In June of 2015, one of the leading intellectuals of the Jewish establishment stood on stage in front of hundreds of American Jewish leaders and called for the community to picket outside the home of a college junior.
It was the keynote speech at the American Jewish Committee’s annual conference in a year when the American Jewish establishment was in the midst of what felt like a nervous breakdown.
The United States was on the brink of signing a nuclear deal with Iran, despite the universal opposition of the Jewish establishment. The Israeli prime minister had traveled to Washington, D.C. to attack the U.S. president from the floor of the House of Representatives. And on the sidelines, restive mega-donors were maneuvering for control over the institutions of the establishment itself.
In the midst of all of this, the American-born Israeli rabbi Daniel Gordis mounted the podium at the AJC conference, his conservative grey suit and tie and small dark kippah the very uniform of the moderate establishment.
“Fabienne Roth lives someplace,” Gordis said in front of the crowd, referring to a blonde-haired college junior at UCLA who had asked, and then apologized for asking, an allegedly anti-Semitic question at a student government meeting months earlier. “We can find out where that place is, and she should not be able to come in or out of her house, in or out of her apartment, without being reminded, peacefully, morally, legally, that we know who you are.”
Gordis said that Roth’s future employers should be protested and boycotted. Days later, he used his Jerusalem Post column to make the suggestion that the Roth’s future children should also be punished for what she had done.
Gordis’ words constituted an open endorsement in the heart of the Jewish establishment of the sorts of aggressive tactics that had been whispered about on the edges of the Jewish communal landscape for years.
In 2015, the Jewish community’s strategy shifted. Leaders who favored aggressive confrontation with perceived enemies, particularly critics of Israel, won out. Jewish and pro-Israel groups both in the U.S. and Israel used significant resources to direct hard-line, often secretive tactics against their targets.
In recent months, the Forward has reported on how this strategy played out: An online blacklist called Canary Mission, which went live in 2015, targeted college students critical of Israel. Professional pro-Israel operatives posed online as college students. Pro-Israel campus groups hired top-tier professional Washington, D.C. political consultants and sent them to work on college campuses. An Israeli spy firm pitched U.S. Jewish donors with a proposal to covertly undermine the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.
“At the highest levels, the conversations were beginning to shift,” said one person who worked in 2015 as a pro-Israel campus professional, and who was involved in Jewish communal strategy discussions. They were “about how to move from being on a defensive footing to take a more offensive approach.”
Pro-Palestinian advocates in the U.S. assert that efforts to suppress their views have grown enormously since 2015. “No question,” said Liz Jackson, a senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal, a legal advocacy group. “We’ve seen an increase since that year.”
No one asked the students and Jewish professionals on campuses around the country about this strategy before it was adopted. Some Jewish students have publicly condemned aspects of it. “There’s no winning in this. It creates a toxic environment,” one Hillel professional told the Forward early this year, in describing anonymous websites that had appeared on her campus attacking BDS advocates. “It makes our work doing Jewish engagement incredibly harder.”
In his speech at the American Jewish Committee conference, Gordis took the case for the new hard-line strategy public. It’s a moment that, years later, some still find unsettling.
“We need to hold those who traffic in anti-Semitism or incite violence against Jews to account,” said Avinoam Baral, who presided over the student government meeting where Roth had made the offensive statement. “But using our community’s vast resources to tar and feather for life a college student who made a mistake and tried to redeem herself in the aftermath is gross, and a gross misallocation of resources.”
Why did key Jewish leaders decide to begin spending significant communal resources attacking college students in the middle of 2015? The answers lie at the intersection of Israel’s spy culture, coalition politics, the whims of American Jewish mega-donors, and the anxieties of the American Jewish establishment.
For the Israelis, it all started with soccer.
In May of 2015, Sepp Blatter, then the worldwide king and dictator of international soccer, arrived in Israel for peace talks.
That spring, Palestinian soccer authorities had threatened to call a vote to ban Israeli teams from international soccer, just as teams from apartheid South Africa were banned in 1961. Blatter, head of the world soccer organization FIFA, had come to seek a compromise to try to ease tensions.
In Israel, where soccer is life, it amounted to an existential crisis. The possibility of Israeli teams locked out of international competitions was front-page news.
The soccer flap came at a delicate moment in Israeli politics, following parliamentary elections that March that had failed to produce a clear winner. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struggled to form a governing coalition, the threat of a FIFA ban made international efforts to sanction Israel a major political issue.
