Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- The July 2021 Jewish Electorate Institute poll of American Jewish opinion on Israel has triggered sharp debate both in the United States and Israel. The poll shows that 25 percent of respondents believe that Israel is an apartheid state, while 22 percent consider Israel guilty of genocide against Palestinians. In the under-40 age group, 20 percent agreed that Israel has no right to exist.
- A disinformation campaign leveled at Israel’s legitimacy has been percolating through the West since the 1975 UN “Zionism is racism” Resolution and has overtaken American public discourse on Israel since 2000. This campaign has come to normalize the application of delegitimizing terms to Israel such as “genocide,” “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing,” “settler colonialism,” and “racism.”
- Disinformation as a political warfare phenomenon has deep historical roots in the former Soviet Union. According to KGB defectors to the U.S., its objective was to release “deliberately distorted information, secretly leaked in the communication process,” in order to “deceive and manipulate” public opinion.1
- Palestinian leadership has used Soviet-style disinformation to discredit, delegitimize, and demonize Israel beginning in the late 1960s, when PLO officials underwent military and political warfare training in Moscow and other Soviet satellite countries.2
- Disinformation by BDS-affiliated and Jewish anti-Zionist organizations spread through American college campuses and social media have negatively affected Jewish public opinion on Israel.
- American Jewish and Israeli leaders must stand against the disinformation campaign that has become the progressive discourse.
The July 2021 Jewish Electorate Institute poll of American Jewish opinion on Israel,3 has shocked the Jewish community. The poll, which has triggered sharp debate both in the United States and Israel,4 shows 25 percent of respondents believe that Israel is an apartheid state, while 22 percent consider Israel guilty of genocide against Palestinians. Conducted by the Jewish Electorate Institute, an affiliate of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, the online survey has raised questions ranging from the questionnaire’s methodological reliability, its survey bias, to its overarching political context and objectives. The pollsters, under the direction of Jim Gerstein, a progressive Democrat, have conducted surveys for J Street, the New Israel Fund, and other progressive Washington, D.C., think tanks.5
Despite the many questions that arise from the survey results, they do not come as a surprise.
A disinformation campaign leveled at Israel’s very legitimacy has been percolating through the West for decades, and since 2000 has overtaken American public discourse on Israel. Despite the empirical absurdity of comparing Israel to Nazi Germany (by using the term “genocide”) or to the former South African apartheid regime, driven by notions of white racial supremacy, more people have uncritically accepted a progressive narrative in which facts and language have been reconstructed for the purposes of disinformation and deception.
The Historical Context of Disinformation
Disinformation as a political warfare phenomenon has deep historical roots. Today’s intensifying ideological and rhetorical assault on Israel is modeled on the former Soviet Union’s use of disinformation – part of its program of “active measures”- a key strategy in its Cold War campaign against the United States.
One of the most successful Soviet disinformation campaigns, codenamed “infektion,” involved a Soviet-planted story in 1983, in a small English language newspaper, the Patriot, published in New Delhi, India. The article claimed that the United States had secretly engineered the HIV virus that caused AIDS in order to kill American gays and blacks. The Soviet campaign ultimately accused the Pentagon of planting the AIDS virus, while gaining “endorsements” from East German “scientists” who provided “proof” that the story was true.6
The KGB-engineered campaign was effective. The story spread quickly across the African continent and then appeared in Western media, resulting in some 200 news articles in 25 languages in 80 countries.7 The action’s success peaked in July of 1987, when America’s top rated news program, 60 Minutes, dedicated a prime time broadcast promoting the Soviet hoax.
Ultimately the campaign was disproven by Soviet defectors to the U.S., and a special team established by the U.S. State Department.8 By that time, the United States had sustained substantial damage by the smear campaign both domestically and internationally.
Soviet KGB defector Vladislav Bittman, who later took the American name Larry Martin, noted that the strategic objective of Soviet disinformation was to release “deliberately distorted information, secretly leaked in the communication process” in order to “deceive and manipulate” public opinion.9
Following 60 Minutes’ trumpeting of Soviet disinformation, the State Department set up a special team – the Active Measures Working Group – which, in the span of a few months, documented the fabrication. Secretary of State George Shultz took the report to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and demanded an apology. Shortly afterward, in a meeting with President Reagan, Gorbachev issued an official apology and promised to end the disinformation campaign.
The case of Operation Infektion helps identify the three steps necessary to counter psychological warfare.
- The recognition that disinformation is not merely propaganda but a manifestation of warfare through other means.10
- The establishment of special units that document and expose the enemy’s methods and objectives.
- The unambiguous demand that lies and deception will be considered acts of warfare and countered as such.
