The Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) declares that U.S. citizens in this country who work or lobby on behalf of foreign countries must register as its agents. Because doing so would significantly diminish the credibility of such individuals in the eyes of the American public, lobbyists go to great lengths to avoid doing so. For decades, critics of the Israel Lobby have complained that Aipac is such an entity, but the group cleverly articulates its programs and activities to avoid the necessity.
One of the main criteria in determining whether someone is violating FARA is if they are receiving funding directly from a foreign government. Aipac carefully avoids any semblance of such activity.
There are however newer members of the Lobby who are more impetuous, more overtly aggressive, and more eager to do the bidding of the Israeli government. They are less cautious about their activities and more eager to collaborate directly and publicly with the government. One of these is StandWithUs. It is clear to careful observers of the Lobby that groups like SWU, The Israel Project, and others are agents of the Israeli government. In fact, then-deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon told Israeli TV that the government was funding efforts by groups like SWU, involved in the Olympia food coop lawsuit (a final appeal of SWU’s loss in that suit was heard before the Washington State supreme court this week).
Most of the time, government officials and the groups themselves are careful to conceal the tracks of such collaboration. But recently another door was opened into the ways in which such projects and funding mechanisms are developed by both parties. SWU’s press release announcing the initiative was dutifully picked up by the Likudist Jerusalem Post. The democracy watchdog media outlet, 7th Eye also reported that the group was joining with a government agency carrying a 1984-like name, the National Information Directorate (based in the prime minister’s office). Together, they would create a social media war room project that would aggressively disseminate the government’s point of view during times of crisis when Israel’s reputation needed a boost.
With the government and SWU contributing $500,000, they would select students in the UK and the U.S., who would come to Israel for hasbara training. SWU would recruit the students and the government would train them in conducting social media warfare on Israel’s behalf. They would then return home to cities like New York, Los Angeles and London (specifically referenced as places the project would like to target).
A headline in 972 Magazine about it raised a red flag:
StandWithUs to take cash, messaging from Israeli gov’t
If this were true, it would be the smoking gun that might prove SWU had finally crossed a red line many of us have known they crossed long ago. Though the contents of the article didn’t quite support the claims advanced in the headline, I decided to read the minutes of the government meeting at which the project was approved. They raise some intriguing questions about the project and SWU’s role. In fact, the officials discussion the project debated what the nature of SWU’s involvement would be. Was the government purchasing the services of SWU? Or is Israel supporting of the organization? And they (conveniently, as far as FARA is concerned) came to the conclusion that the GOI would be purchasing services from SWU, and not supporting SWU as such.
But U.S. officials who examine such an arrangement might take a different approach to this question.
Below I’ve paraphrased (and at times quoted) the meeting minutes (Hebrew) at which the government representatives approved the joint project:
The need for this project arose in the wake of interactive campaigns in the course of Operation Protective Edge and Pillar of Cloud, which united Israeli hasbara officials with organizations and volunteers in a collective effort.
In light of this [previous success], it was decided to continue this activity with the goal of combating negative programs intended to damage the State of Israel by channeling truthful, balanced information to social media at normal times and times of emergency and military conflict.
The project is modeled on similar efforts involving Israel university students who participated in media war rooms during Operation Protective Shield. Often the war rooms were located at the universities and students received course credit for participation.
Those participating in the new initiative would attend multiple training sessions including a preparatory meeting at their home campus. There they would receive the needed hasbara materials and undergo training in how to use social media in order to disseminate the appropriate message. They would then learn how to create and manage a situation room and then launch it.
The Israeli students would be brought to the central situation room located in StandWithUs’ Jerusalem office. There, after receiving briefing materials, assignments would be given and they would be trained by officials of the PMO.
The student units would be activated during periods of emergency and would gather on their campus to take action. They would communicate and take direction from the central situation room in Jerusalem.
Three times a year, students designated as leaders of their respective campus groups would travel to Israel, where they would conduct “educational meetings” and training that would be later conveyed to the other student participants in their home campuses.
PMO officials would develop messaging for the foreign students. It will direct the subjects which they will promote on social media platforms and the talking points that should be emphasized. The ministry would have a direct, active and hands-on role, thus guaranteeing the students stay “on message.”
The government turned specifically to SWU, according to the minutes, because it is widely known as an effective communicator of the pro-Israel message on the internet and social media. The group is seeking to increase its pro-Israel advocacy on American campuses in response to the rising tide of anti-Israel activism there. SWU’s purpose here is to present a true, authentic and appropriate image of Israel on campuses, in the media, and in different constituencies. Information SWU uses in its advocacy is known for being sound and well-prepared, including facts about different aspects of the State of Israel.
Participants in the government meeting were told that SWU reaches 1.2-million viewers each week (a figure I would strongly dispute) through various forms of new media. And customized content is created specifically for various target audiences, which include positive facts about Israel.
I don’t know how they devised the 1.2-million metric. But the SWU website is ranked 650,000 by Alexa. Its largest Twitter account has 46,000 followers with 18,000 tweets. On YouTube, it has 5,000 followers and 4,000 on Instagram. Its Facebook account, by far its most popular social media platform, has 500,000 Likes. Given how infrequently I interact with the Facebook pages I’ve Liked, it’s really a stretch to imagine they have 1.2-million page views every week, unless they include all the social media accounts of their staff, members and supporters.
SWU was also chosen as the government’s partner specifically for its reputation for battling the BDS movement through various media platforms like Buzzfeed, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Graduates of its training programs use what they learned on the internet. They employ the information and techniques taught them in order to advance a positive message about Israel online.
When asked how students would be chosen to join the project, an Israeli official told the government committee that a group, composed of representatives of the PMO and SWU would determine the best students to participate on the basis of criteria they established.
There was some debate within the project committee whether students would receive payment for their services (coyly named “scholarships”). Those in this program would not (those in the earlier Israeli student programs I mentioned above did receive compensation). They would suffice with certificates of appreciation which would add luster to their resumes.
Committee members were told that the government would not buy equipment or build out space for the project. Rather this would be the responsibility of SWU, whose Jerusalem offices would house it.
Among other interesting phrases to consider in analyzing the nature of the project and collaboration between SWU and the Israeli government is this:
The initiative for the project and operational responsibility for it lie essentially with the National Information Directorate, assisted in carrying it out by the organization (SWU). This project could not be carried out by the organization alone without official government involvement.
The level of involvement of the NID will be quite high, including determining the strategy and the hasbara messaging which would be disseminated. A committee, most of whose members would be government officials, will create systems of review and oversight of the project.
According to the determination of the government specialist, members of the committee are convinced that this funding request is classified as a purchase of services and not as [organizational] support…
My guess is that the issue about building out the situation room space in SWU’s office was a sensitive one. Perhaps the minutes included a reference to the government’s non-participation in this aspect of the project as a way of distinguishing between purchase of services and funding the organization. But the intense level of oversight the government is offering and its control of almost all key aspects of the project indicate that SWU is not really a partner in the project in the full meaning of the word, but rather taking direction from the Israeli government. The funding provided by the government will advance the goals of SWU. There is an utter seamlessness between the two entities. You could not really tell where the government’s involvement ended and SWU’s began. As such, SWU is an agent of the Israeli government.