“Maybe this was the last straw,” said Michal Hatuel-Radoshitzky, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank. “It became a lot more tangible.”
Public concern in Israel over international efforts to boycott and sanction the state over its treatment of the Palestinians wasn’t new, exactly, but it hadn’t been at the forefront of policy conversations. Around the time of Blatter’s trip, a set of strategies drawn up five years earlier seems to have resurfaced, and taken hold.
“We aren’t living and breathing this thing,” Hatuel-Radoshitzky said. “Because it’s not missiles on top of our heads, it takes longer for these things to trickle down.”
A Price Tag
In the aftermath of the conflict in Gaza in 2008 and 2009, Israel faced unprecedented international political blowback.
A United Nations report by a South African judge, Richard Goldstone, accused both the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups of war crimes. Israel and its allies pushed back hard against the report, and pro-Israel policy thinkers got to work on a broader response.
The strategies they developed became the playbook for the aggressive tactics that came into maturity in 2015.
In early 2010, the Israeli think tank The Reut Institute put out a series of influential reports that laid out a theory and strategy of an aggressive pro-Israel posture. They called for pro-Israel advocates to “out, name and shame” harsh critics of Israel, and to “frame them…as anti-peace, anti-Semitic, or dishonest purveyors of double standards.” They talked about “establishing a ‘price tag’” for attacks on Israel and “isolating” advocacy groups that attack Israel, while “organizing regular meetings of pro-Israel networks.”
Gidi Grinstein, Reut’s president, told the Forward that his organization’s 2010 reports reserved such hard-line tactics for a narrow group of activists who, in its analysis, deny Israel’s right to exist. Grinstein wrote in an email that the 2010 reports supported “aggressive legal and public relations tactics that are laser focused on the real instigators of the BDS Movement… When such tactics are deployed on broader circles of people they are immoral and counter-productive.”
The plans laid by Reut in 2010 were put into action in small, targeted ways in the years that followed. But Israelis were distracted — focused largely on internal issues, including a social protest movement that mirrored the Occupy protests in the U.S. It wasn’t until early 2015 that Reut’s plans returned to the forefront.
By that point, a new war in Gaza had reignited international criticism of Israel. In 2014, during what Israel called Operation Protective Edge, Israeli operations in Gaza killed more than 500 children, according to the United Nations. The indelible image of the war was the instant on July 17 of 2014, when Israeli shells killed four cousins playing soccer on a Gaza beach, just yards from the international press hotel.
In May of 2015, Netanyahu succeeded in cobbling together a right-wing government. And in those rounds of political horse-trading, as he made the decisions that would shape the next three years of government policy, Netanyahu made an aggressive response to international campaigns against Israel a top government priority.
“Much of this understanding that people have to be more proactive rather than responsive, this understanding was known for a long time before,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a former top Israeli military intelligence official and a former director general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs who now works at the Israeli think tank the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “But it takes time to turn this understanding into tools and methods that would make it possible for those who believe in it to actually act in this way.”
Netanyahu cut a deal with the influential Likud politician Gilad Erdan to give Erdan control over a small department called the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, and a significant budget to transform the body into Israel’s central agency responsible for opposing the BDS movement.
In a Facebook post announcing his new position, Erdan explicitly cited the effort to expel Israel from FIFA. “As part of my job, I will take on anti-Israel activities in the international arena such as attempts to attack us in the International Criminal Court, attempts by the Palestinians to have us expelled from FIFA, and more,” he wrote. He said he would approach it with “a great deal of might.”
He said he would operate along lines that would soon become familiar in the U.S. pro-Israel scene. “I have set a policy of moving from defense to offense concerning the fight against [BDS],” Erdan told Haaretz.
The very same weekend that Gordis was calling for the picketing of a UCLA undergraduate, delegates from dozens of major Jewish organizations were hustling to Las Vegas, Nevada for a secret meeting.
The invitations to the meeting on the Strip came at the last minute to some of the leaders of the American Jewish establishment. But when casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and Power Rangers billionaire Haim Saban invite you for the weekend, you show up.
The secret meetings at Adelson’s Venetian hotel marked the unveiling of a well-funded effort to oppose the BDS movement on campus. They called the meeting the Campus Maccabee Summit.
Like Gordis, Adelson and Saban signaled that they weren’t satisfied with the work that Jewish organizations were already doing on the issue. They wanted to shift the entire tenor of the Jewish communal approach to fighting anti-Semitism and BDS. “Just the title ‘Maccabees’ indicated a strategy of fighting back,” said Abraham Foxman, who was at the time the national president of the Anti-Defamation League.