The Palestinians and the Soviet Template
For decades, particularly since the signing of the Oslo II Interim Accords in 1995, and intensifying with the Durban Conference in 2001, the Palestinian national movement has used Soviet-style disinformation to discredit, delegitimize, and demonize Israel.
Beginning in the late 1960s, PLO officials regularly underwent military and political warfare training in Moscow and other Soviet satellite countries such as North Vietnam and Cuba.11 The Soviets trained and supplied Marxist-Leninist terrorists, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in training camps in Lebanon and other locations. They also provided education for Palestine Liberation Organization operatives at Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University,12 founded as a flagship of Soviet international influence, where Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas completed his doctoral thesis in 1982.
Abbas’ thesis, entitled “The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism,” included Holocaust denial and assertions that Zionists “assisted” Hitler.13 These extremist themes have continued throughout his political career. For example, in 2016, Abbas claimed that Israeli rabbis ordered the poisoning of Palestinian wells in his keynote speech before the European Commission.14
Active measures strategies have been used by the PLO, Hamas and the Iranian regime.15 Ironically the signing of the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel intensified the phenomenon of disinformation and incitement rather than eliminating it.
The branding of Israel as a “genocidal apartheid country” began as a formal campaign at the September 2001 UN-sanctioned World Conference Against Racism at Durban, South Africa. It was rooted in Arafat’s “Zionism is racism” speech at the UN General Assembly in November 1974. Although the Durban conference was planned as a worldwide effort to stamp out racism, it quickly became a “festival of hate” against Israel, as former Canadian Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler, a conference participant, noted at the time.16 The final WCAR NGO Forum declaration stated that Israel was guilty of “genocide,” “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing,” “settler colonialism,” and “racism.”17
Ironically, the Durban conference was held eight years after the historic Oslo peace accord was signed, after a process that had established the Palestinian Authority proto-state, that anchored its international legitimacy, and expanded its international diplomatic and media influence.
Over the past several decades the Palestinian leadership has prosecuted a campaign of disinformation typifying the Durban declaration. Suha Arafat, wife of PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, accused Israel of poisoning Palestinians.18 PA official Jibril Rajoub compared the West Bank and Gaza to Auschwitz.19 In 2020 former PLO official Hanan Ashrawi tweeted that Israel drowned an Arab boy in East Jerusalem, and which was retweeted by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib.20 The accusation was later revealed as baseless.
During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayeh accused Israel of intentionally infecting Palestinians with the coronavirus.21 Throughout the May 2021 Gaza conflict the combination of terms “Israel” and “genocide” was tweeted hundreds of times per hour throughout the fighting. On May 14 alone, the terms were retweeted more than 2,000 times per hour.22
YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, have served as viral breeding grounds for the modern day version of medieval blood libels against Jews.
U.S. Campuses as Hothouses of Support for Hamas
The JEI poll found that in the under-40 age group, 20 percent of respondents agreed that Israel has no right to exist.
This finding stems in part from the influence of Hamas propaganda on U.S. campuses, particularly since the 2019 Gaza “March of Return,” an Iranian regime strategic initiative.23 In recent years, Hamas’ “Great March of Return” has rebranded the organization as a human rights movement,24 reorienting Western public opinion on U.S. campuses away from Hamas murders of dissidents,25 war crimes and violations of human rights.26
Disinformation on American university campuses has metastasized in recent years via both student and faculty groups. Students for Justice in Palestine,27 with over 200 branches on American college campuses has become a main advocate for Hamas. SJP has also invited former convicted Palestinian terrorists such as the PFLP’s Rasmea Odeh28 and Leila Khaled,29 as keynote campus speakers. SJP sponsors the annual “Israel Apartheid Week” on hundreds of campuses across the U.S. and Europe underscoring the Israel apartheid libel as its main theme. Israel Apartheid Week has led to anti-Semitic assault and harassment against Jewish students.30
PACBI, the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, a companion organization to SJP, was launched in 2004, has also mainstreamed the disinformation discourse promoted by SJP-affiliated students and faculty.31
High profile and prolific Palestinian-American professors, such as Rashid Khalidi, Noura Erekat, Hatem Bazian (a co-founder of SJP), Saree Makdisi and activist Omar Barghouti (co-founder of both PACBI and the BDS movement) have advanced the “apartheid” narrative as mainstream academic discourse at leading U.S. universities including Rutgers, Columbia, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and George Mason. Bazian was documented as a former midlevel Hamas affiliate.32
Jewish Academic and Rabbinical Groups Fan Disinformation
Some Jewish groups have promoted disinformation campaigns that emanate from the PLO and Hamas. In the May 2021 Hamas rocket war, 200 rabbinical students signed a letter calling to “hold Israel accountable” for racist violence and apartheid.33
In the same spirit, scores of Jewish and Israeli academics signed a public letter of condemnation in 2016 excoriating the German Bundestag’s resolution that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic.34
Outspoken anti-Zionist groups including If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace, have actively advocated the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state have also gained prominence.35
In 2017, Jewish Voice for Peace published a report that falsely accused Israel of training U.S. law enforcement forces to abuse African Americans, which triggered a racially-motivated backlash around the time of the George Floyd riots, and racialized Israel as a “white supremacist entity.”36
Other organizations, such as JStreet, which claim to be pro-Israel and pro-peace have regularly hosted leading advocates of the apartheid disinformation campaign such as former PA and PLO senior official Saeb Erekat and Bashar Azzeh as well as writer Peter Beinart, who called for Israel’s dissolution as a Jewish state in 2020.37
In this way, Jewish groups have normalized a propaganda narrative against Israel rooted in Soviet ideology and terminology such as “settler colonialist,” “imperialist,” and “racist.”
