By day, Dr. Joseph Frager is a gastroenterologist with a conspicuous mustache who is frequently listed as one of New York’s top doctors. But when he’s not seeing patients, he’s a powerful political operator, one of the most prominent and well-connected lay leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community in New York.
Frager is a major fundraiser for Israeli settlements, the organizer of the popular annual Israel Day concert in Central Park and an arranger of trips to Israel for prominent conservative politicians like Mike Huckabee and Rick Perry. He’s used his perch to develop close ties with multiple members of the Trump administration, including National Security Advisor John Bolton and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, both of whom he has described as close friends.
But according to government records, from September 2017 through February 2018, Frager was also something else: a paid agent of the nation of Qatar.
Qatar is a mega-wealthy Arab monarchy in the Persian Gulf, whose vast oil and natural gas reserves allow it to throw its weight around in international politics — to the chagrin of its neighbors like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who don’t like Qatar’s periodic overtures to Iran. Qatar is a putative ally of the United States, and hosts a key U.S. Air Force base, but it has also been criticized for its support of Hamas, the organization that has vowed to destroy Israel and is listed by the United States as a terrorist group.
The rivalries between Qatar and its neighbors have spilled over in the past year into multiple arenas, leading to Saudi Arabia and the UAE blockading its rival last year. The inter-Arab fight has led to both sides spending gargantuan sums of money on lobbying prominent Americans, including key Jewish figures, to support one side over the other — leading not only to bitter splits within the Jewish community, but even eventually drawing the attention of special counsel Robert Mueller. This is the firestorm that Frager inserted himself in when he signed his Qatari contract.
Frager filed a document with the Department of Justice in April admitting that he had been paid $50,000 to “consult with Qatari officials on strengthening U.S.-Qatar relations.”
Frager’s contract was arranged by Stonington Strategies, a lobbying group under contract with the Qatari embassy that has concentrated on outreach to the Jewish community. (Nick Muzin, the owner of Stonington, announced on Wednesday that his firm was no longer representing Qatar). Several prominent Jewish advocates for Israeli policies, like lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, have visited Qatar since Stonington’s contract was signed.
The junkets to the country have angered many Jews and have been publicly repudiated by the Israeli government itself. “Meeting with Qatar condones murder,” celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach declared in a New York Times ad.
Frager’s disclosure was in accordance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law that requires people who act “at the order, request, or under the direction or control” of foreign governments to disclose the nature of such arrangements and any contacts they have had with government officials and journalists. Lawyers who specialize in FARA told the Forward that they had never heard of a doctor – or indeed anyone who wasn’t a full-time lobbyist or PR professional – file a FARA disclosure.
“Having a doctor as a professional appears to be unusual, but at the same time, any person with great connections in a community for the particular purposes of a contract like this could be tapped for these objectives,” Amos Jones, a Washington, D.C. attorney who specializes in FARA, told the Forward.
Another FARA expert, who asked not to be named because he didn’t want even more people asking him to explain the law to them, told the Forward that it may be fitting that it was a gastroenterologist who filed the unusual disclosure: “FARA has given stomachaches to people.”
Frager did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
‘Joe Frager is a hero to me’
Frager, 63, was born in Philadelphia, the son of a synagogue president. He graduated undergrad from Yeshiva University in 1976 and the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school four years later. His main practice for more than 37 years has been at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, but he lives with his wife Karen in the Queens neighborhood of Jamaica Estates, where he’s been a longtime lay leader at Young Israel of Jamaica Estates, an Orthodox synagogue. He has been a longtime supporter of Israeli settlements, going back to working as a 19-year-old building the first fence around Ofra, one of the first West Bank communities, with only his brother to help him.
In addition to his busy medical practice, he wears many hats in the Jewish community, serving on the boards of many right-wing institutions, like the National Council of Young Israel, the hawkish umbrella group of the Young Israel synagogue movement, and American Friends of the Bet El Yeshiva Center, which raises money for institutions in that West Bank settlement, one of the largest. He’s also a frequent blogger for Israel National News, the Bet El charity’s popular right-wing news organization, and a frequent organizer of trips to Israel for right-wing pundits and politicians.
