Washington — Among progressives interested in Israel, Richard Silverstein has been a household name for years, using his daily blog posts to expose Israeli intelligence secrets while lobbing harsh attacks from left field against the Jewish state.
But on September 6, a Page One story in The New York Times put Silverstein’s work for the first time on a broad national stage. The article detailed the blogger’s reports on leaked FBI documents that demonstrated how America was eavesdropping on Israeli diplomats in Washington.
In many ways, the story exemplified the unique niche that Silverstein has carved out for himself in the Israel-centered blogosphere. In essence, he has become a prime address for Israelis seeking to bypass their country’s censorship or court gag orders. And while some praise his work as a courageous effort to tear down walls of secrecy surrounding Israel’s security agencies, others accuse him of recklessness motivated by a drive to blemish Israel at all costs.
“As long as Israel is going to continue to be a country where national security is placed before freedom of press, there is going to be need for the work that I do and for my mission,” Silverstein said in a September 8 telephone interview with the Forward.
“He spreads rumors without checking them,” countered Yossi Melman, a well-connected security and intelligence reporter for Haaretz, and a critic of Silverstein’s work. “He is an ideologue, not a journalist.”
The New York Times article, which reported that Silverstein had received transcripts of FBI wiretaps of diplomats at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, identified the leaker in this case as Shamai Leibowitz, an Israeli-American dual national who worked as an FBI translator and was later sentenced to prison for the leak. Silverstein said that Leibowitz disclosed the documents to him because he was concerned that Israel would launch an attack against Iran, a worry Silverstein shared.
Silverstein works on his blog, Tikun Olam, which he created in 2003, from his home in Seattle. The website is a full-time occupation for the 59-year-old stay-at-home father of three and is supported solely by donations. Silverstein is arguably one of Israel’s fiercest critics online, but he has deep roots in the Jewish community. He grew up in New York, studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary and went on to focus on Hebrew literature at University of California, Los Angeles. Silverstein also spent two years at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he became fluent in Hebrew, a skill that would come in handy later on, as he began to comb the Israeli press for hidden clues on intelligence issues. “I consider myself a progressive Zionist,” he said, a definition that some of his critics strongly dispute.
To be sure, Silverstein has earlier claims to fame. In March 2010, he broke one of his first major scoops: the arrest of Israeli journalist Anat Kamm, who, during her army duty, had leaked thousands of Israel Defense Forces documents to Haaretz reporter Uri Blau. Some of them dealt with the army’s targeted assassinations of alleged Palestinian militants — conducted, according to Blau’s reports, in violation of an Israeli Supreme Court ruling limiting the circumstances in which this tactic could be used. A court-imposed gag order prevented any reporting in Israel about Kamm’s imprisonment or case. Silverstein, beyond the reach of Israeli laws, broke the story, depicting Kamm as the Israeli equivalent of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. His leak allowed the Israeli and international press to challenge the court order and report on the case.
In a plea bargain last February, Kamm pleaded guilty to leaking 2,000 secret military documents to Blau. Court pleadings regarding Kamm’s sentence began in June but the judges have yet to announce their decision.
Another scoop under Silverstein’s belt was the alleged abduction and arrest by Israeli authorities of Dirar Abu Sisi, accused of being a senior weapons engineer for Hamas. Abu Sisi was spirited off a train in Ukraine in February and his whereabouts were unknown for weeks. In March, Silverstein reported that he was being held in an Israeli prison, a fact that Israeli journalists had been prohibited from reporting because of a court order. No date has been set for a trial for Abu Sisi, who was indicted in April. According to press reports in Israel, prosecutors are seeking a plea bargain with him.
Court-issued gag orders are often used in Israel in order to block the publication of information relating to security or intelligence investigations. Another tool used is military censorship, by which all Israeli media outlets and foreign correspondents based in Israel are required to abide. It has been a known practice for Israeli journalists to try and bypass censorship limitations by leaking to colleagues abroad information they cannot report. Usually, after this information is published overseas, the Israeli press is free to use it. Silverstein has played his role in this game by reporting the names of Shin Bet and Mossad officials who were allowed to be identified in Israel by only the initials of codenames.
But despite some notable scoops, Silverstein has had his share of reports that turned out to be at the least unsubstantiated.
In December 2010, he identified an unknown person who died in an Israeli prison, where he was referred to as “prisoner X,” as Ali Reza Asgari, Iran’s former deputy defense minister who disappeared a few years earlier and was presumed to have defected to the West. “Through a confidential Israeli source, I have exposed his identity,” Silverstein told his readers, adding that his information “would seem to give the lie to the claim of defection.” The publication led to an Iranian demand that the United Nations investigate Asgari’s alleged abduction by Israel. Despite the time that has passed, no information substantiating Silverstein’s claim has surfaced.
“He created a mini-crisis between Israel and Iran, which is a totally irresponsible thing to do,” said Melman, the Haaretz intelligence reporter. Melman said that he told Silverstein that the information regarding Asgari was wrong, but this did not prevent the blogger from running the story. “He is speculative,” Melman said. “It is like at the casino: Sometimes he gets it right, and sometimes he doesn’t.”
Silverstein said he was unable to develop the Asgari story any further, but he insists that his reports have yet to be disproved. The source who gave him the information, he said, was a “former minister and member of Knesset who is very familiar with intelligence issues.” Like other stories reported on his blog, the Asgari report lacked reaction or sourcing. Silverstein argued that it is impossible to corroborate reports relating to Israeli intelligence and therefore he is counting on the credibility of his sources.
But most of Silverstein’s critics take issue with his political views, not with his journalistic practices. Watchdog groups following his blog describe him as virulently anti-Israel.
“Richard Silverstein is known as a radical, anti-Israel blogger who repeatedly defends Hamas while blaming the Israeli government, and who promotes Israel as a single state of all its citizens,” argued a position paper put out by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. CiF Watch, a group monitoring publications relating to Israel in the Guardian newspaper, aggregated quotes from Silverstein’s blog posts in which, the group argues, he speaks favorably of Hamas and opposes the idea of Israel as a Jewish state.
Silverstein responds that his quotes are more often than not taken out of context. The long and complex arguments he makes cannot be presented in one sentence, the blogger said. To set the record straight, Silverstein stressed that he believes Israel is a Jewish homeland; but he wishes to see the Jews as having equal, not superior, rights to the Arab citizens of the country. He described himself as “agnostic” toward the idea of a two-state solution. While he would prefer this outcome, he is not assured, given Israel’s policies, that it will come about.
These views have put Silverstein at odds even with liberal groups such as J Street, but he insists he is not seeking any organizational affiliation, either journalistic or political.
“That’s why I like being a blogger,” Silverstein said, “because I set my own rules.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org