Disinformation in Congress
Progressive American Jews have also been influenced by the vocal public positions of popular progressive leaders in the U.S. Congress, including Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who have led the disinformation campaign against Israel, unprecedented in the U.S. House of Representatives.38
Defeating Disinformation: Obstacles and Opportunity
The challenge in overcoming disinformation is formidable. In the same way the State Department established an “Active Measures Working Group” to mobilize the fight against Soviet disinformation, the Jewish community needs to undertake a parallel effort to expose deception and rhetorical misinformation, mal-information and disinformation on Israel.
Former Soviet Jews such as Natan Sharansky and Wilson Center scholar Izabella Tabarovsky have warned of the Soviet ideology penetrating the Western discourse, and particularly the United States.39 Israeli former deputy prime minister and “prisoner of Zion” Natan Sharansky has noted, “History has come full circle. And just like in the good old days of Stalin, when they spoke of Zionists they meant Jews, and when they spoke against Jews they meant Israel.”40
American Jewish leaders must now take an unambiguous stand against the PLO and Hamas-led disinformation campaign in America that has become the progressive discourse. Israel, too, has largely failed to recognize and counter this decades-old political warfare campaign that has continued to undermine its international legitimacy and distance growing numbers of young American Jews while even succeeding to draft others into the ranks of disinformation advocacy.
The failure to expose and educate the American Jewish community as to the roots and modus operandi of the disinformation campaign against Israel as the Jewish collective, may well result in a disaster of historical proportions.
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The editors apologize to the Israel Policy Forum for listing it as a client of GBAO polling.
The authors would like to thank Tirza Shorr for her research and editing of this Jerusalem Issue Brief.
2 https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4874089,00.html : YNet journalist Ronen Bergman summarizes the work of Vasili Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew in the book The World was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World. (Basic Books, 2006). See also: Mordechai Nisan, “The PLO and Vietnam: National Liberation Models for the Palestinian Struggle.” Small Wars and Insurgencies. Volume 4, 1993, Issue 2. Arafat was profoundly affected by the Vietnamese “people’s war” strategy. See: Joel Fishman. “Ten Years Since Oslo: The PLO’s ‘Peoples War’ Strategy and Israel’s Inadequate Response.” Jerusalem Viewpoints. No. 503. 4-18 Elul 5763/1-15 September 2003. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. https://jcpa.org/article/ten-years-since-oslo-the-plos-peoples-war-strategy-and-israels-inadequate-response/
4 Barry Trachtenberg, Jewish Studies professor at Wake Forest University, noted that the date shows what we’ve known for years, and what the Jewish right, even Jewish communal organizations, have tried to hide: There is an enormous range of opinion on Israel among American Jews. The progressive Jewish periodical the Forward noted that the study is not unusual for “a relatively inexpensive poll conducted by a non-profit looking to glean some interesting data and win press coverage.” https://forward.com/news/473044/what-if-a-quarter-of-jews-really-do-think-israel-is-a-genocidal-apartheid/
5 The pollsters, under the direction of Jim Gerstein, a progressive Democrat, have conducted surveys for J Street, the New Israel Fund, and other progressive Washington, D.C. think tanks. See Arno Rosenfeld, “What if A quarter of Jews really do think Israel is a Genocidal, Apartheid State?” Forward, July 15, 2021. https://forward.com/news/473044/what-if-a-quarter-of-jews-really-do-think-israel-is-a-genocidal-apartheid/
11 https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4874089,00.html : YNet journalist Ronen Bergman summarizes the work of Vasili Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew in the book The World was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World. (Basic Books, 2006). See also: Mordechai Nisan, “The PLO and Vietnam: National Liberation Models for the Palestinian Struggle.” Small Wars and Insurgencies. Volume 4, 1993, Issue 2. Arafat was profoundly affected by the Vietnamese “people’s war” strategy. See: Joel Fishman. “Ten Years Since Oslo: The PLO’s ‘Peoples War’ Strategy and Israel’s Inadequate Response.” Jerusalem Viewpoints. No. 503. 4-18 Elul 5763/1-15 September 2003. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. https://jcpa.org/article/ten-years-since-oslo-the-plos-peoples-war-strategy-and-israels-inadequate-response/
12 https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4874089,00.html. The university’s president at the time was Yevgeny Primakov, who had close ties to the KGB. He later went on to become the head of the KGB First Chief Directorate and helped it on its transition to the control of the Russian Federation government, under the new name Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). He then served as Russia’s minister of foreign affairs and later still as its prime minister.