What did it mean that Adelson and Saban chose to name their initiative after that particular group of Jewish guerrilla warriors? “Not just taking it,” said Foxman in a recent interview with the Forward. “Not just dealing with it as a fait accompli.”
In an Israeli television interview he gave during the meetings, Adelson said that pro-Israel advocates had to “act proactively” against what he described as a wave of anti-Semitism on campus. “We have to see what they all have to contribute… They need to put boots on the ground.”
The meetings were an evolutionary step in the growing influence of mega-donors like Adelson and Saban over the Jewish communal agenda. Jewish leaders say that major donors have, since 2015, driven the push for more aggressive responses to BDS tactics. “There is a group of very conservative donors who don’t know a lot about this, but they know what appeals to them intuitively,” said one organizational leader. “You have to make them afraid and create deterrents, and if there’s deterrents out there they will stop,” the leader said, characterizing the donors’ worldview.
This push from donors came at a moment of weakness for the institutions of the American Jewish establishment.
American advocates for Israel have sweated, since the earliest days of Israeli statehood, to make support for Israel a bipartisan issue. It’s an effort that, in recent decades, has been largely successful, especially among party elites. But, during the final days of his political campaign, Netanyahu had traveled to the U.S. to attack President Obama during a joint session of Congress, as part of a push against an Iran nuclear deal with the U.S. and other nations.
That erosion of norms, coupled with the establishment’s eventual failure to stop the Iran nuclear deal, meant that the institutional leaders of the Jewish community were in a position of near-historic instability, just as Adelson was making his move.
At the June 2015 meeting in Vegas, this was all still crystalizing. But for Foxman, the fact that both Saban, a Democrat, and Adelson, a Republican, were working together, showed that the donor-side communal leadership was in sync on the need to take a more aggressive turn.
“They come out of two different political weltanschauung [worldviews],” Foxman said. “But both saw this as an attack on Israel’s legitimacy. They agree — the time has come, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
Uncovering ‘SJP Uncovered’
In the late summer of 2015, someone started attacking pro-Palestinian students on social media.
They had set up a network of anonymous websites and social media accounts under the name SJP Uncovered. It wasn’t the only anonymous online campaign against pro-Palestinian students, but it was the most professional, with custom-made graphics and videos.
The campaign targeted the pro-Palestinian campus network called Students for Justice in Palestine, the most well-known advocate for the Palestinian cause on North American campuses. It continues to anonymously attack student activists affiliated with SJP chapters across the country. Today it has more than 100,000 followers on Facebook alone. And the veil of anonymity behind which it operates is all-but impenetrable.
SJP Uncovered is one of a generation of anonymous social media campaigns that appeared in 2015 targeting pro-Palestinian activists. The tactics themselves are right out of the Reut playbook: naming and shaming harsh critics of Israel, framing them as anti-Semitic, and setting a personal price tag for their activism.
The anonymous campaign has tweeted that “SJP is Terrorism.” It has likened the pro-Palestinian activists of SJP to the violent racists of the Ku Klux Klan. In 2016, it highlighted vulgar tweets by a student at a Chicago-area university, leading him to be investigated by his dean.
It also highlights objectionable and anti-Semitic social media posts by SJP activists.
Throughout, the people behind the SJP Uncovered accounts have hidden their identities. The sites and social media accounts do not identify who is behind the campaign. They claim no connection to any Jewish groups, or to any professional operatives.
Now, the Forward can reveal that the site is a secret project of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based pro-Israel organization tied to the most mainstream funders and organizations in the Jewish community.
In promotional materials distributed to donors and obtained by the Forward, the Washington, D.C.-based Israel on Campus Coalition described operating the SJP Uncovered accounts, at times with the assistance of FP1, a political consulting firm to which the ICC paid over $1 million in the 2016/2017 fiscal year.
The materials describe how FP1 paid to promote SJP Uncovered posts on Facebook and Twitter, and how the ICC’s own internal research and analysis department fed opposition research into the SJP Uncovered accounts.
The ICC did not respond to requests for comment about SJP Uncovered.
The ICC was, until around 2014, a standard pro-Israel advocacy group. Founded as a wing of Hillel International, its donors include the largest and most mainstream of American Jewish foundations, including the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.
