Over the past few years, I’ve watched with growing alarm as the far-right Likud government develops ever newer threats promoting fear among its voters. Bibi Netanyahu has played the Iran menace like a Stradivarius in order to serve as a pressure valve, releasing air from the international campaign on behalf of Israel-Palestine. He’s raised billions to prosecute this campaign from sources like Saudi Arabia (estimated contribution: $1-billion) and enlisted the collaboration of the NSA for the Olympic Games effort to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program.
But easily the strangest high concept effort is “de-legitimization,” which is roughly the campaign against BDS. This non-violent movement has become to Israel what Communism was to 1950s America. As the latter was seen as a threat to the American way of life, and its supporters were hunted down, persecuted, arrested an imprisoned for their aberrant beliefs, so Israel has marshalled similar forces against BDS.
The U.S. Congress established the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) which searched high and low for Communist subversion in the government and every corner of American life. Cultural icons, academics, eminent scientists, all came under intense scrutiny. They were forced to “name names” of co-conspirators or lose their jobs. Sins of youth (i.e. questionable ideological attachments) became dark stains which could destroy careers. Private investigators compiled dossiers, the FBI interrogated employers and ex-wives, all to ferret out damaging information and dark secrets that could be used to leverage collaboration from the unwilling.
It was a sacred calling for the lawmakers and their willing acolytes. They were protecting the Republic; maintaining ideological purity; preserving the American Way of Life.
Over the past few weeks, Haaretz has been documenting a similarly intensive effort by the Strategic Affairs ministry and its chief, Gilad Erdan. Like Congressmen and U.S. senators of the past, he sees this crusade as a means of making him stand out from the crowd. In the intense competition to succeed Bibi Netanyahu (when, or if he ever relinquishes his leadership), a man needs to make his mark. What better way to do that than by becoming Israel’s Joan of Arc, rally the nation to protect itself from the ideologically impure who would infect it with defeatism? That is Gilad Erdan and what he represents. It’s Joe McCarthy.
Like McCarthy, he’s a bully and a demagogue. And he’s petty and small-minded. He also has his Roy Cohn in the form of Sima Vaknin-Gil, the former military censor, whose found a new calling. She’s the new Torquemada, who’s devised a latter-day auto da-fe for Israel’s enemies. Who knows, perhaps she even expects her efforts to hunt down heretics will lead to Marranos, Israelis who are true believers (i.e. Christian Conversos) on the outside, but renegade heretics (i.e. Jews) on the inside.
Here she is talking about the need for stealth in pursuing her prey:
“If you want to win the campaign you have to do it with a great deal of ambiguity,” the ministry’s director general, Sima Vaknin-Gil, who is a former IDF chief censor, explained to a Knesset panel recently. “The way I worked with military issues like Hezbollah or terror funds or Syria or any other country against which I conducted a campaign as an intelligence officer – we didn’t tell the other side what we intended to do; we left it ambiguous.”
The ministry operates more as a covert intelligence agency than an open government entity. Blau half-jokingly calls its staff Erdan’s “commandos.” It’s officials are former intelligence agents or wannabes like Shai Masot. It’s not interested in public diplomacy, but rather in subversion and persecution. It operates by stealth. It is the night flower that thrives by night and dies in the light of day.
Just as with HUAC in earlier decades, there could be no distinction between Communist and fellow travelers. Just as Communists were enemies of the State, so BDS activists are all but terrorists seeking the destruction of Israel. All are enemies because the fellow traveler, once indoctrinated and brought into the fold, could easily turn into a fiercer enemy than the Party member. Similarly, there’s no difference between liberal Zionists like Peter Beinart or Peace Now, which advocate boycotting settlements products (which I call, “BDS lite”) and those who advocate full-bore BDS. For Vaknin-Gil, BDS lite is a gateway drug to full BDS:
Vaknin-Gil added: “We identify the story of labeling products [from settlements in the occupied territories] as the first step on the way to something much greater … for us, therefore, the labeling of products is a certain symptom of delegitimization.”
Veteran Israeli security correspondent Yossi Melman adds (Hebrew) that if Israel were a truly democratic nation in which political speech was free and open, such a ministry wouldn’t even exist. Similarly, that’s why America eventually dismantled HUAC.
In his latest installment, Blau has calculated the ministry’s budget has jumped six-fold over the past two years–from $2-million in 2015 to $11.5-million this year. In addition, it’s spending over $30-million on combatting de-legitimization.
Blau’s article offers a blueprint of the Israeli plan. It even notes which government agencies and NGOs are complicit in the effort. They include the Jewish Agency, which will get $4-million to train college students for hasbara efforts “throughout the world.” Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox settler group which supports ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Jerusalem, will receive nearly $1-million to bring student delegations to Israel. The Histadrut labor federation will receive over $5-million to infiltrate international labor groups and unions to combat BDS. Erdan’s ministry will invest nearly $1-million for a cultural festival in Britain and Ireland to:
…“Give British people a peek at the varied shades of Israeli culture,” presenting it to “audiences who are exposed to anti-Israel activities and influences by the campaign of delegitimization against Israel.”
Another million dollars will bring junkets from the Diaspora to visit West Bank settlements. The ministry gave $60,000 to an Israeli TV channel hosting an international conference on media/technology innovation, which drew executives from around the world including CNN’s Jeff Zucker. They all heard Erdan headline the conference and decry “anti-Israel bias” in world media. He bought his spot on the podium thanks to ministry funding.
So as you read about pro-Israel provocations like this one, keep in mind that they are likely funded by the State of Israel. These provocations, as Al Jazeera showed in its masterful documentary on Erdan’s ministry’s flagrant interference in British domestic politics, do not know international borders. Israel is more than willing to destroy political careers in England or anywhere if it will advance Israeli interests, as narrowly defined by “Minister McCarthy.”
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.