13 https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4886594,00.html. According to the KGB documents, Abbas, who was nicknamed “Krotov,” was authorized to be a KGB spy within the PLO. The Soviets’ active measures operation against “Zionist subversion,” was called “Operation Simon.” It included a campaign to subvert French Jews, implicating the Jewish community in the murder of a relative of the French president allegedly for his anti-Israel policy. The New York branch of the KGB orchestrated the UN vote that passed “Zionism is racism” in 1975, and prepared a “white paper of Zionism,” a collection of disinformation about Israel, in 1978, and distributed it in 32 countries. In 1981, the KGB held a conference on Zionism in Leningrad, which concluded that “Zionist Jews are more likely to betray the country” and “There is not a single negative incident in socialist countries that Zionists are not involved in.” In 1982 the KGB issued a four year work plan for “fighting against Zionism.” Kryuchkov, the KGB head until 1988, said that “Zionism is the main threat to the USSR and to the Soviet bloc.”
14 Abbas accused Jews of poisoning wells at an EU assembly in 2016: https://www.timesofisrael.com/abbas-walks-back-claim-rabbis-sought-to-poison-palestinian-wells/.
18 In 1999, Yasser Arafat’s wife, Suha Arafat told Hilary Clinton, “Our people have been subjected to the daily and extensive use of poisonous gas by the Israeli forces, which has led to an increase in cancer cases among women and children.” https://www.jpost.com/magazine/opinion/another-tack-the-poison-in-the-well;
19 https://www.timesofisrael.com/top-fatah-official-claims-israel-running-own-auschwitz-in-palestinian-cities/ Rajoub said: “What is the meaning of this talk that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will go and be welcomed in Warsaw to remind us of the Holocaust and Auschwitz? In every city in Palestine, from Rafah to Jenin, there is an Israeli Auschwitz to massacre the Palestinians.”
22 According to an analysis provided to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency by the Network Contagion Research Institute, which studies the spread of hate online. One tweet about “the ongoing Israeli genocide in Palestine” was shared more than 3,700 times. https://www.jta.org/2021/05/26/israel/people-are-accusing-israel-of-genocide-these-human-rights-lawyers-beg-to-differ
30 https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/israel-international/Israeli-Apartheid-Week-Year-by-Year-Report.pdf; https://www.brandeis.edu/cmjs/noteworthy/ssri/hotspots-antisemitism.html
32 Ibid., p. 25.
This year, American Jews have been part of a racial reckoning in our community. Our institutions have been reflecting and asking, “How are we complicit with racial violence?…”
And yet, so many of those same institutions are silent when abuse of power and racist violence erupts in Israel and Palestine. So many of us ignore the day-to-day indignity that the Israeli military and police forces enact on Palestinians, and sit idly by as Israel upholds two separate legal systems for the same region. And, in the same breath, we are shocked by escalations of violence, as though these things are not a part of the same dehumanizing status quo….
Our political advocacy too often puts forth a narrative of victimization, but supports violent suppression of human rights and enables apartheid in the Palestinian territories, and the threat of annexation.
35 https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/07/ifnotnow-birthright-ramah-bds-israel.html; The mostly young activists of IfNotNow, recently recited the Jewish prayer for the dead, kaddish, for Gazans, including Hamas operatives who were killed in the May 2021 fighting, as it did previously in 2014 https://www.jpost.com/bds-threat/american-anti-israel-group-says-kaddish-for-hamas-pij-operatives-669662
See also: https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-did-israeli-secret-service-teach-floyd-police-to-kneel-on-neck, https://web.archive.org/web/20120115094644/http:/www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/police/policy/mpdpolicy_5-300_5-300 See “Section 5-311 Use of Neck Restraints and Chokeholds.”
37 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7U6Wmmtp9T4; See https://besacenter.org/the-lies-of-saeb-erekat-how-palestinian-propaganda-warps-the-truth-and-undermines-peace-efforts/ https://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-palestinian-one-state-2016-story.html https://jewishcurrents.org/yavne-a-jewish-case-for-equality-in-israel-palestine/