Yet as the Forward has reported, since 2015 the ICC has dedicated a significant portion of its operations to covert, anonymous campaigns targeting pro-Palestinian student activists, often with the help of top-tier paid professional political consultants.
“It was clear that the old way of doing business…was not making the cut, and was not enough, and there was a totally new offensive approach to things,” said one former pro-Israel campus professional. “The overall framing was…[that] the pro-Israel community is no longer going to sit back and let things happen, they are going to go on the offense… It was very clear that going on the offensive to them meant going after students and the organizations that were bringing BDS.”
Beginning in 2015, the ICC started hiring paid political consultants, including opposition researchers, to work on campus. According to promotional materials provided to donors, the ICC used an opposition research firm led by a former research director of the Republican National Committee to create a “whip report” on “student government members” at one California campus.
And as the Forward and ProPublica reported in a jointly published article in September, the ICC secretly ran misleading Facebook ads targeting a Palestinian-American poet. The ads appeared to be run by students at specific campuses where the poet was set to appear, even though they were actually operated by the ICC.
“With the anti-Israel people, what’s most effective, what we found at least in the last year, is you do the opposition research, put up some anonymous website, and then put up targeted Facebook ads,” the ICC’s executive director, Jacob Baime, said in footage surreptitiously recorded in 2016 and included as part of an unaired documentary produced by Al Jazeera, portions of which were leaked online.
The former pro-Israel campus professional said that, at ICC-sponsored gatherings where some of these tactics were discussed in general terms, representatives from other organizations would trade uncomfortable glances. “People would be looking at each other; there was still this roll of the eyes,” the former pro-Israel professional said. But no one objected. “It all still happened. There wasn’t anyone who stepped in and said, ‘Whoa, wait a minute guys, what are you actually doing here.’ And that’s kind of what stuck with me.”
A Secret War
In Israel, Erdan was turning his Ministry of Strategic Affairs into a center of covert action against BDS activists.
Much of Erdan’s offensive operations take place in secret. The MSA has gathered information on supporters of BDS, building a controversial blacklist to ban some international activists from visiting the country.
“Intelligence organizations, methods and personnel enjoy high status in Israel, and are perceived as a good way of at least getting at problems initially,” one Israeli security expert, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, told the Forward. “You take these people, and unsurprisingly the first thing they would do is apply methods of intelligence analysis to the problem.”
In May of 2018, Erdan’s ministry attempted to expel a Human Rights Watch employee named Omar Shakir from Israel, citing as evidence a dossier it had compiled of Shakir’s political activity dating back years, well before he went to work for Human Rights Watch.
Meanwhile, border officials have detained a number of liberal critics of Israel, including Peter Beinart, a Forward columnist. Interrogators asked Beinart about a protest he had attended on a previous visit to Israel. Netanyahu apologized for Beinart’s detention, though Erdan defended the interrogations in principle.
In late 2017, the MSA attempted to make direct grants to a number of American Jewish organizations, as the Forward first reported early this year. The Jewish groups turned down the transfers, which would have fallen afoul of foreign agent registration laws if not disclosed.
“The Israelis are… not quite understanding how things are done here, and certainly not understanding well that you can get American Jewry into trouble with their neighbors if you are not sensitive to the way things are legally done in the United States,” Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, told the Forward at the time.
Still, the MSA has found other, non-financial ways of aiding pro-Israel groups around the world. At the core of the MSA’s operation is a network of more than a hundred non-governmental organizations with which it shares information and resources, sometimes referred to as the “Blue Network.” The MSA is heavily invested in its network, which is meant to help oppose efforts of the BDS movement without directly implicating the ministry or the government.
The identities of the members of that network are unknown. But the impact of the sort of aggressive, covert, anonymous anti-BDS activities that is the hallmark of the MSA has been felt across the U.S.
The best-known of these operations to emerge since 2015 is the formerly anonymous website Canary Mission, which posts political dossiers on college students. The site went live in 2015, and has grown since to include dossiers on thousands of students.
A series of Forward exposés in October revealed that a foundation controlled by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, a major Jewish charity with an annual budget of over $100 million, had donated $100,000 to the website.
In a second story, the Forward showed that a second major Jewish charity, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, had donated $250,000 to the Israeli not-for-profit that the Forward had identified as the likely operator of Canary Mission.
The targets of Canary Mission appear to go well beyond the narrow group of hard-line anti-Israel activists who Reut advocated targeting in its report. The vast majority of the people profiled on the website are college students. Some are student government representatives who voted in favor of Israel boycott resolutions. Others are students with loose affiliations to pro-Palestinian campus groups.
