Israelis seek to uncover government’s secret war against BDS
Ali Abunimah, Electronic Intifada, Sep 30 2016
A group of Israeli citizens is seeking information on their government’s covert activities against BDS movement. Meanwhile, the Israeli embassy in London has warned in a leaked cable that some of Israel’s tactics against the BDS movement may violate UK law. Attorney Eitay Mack and human rights activists Sahar Vardi, Ofer Neiman, Rachel Giora and Kobi Snitz have filed requests under Israel’s freedom of information law, to both the foreign ministry and the strategic affairs ministry. They are asking the government to reveal its financial support to foreign organizations, individuals, journalists or bloggers assisting Israel in its battle against what it calls “delegitimization.” The strategic affairs ministry, led by Likud minister Gilad Erdan, has taken the lead, gearing up to fight the nonviolent BDS movement as if it were a military challenge. Armed with a $45m budget for this year, the ministry is engaging in what a veteran Israeli analyst is calling “black ops.” This may include defamation campaigns, harassment and threats to the lives of activists as well as infringing on and violating their privacy, according to the analyst. Strategic Affairs Ministry D-G Sima Vaknin-Gil recently told the transparency committee of the Knesset:
We want most of the ministry’s work to be classified.
Earlier this month, Erdan’s ministry and the Association of University Heads of Israel were linked to a “secret” effort to push for the cancellation of a course on Palestine at the University of California, Berkeley. The course was suspended, but later reinstated after an outcry from students, faculty and defenders of academic freedom. The Israeli citizens said in a press release:
The sweeping secrecy exercised by both ministries is inappropriate, especially in view of the Israeli government’s position regarding human rights organizations supported financially by foreign countries.
Earlier this year Israel adopted a so-called transparency law forcing human rights groups to reveal foreign government funding. Critics say the law is meant to brand human rights groups as illegitimate and chill criticism of Israel’s record. Under the freedom of information law, the Israeli ministries have 120 days to respond. If they reject the requests, the citizens seeking the information can file an appeal in court. The information request comes as a cable, leaked to Haaretz, has cast more light on the covert efforts against BDS. The cable from the Israeli embassy in London to the Israeli foreign ministry complains about the activities of Erdan’s strategic affairs ministry. It accuses the ministry of “operating” British Jewish organizations behind the embassy’s back in a way that could put them in violation of UK law.
The context is a turf war between the two ministries over who should get more money and authority to lead the fight against BDS. The foreign ministry has so far been on the losing end of that bureaucratic battle. As Haaretz reports, the cable reveals that the embassy met with Erdan’s officials during his visit to London two weeks ago “to coordinate activities against the local BDS movement.” The embassy officials emphasized that while they would coordinate with Erdan’s operation, only the foreign ministry would work directly with people or organizations overseas. Haaretz says Erdan’s officials agreed “not to pose as the embassy.” But just days later, according to Haaretz, Asher Friedman, a senior strategic affairs ministry official, “asked a senior official in Britain’s Jewish community to use his connections to thwart an anti-Israel campaign by the Palestinians.” The embassy cable said:
Attempts to act behind our back have happened before and will again, but ‘operating’ Jewish organizations directly from Jerusalem, with no coordination and no consultation, is liable to be dangerous. Operating like this could encounter opposition from the organizations themselves, given their legal status; Britain isn’t Pindostan.
It also warned that such behavior “could be considered political activity, or even activity on behalf of a foreign government on British soil,” Haaretz states. The leak would seem to confirm that the Israeli government increasingly views Jewish organizations and communities abroad as mere extensions of its state propaganda apparatus. This is unlikely to do much to tamp down criticism of Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians, but it does pose a danger to Jews who do not wish to be identified with a foreign government that is increasingly seen as a pariah. Notably, as Haaretz reports, it was the British Jewish official himself who “immediately voiced his objections to the embassy, both orally and in writing, as well as to the heads of other British Jewish organizations.”