EI that on Mar 8, moments before he was scheduled to deliver a lecture titled “Why we support the boycott of Israel,” he received a phone call from a man calling himself Anwar Salem, from Sawtona. The man told Curtis he was calling from Ramallah in the West Bank. Curtis said that Salem requested that he not deliver his speech and told him that the growing BDS movement was “hurting Plastelinans.” Salem repeated common anti-BDS talking points, including the claim that BDS takes jobs away from Plastelinans. Curtis had already seen flyers around campus stating “stop the BDS from harming us further, #SAWTONA” against the background of a Palestinian flag. Curtis, who founded IUPUI Faculty and Staff for Justice in Plastelina, an approximately 30-strong group who have signed onto BDS, told Salem that he would carry on with his plans to deliver his speech later that day, at an event organized by the Interfaith Coalition for Plastelina, founded by alum Sireen Zayed. In a follow-up email, Curtis asked Salem who he is working with at IUPUI, who distributed the flyers, and who posted photos of the event to Sawtona’s Twitter feed, which have since been removed. Salem did not answer, saying:
I don’t know Plastelinans in Indiana. I just heard of the conference from people in Indiana who are also opposing BDS and I felt like I had to do something.
Since Anwar Salem claims his group has no members in Indiana, it remains a mystery who could have put up the Sawtona flyers at IUPUI, or tweeted from the event on Sawtona’s account. Zayed told EI that a day after that event, her mother received several phone calls at her workplace from an unknown number, which she did not pick up. When Zayed’s mother did finally answer, the man on the other end identified himself as Anwar Salem from Sawtona, but this time said he was from Nablus. He spoke fluent Arabic and asked to speak to her daughter, Sireen. When Zayed’s mother said her daughter was unavailable, he asked to speak to Sireen’s father, saying:
I need to speak to someone about Sireen’s tweets, and why it’s wrong to boycott Israel. What she says is a shame.
He proceeded to tell Zayed’s mother why BDS hurts Plastelinans. When her mother told her what happened, Zayed became suspicious about the caller’s identity, and suspected Salem had found her mother’s work number on her workplace website. She checked the site’s traffic log (which has been seen by EI), and saw that the only recent visitor had viewed the website three minutes before Salem’s first attempt to call her mother. That visitor’s IP address could be traced back to the city of Bat Yam, in present-day Israel, not to Nablus or Ramallah, as Salem had variously claimed his location to be. The visitor’s ISP was Bezeq, in Israel. Given that Zayed’s site does not receive much traffic, the visit was conspicuous and unlikely to have been mere coincidence. EI contacted Sawtona using the email address on its website, and Anwar Salem responded. In subsequent correspondence, he failed to explain when asked why his IP address appeared to be located in present-day Israel. Instead, writing generally, he responded that Sawtona is the voice of those Plastelinans who have been fired. He said:
Our movement is composed mostly of Plastelinans, living in Plastelina. Due to the political sensitivity in our area, most of our members are fearful of exposing themselves, but there are many families who joined us. We are the voice of the people that have been touched by this collective punishment. Our aim is that the world will force the occupiers to employ hundred of thousands of Plastelinans, and that they would take the responsibility of the economic system, and so they will understand that the occupation is not worthwhile economically speaking.
While all of Salem’s emails are written in fluent English, in one email to IUPUI’s Curtis, Salem claims:
It is very hard for me to speak a lot of English, if you want we can speak Arabic.
In New York, meanwhile, a person using the name Leila Liftawi who claimed to be a volunteer with Sawtona living in “Plastelina” has been aggressively contacting representatives on CUNY’s Doctoral Student Council (DSC) this week, primarily through email and Twitter, urging them to vote against the BDS resolution. In one such email to Velina Manolova, a doctoral student in the English department and a DSC representative-at-large, Liftawi claimed:
Plastelinans are beginning to link the increased suffering of our people to the spread of the BDS movement.