The Ministry of Strategic Affairs has said it has no connection to Canary Mission. But in October, Haaretz confirmed that the MSA had used information found on Canary Mission to ban an activist from entering Israel.
The Forward had previously reported that activists critical of Israel had been asked about their Canary Mission profiles while attempting to enter Israel. Rumors and reports of the border control officers’ use of Canary Mission has kept both Jewish and Palestinian in the U.S. from visiting relatives in Israel and the West Bank.
“I have family in Israel, and I don’t expect I will be let in again,” one Jewish student profiled on Canary Mission told the Forward this summer.
A pro-Palestinian activist told the Forward that after Canary Mission profiled him, his worried parents banned him from visiting Palestinian relatives in the West Bank. One of them has since died.
“I didn’t get a chance to go back and see him,” the activist said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be let in. I didn’t know if I was going to be arrested.”
In February of 2015, a meeting of the student government at UCLA went way, way off the rails.
A second-year student named Rachel Beyda was seeking an appointment to the student government’s judicial board. A member of the student government, Fabienne Roth, asked her a question: “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community…. how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”
The president of the student government, Avinoam Baral, interjected, saying the question was inappropriate. In the weeks that followed, the student government session turned into something of an international incident. There was coverage in the local press, the New York Times, and beyond.
By the time Gordis called for her to be dogged by her anti-Semitic statement for the rest of her career, Roth had apologized publicly in a student newspaper and again in the Times, and Beyda had received her appointment.
“At the hearing, Roth’s actions were anti-Semitic, hurtful, discriminatory, and unbecoming of any student leader,” Baral, who presided at the meeting, wrote in an email to the Forward. “However, I believe that Roth made a sincere apology and attempted to overcome her mistake, all the while receiving a death threats, violent harassment, and angry messages online for months after.”
Gordis declined to speak with the Forward. In his AJC speech, he linked the failure to sufficiently harass Roth to a broader unwillingness to confront anti-Semites and boycotters of Israel.
Palestine Legal’s Jackson said that, since 2015, the volume of efforts targeting U.S. pro-Palestine activists has grown enormously. “We’ve seen a notable increase in meritless lawsuits and legal complaints to harass scholars and students, not to mention relentless online bullying,” Jackson said. “We seen a surge in anti-democratic tactics.”
State laws aimed at countering the BDS movement, either by banning state pension funds from investing in companies that boycott Israel or taking other similar measures, began passing around the country in 2015. In December, the Forward reported that staffers within the Anti-Defamation League had argued that anti-BDS laws are “ineffective, unworkable, unconstitutional, and bad for the Jewish community” in a 2016 internal memo, but that the ADL leadership had supported some of the laws anyway. Jewish groups like AIPAC and the Israeli-American Council are leading supporters of the laws.
From the Israeli point of view, the effect of the aggressive tactics pursued in recent years has been a leveling of the playing field. “Much damage has been done to Israel,” Kuperwasser said. “Now the pace with which this damage is being done has slowed down considerably, and the other side has to contend with pressure put on him.”
Reut’s Grinstein asserted that it wasn’t as though some switch had flipped in 2015. “It was actually a process of trial and error and scaling of what works,” he said. Today, some of the organizations involved in the ramping-up of aggressive tactics in 2015 have moderated their approach. David Brog, executive director of the organization that grew out of Adelson’s Las Vegas conference, now called the Maccabee Task Force, told the Times of Israel in July that his organization didn’t use its resources to attack BDS supporters.
“Ultimately, we’re focused on empowering our students to do a better job of positively promoting Israel and fighting the delegitimization of Israel on campus,” Brog said. “We haven’t invested in efforts to research who’s funding BDS or to attack entities from BDS.”
And after an attempt by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs to bar an American graduate student from entering Israel led to an embarrassing defeat for the ministry in Israel’s Supreme Court, the ministry has not stopped any BDS activists from entering the country, according to Haaretz.
Yet some groups from the 2015 generation are still at it, including Canary Mission and the Israel on Campus Coalition. In November, Canary Mission began to attack IfNotNow, a left-wing Jewish group that critiques the American Jewish leadership.
To Baral, the attack on his former classmate still seems wrong.
“The idea that Roth should be barred from employment and be ‘doxxed’ in perpetuity for a mistake she made at age 21 and tried to make amends for is despicable and goes against the Jewish values of teshuva that I hold near and dear,” Baral told the Forward.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.