For his work, he’s been profiled in the New York Daily News and numerous local Jewish publications.
“Joe Frager is a hero to me,” New York state assemblyman Dov Hikind, the city’s most well-known Orthodox politician, said in 2013. (Hikind’s wife is the executive director of a charity, American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, for which Frager is the chair of the executive council.)
“He should be an example to all of us that you can do whatever you do in life – be a doctor, a lawyer, or whatever else, and you can still do remarkable things for the Jewish people,” Hikind added.
Notably, given the interest shown in him by Qatar as a conduit to strengthen U.S.-Qatar relations, Frager has claimed close ties with several people within or close to the Trump administration, whom he could have conceivably have given the Qataris information about.
Frager has described Friedman, a member of a different Young Israel synagogue on Long Island before Trump picked him as ambassador, as a “great friend.”
Last June, a few months after he was confirmed as ambassador, Friedman appeared at an annual charity 5K organized by Frager’s synagogue to raise money for Israeli terror victims. At the race, Friedman said that he had spent time with Frager before the election. “A year ago, I was hanging out with Frager, speaking about what could be if there was a Republican president,” Friedman said. “What a difference a year makes!”
Both Frager and Friedman have served on on the board of American Friends of the Bet El Yeshiva Center, which reportedly raises about $2 million a year for the settlement. Friedman once served as the organization’s president, and Frager was honored at the organization’s December 2017 annual gala as the winner of the “Shomer Eretz Yisrael” award – Guardian of the Land of Israel.
Frager is known to have met with Friedman at least once during his Qatar contract.
“Ambassador Friedman is acquainted with Dr. Frager through his efforts to support U.S.-Israel relations but has no knowledge of his alleged connection with Qatar,” a U.S. embassy spokesperson told the Forward.
Frager’s official biography at the Bet El gala said that he had “forged close friendships” with Bolton, who was named as Trump’s national security advisor in March. “Mazel tov, old friend, on your well-deserved appointment,” Frager said in a statement at the time.
Frager has interviewed Bolton for Israel National News, and Bolton has given public addresses to four institutions for which Frager was listed as the event’s organizer or honoree: Young Israel of Jamaica Estates, the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce, the Israel Day concert and the 2017 Bet El gala, when Frager won his award.
Bolton’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Frager has also bragged about his close relationships with Fox News contributor Pete Hegseth, whom Trump reportedly considered for the Secretary of Veterans Affairs position, and Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, who was one of Trump’s first political supporters and is the father of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Frager has organized multiple trips to Israel for Huckabee and Hegseth. Both American leaders have met with Friedman on their trips.
Huckabee went on to visit Qatar in January, praising the “surprisingly beautiful, modern, and hospitable Doha,” the country’s capital.
Frager interviewed Hegseth for Israel National News at the Central Park concert on Sunday. Hegseth took the opportunity to promote his interlocutor.
“People need to know the dedication that you have to the relationship between America and Israel,” Hegseth told Frager.
Huckabee and Hegseth did not respond to requests for comment.
The Qatar connection
Qatar’s outreach to the Jewish community has been led by Nick Muzin, the owner of Stonington Strategies. Muzin, himself an Orthodox Jew and the former deputy chief of staff of Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, has been paid $300,000 per month by the Qatari embassy to “develop and implement a government relations strategy for the State of Qatar.” Half of that money is designated for subcontractors.
Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein, who harshly criticized other Jewish leaders’ Qatar trips before embarking on his own independent journey to meet the country’s rulers, told the Forward in January that part of Qatar’s Jewish outreach strategy is based on stereotypes: “They believe like so much of the world believes that we are the most influential group when it comes to Congress.”
“They asked me to go to congressmen and talk about my trip,” he added. “They asked me to go to Congress to urge them to go to Qatar, to see how they are trying to liberalize.”