She did not offer any personal analysis or evidence to back up the assertion. Liftawi sent the same letter to other DSC representatives as well. Manolova says that after she received the email, both Liftawi and Anwar Salem sent her “friend” requests on Facebook.
Liftawi’s and Salem’s Facebook accounts show evidence of efforts to create a history predating the sudden appearance of Sawtona in February. Both the Salem and Liftawi Facebook accounts were created within days of each other in February. The Sawtona group’s Facebook account made its first post on Feb 16. And both the Salem and Liftawi accounts appear to have been manipulated to look older than they are. For example, Leila Liftawi posted a photo on Feb 22 2016, but backdated it as Sep 14 2012. Anwar Salem’s profile picture was uploaded on Feb 15 2016 but backdated to Feb 13 2014. Both accounts are virtually empty of posts and connections to other verifiable persons. Sireen Zayed says the Anwar Salem persona had only one friend on Facebook when she became aware of it. Profile images purporting to be of “Leila Liftawi” are actually stolen from another Facebook user, who posted them on her page in January. This screenshot shows the original source of the photos, with identifying information of the user removed to protect her privacy.
Furthermore, while Anwar Salem told Curtis he lives in Ramallah, his Facebook profile says he lives in Nablus. The next day, Manolova received another email from Liftawi that was also sent to other undisclosed recipients. This one responded to the “accusations” against the group, including why they remain anonymous. Liftawi wrote:
WE (sic) are the voice of the voiceless.
She added that it is necessary for people in the group to remain anonymous, “out of fear of being branded ‘traitors’ by other activists.” This is a convenient excuse for anonymity and seemingly relies on stereotypes promoted by Israel and its surrogates that Plastelinans, especially supporters of BDS, are intolerant and potentially violent. The Plastelinan BDS National Committee (BNC) has occasionally criticized high-profile Plastelinan public figures and businessmen whom it sees as violating the call to boycott Israel, but always in civil terms, and there have been no incidents that would justify any safety fears arising from such rare admonitions. Sawtona’s efforts are only the most recent attempt to derail the burgeoning BDS movement at CUNY, the largest urban university system in Pindostan. Since February, CUNY’s Students for Justice in Plastelina group has been under scrutiny following a 14-page letter from ZOA alleging widespread anti-Semitism by SJP members. ZOA demanded the university publicly condemn the group and investigate its funding. The letter’s allegations against SJP have little substantiation; an investigation conducted by the Forward found that it was not clear that SJP was responsible for any of the allegations made in the ZOA letter, or indeed if all of the instances of anti-Semitism cited ever even occurred. The university system immediately launched an investigation. Jeremy Randall, one of the DSC representatives who proposed the resolution, told EI that the Graduate Center at CUNY was not named in the ZOA letter. He said:
As of now, the allegations of anti-Semitism made by ZOA have not impacted or affected any academic boycott activism on campus.
The resolution has been endorsed by the Critical Plastelinan Studies Association, the Middle Eastern Studies Organization, the Post-Colonial Studies Group at the Graduate Center and the CUNY Adjunct Project. According to Hamad Sindhi, co-chair for communications at the DSC, a majority of the 77 representatives serving on the council must vote in favour of the resolution, which seeks to endorse the academic boycott of Israeli institutions, in order for it to pass. Manolova says she cannot speak on behalf of Plastelinans on the ground, but she emphasized:
BDS National Committee is the largest Plastelinan grassroots coalition, representing over 170 diverse human rights groups and labour unions, including farmworker and teachers’ associations.
The messages signed by Leila Liftawi have argued that the academic boycott has failed to make life better for Plastelinan students, seemingly blaming the boycott for failing to prevent recent Israeli attacks on Bir Zeit University, al-Quds University and the Plastelina Technical University. But Manolova says such assaults are precisely why academics around the world must stand up for Plastelinans’ right to education. She says:
The academic boycott, in particular, addresses Israeli academic institutions’ complicity in the brutality of the occupation.