Muzin’s FARA filings show that he and many of his subcontractors, most of whom are also lobbyists, arranged meetings with members of Congress and their staffs to discuss U.S.-Qatar relations. All of this is legal, lawyers say, so long as the lobbyists marked their meetings and correspondences in their disclosures, which they appear to have done.
The briefing materials the lobbyists distributed in those meetings, which are also on file, include basic information about the country and its leadership. But they also include a printout of an op-ed for Israel National News written by Frager in November, when his Qatar contract was still in effect, criticizing the United Arab Emirates for not allowing the Israeli national anthem to be played when hosting an international judo tournament there.
The article does not mention Qatar or disclose Frager’s ties to the country. Israel National News did not respond to a request for comment.
Muzin’s efforts to bring American Jewish leaders closer to Qatar has been heavily criticized within hawkish segments of the Jewish community.
“It is sad to see American Jewish leaders bolstering anti-Semitic stereotypes by ignorantly intervening in internal conflicts that do not concern them, complex inter-Arab conflicts which are difficult to assess even as observers,” wrote Yigal Carmon of the Middle East Media Research Institute.
“In all my years of Jewish communal activism, I have never seen an effort of this scope, with this much resources, to influence the U.S. Jewish community to scrub clean the terror financing record of an Arab government,” Boteach, the prominent rabbi, told The Jerusalem Post. (Muzin has claimed that Boteach had been eager to engage with Qatar).
But those who have met with the Qataris tell a different story.
Rabbi Shmully Hecht, the leader of the Shabtai society at Yale University (Muzin’s alma mater), wrote in the Times of Israel that engagement is the best way to steer Qatar in a pro-Israel direction.
“Many prominent Jewish leaders have flown to Qatar and have spent quality time with the country’s leadership,” Hecht wrote. “There they have discussed their concerns, built personal relationships, and have made suggestions about how the Qataris can improve their relationship with the United States and Israel. And from what I’ve heard, the Qataris have begun to listen and engage. That’s more than can be said for many other countries in the region.”
And Klein has claimed that his conversations with Qatar’s rulers helped squash the broadcast of an Al Jazeera documentary about Israel advocacy groups, which the ZOA had described as a “viciously anti-Semitic” project. (He has since had second thoughts about the country, telling Politico on Wednesday, “I’ve lost confidence that they’re at all serious about changing.”)
Even after announcing that Stonington was no longer representing Qatar, Muzin was unapologetic. “I am proud of the work we did to foster peaceful dialogue in the Middle East, to increase Qatar’s defense and economic ties with the United States, and to expand humanitarian support of Gaza,” he wrote on Twitter.
Farley Weiss, the president of the National Council of Young Israel, told the Forward in a statement that Frager, operating independently of his organization, met “several months ago” in New York “with a member of Qatar at their request and did so to raise the issue of bringing back the bodies of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul,” two dead Israeli soldiers whose bodies were captured by Hamas in 2014. Weiss said that the Qatari representative was meeting with other members of the Jewish community. Tablet has reported that Muzin arranged meetings in New York last September between Jewish leaders and Qataris in town for the United Nations General Assembly.
“Subsequently,” Weiss continued, “it is our understanding that Dr. Frager accepted a fee from a consulting firm for consulting work. This was a private matter and it is our understanding that Dr. Frager properly reported receipt of the income in compliance with U.S. laws.
“As can be seen by a review of our organization’s press releases and official statements, none of them had anything to do with Qatar, nor were they influenced in any way by Dr. Frager’s private actions or meetings. Dr. Frager never suggested during this time for us to take any position in relation to Qatar and has always acted professionally and with tremendous devotion to the National Council of Young Israel.”
What does $50,000 buy?
It remains unclear what exactly Frager did for Stonington as part of his work “consult[ing] with Qatari officials on strengthening US-Qatar relations” — he, Muzin and the Qatari embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
But the large payment appears to indicate significant assistance, according to Jones.
“A $50,000 contract with a non-agent of a foreign principal” – that is, someone who isn’t a Qatari citizen or embassy employee – “suggests that there is considerable work on behalf of that foreign principal,” he said. “Otherwise there would be no need for that name to appear.”
The timing of Stonington’s disclosures indicates a possibly illegal discrepancy. Stonington’s biannual disclosure report says that Frager was under contract from September 2017 to February 28, 2018. But Frager only filed his own personal disclosure on April 30 – more than two months after his contract ended, and far later than the law requires.
“He needs to file within 10 days” of signing his original contract, the FARA lawyer who wished to remain anonymous told the Forward.
But, the lawyer continued, Frager will likely escape trouble with the law: “The only way to be prosecuted under FARA is ‘willful violation,’ and chances are, it wasn’t willful.”
Although some on the left and the right have called on Jewish organizations like AIPAC that lobby for Israeli interests to be forced to file under FARA as agents of the Israeli government, Jones said that there was a big difference between what activists like Frager voluntarily do for Israel and what Frager did for payment for Qatar.
“There is a very bright line between voluntary political activities of an American, and operating as an agent of a foreign principal,” Jones said. “It’s all about control. Which is almost always determined through the payment of money.”
Even if he wasn’t getting paid, the other lawyer said, Frager would have still had to register if he was acting as “an agency of the Qatari government” and was following their orders.
Unlike other Stonington contractors, Frager did not disclose contacts with American government officials or journalists on the subject of Qatar. But he was not required to disclose discussions of Qatar-adjacent issues like Hamas, or disclose Qatar-related contacts with prominent non-government figures like American Jewish leaders or Bolton (who was a private citizen until March).
“Lobbying lines can blur where there was pre-existing schmoozing,” Jones explained in a follow-up email. “It is quite often the case that official contacts had been friends of a person later hired by a foreign principal prior to the person’s eventual contracting as an agent, and/or prior to the targeted official’s ascent into an official status in which he would be influential enough to be lobbied. If, in his contact with U.S. officials, an agent were not acting on behalf of a foreign principal, a reporting requirement is probably not triggered. Even agents of foreign principals are allowed to keep ordinary friendships with people who happen to become importantly of interest to foreign principals.”
Caught in the middle of Mueller
The Jewish community is far from the only focus of Qatar’s public relations campaigns. Its desire to lift the Gulf blockade and improve its standing in the United States has led Qatari state entities to sign agreements with 25 lobbying and public relations firms, reportedly to the tune of at least $20 million.
Qatar’s efforts have to a certain extent been successful – the country’s ruler had a successful visit to the White House in April, where President Trump praised their efforts fighting terrorism and called them “a very big advocate, and we appreciate it.”
But Qatar has also been caught in Mueller’s probe of foreign interference in the 2016 election.
NBC News reported in March that Qatar had acquired evidence of improper influence by the UAE, its rival country, on presidential advisor/son-in-law Jared Kushner, but hid it from Mueller’s team in order to preserve the country’s relationship with Trump.
Additionally, one of Mueller’s focuses has been on the efforts of Elliott Broidy, a prominent Republican Jewish businessman and political donor, to influence White House foreign policy in an anti-Qatar direction – and whether he was paid to do so by a businessman tied to the UAE’s ruling family. Broidy has sued the state of Qatar and Muzin himself for allegedly hacking the emails disclosing his diplomatic efforts and leaking them to journalists.
Two of the key figures in the Mueller probe, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, have been charged with violating FARA, with Flynn already having pleaded guilty. Before last year, there had only been three indictments under FARA since 1966, according to the Department of Justice. The Mueller effect has led to increased compliance with the law, experts say.
“Historically, before the campaign of 2016 and back to 2014, we did not have a lot of this activity being registered, though it should have been,” Jones said. “There’s heightened sensitivity and more compliance than I’ve ever seen in my entire career, thanks to the notoriety of the prosecutions under it.”
Jones said that Frager filing his FARA disclosure in accordance with the law was ultimately a good thing.
“The whole purpose is transparency,” Jones said. “The policy behind FARA is, yes, lobbying will happen. The key is for the American people to know when it comes to foreign influences, who’s pulling the strings.”
Aiden Pink is the Deputy News Editor for the Forward.