Human Rights

Why Are Dianne Feinstein and Janet Napolitano Backing a McCarthyite Push Against Palestine Activists?

Going to extremes to stifle a growing movement.

Part three of an ongoing investigation for AlterNet. Read parts one and two.

With a majority of schools in the University of California (UC) system and the UC Student Association voting to divest from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation, the pro-Israel lobby is pushing for a clampdown on Palestine solidarity activity at UC schools. Not only do they want to forbid demonstrations against Israeli policy on campus, they want to effectively ban the BDS movement, which advocates boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel to pressure the country into respecting the human rights of Palestinians.

Shockingly, the extreme demand that the UC system adopt a definition of anti-Semitism that would effectively classify most forms of Palestine solidarity activism as hate speech, and punish them as such, has won support from some of California’s most influential Democrats. They include Janet Napolitano, the President of the University of California and former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Also backing the campaign is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and her husband, the UC Regent and scandal-stained arms profiteer Dick Blum. According to lawyer Ken White, the Democratic power couple has threatened to “make trouble if the [university administration] didn’t commit to punish people for prohibited speech.” Blum has vowed that anyone who violated the new speech code be punished or expelled.

Behind this lobbying push is a little-known professor of Hebrew studies at UC–Santa Cruz named Tammi Rossman-Benjamin. A hardcore supporter of Israel’s right-wing government, Rossman-Benjamin has helped pioneer the use of speech codes and manipulation of the law to undermine Palestine solidarity campaigns — a tactic that pro-Israel advocates refer to as “lawfare.” Through the AMCHA Initiative, a right-wing nonprofit group that functions as Rossman-Benjamin’s personal political vehicle, she helped devise the radical crackdown on free speech at UC schools.

In the past, Rossman-Benjamin unsuccessfully crusaded to force California’s Attorney General to prosecute a professor at California State University–Northridge, David Klein, for his support for the BDS campaign. She has repeatedly attempted to compel the federal government to define public criticism of Israel as a violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, insisting that activities that offend the sensibilities of pro-Israel Jewish students constitute a violation of those students’ civil rights.

Rossman-Benjamin makes no secret of her contempt for Arab and Muslim students. In a disturbingly vitriolic address to a Jewish congregation in 2012, Rossman-Benjamin claimed that campuses had been “poisoned” by the infiltration of “foreign students who come from countries and cultures where anti-Semitism is how they think about the world.”

“These are not your ordinary student groups like College Republicans or Young Democrats,” she warned. “These are students who come with a serious agenda, who have ties to terrorist organizations.”

Rossman-Benjamin also maintains strong reserves of resentment for left-wing African American academics and activists, accusing them of spreading anti-Semitism across American campuses. In a lengthy paper lamenting the successful push for an ethnic studies department at San Francisco State University in the 1960s, Rossman-Benjamin concluded, “Programs whose core mission includes the promotion of group identity and the pursuit of social justice may be linked to expressions of political animosities in general and antisemitism in particular.” (Her paper was edited by Alvin Rosenfeld, the author of an essay blaming “progressive Jewish thought” for the rise of a “New Anti-Semitism.”)

Rossman-Benjamin’s attempts to suppress BDS activity on campus have strayed over the line of legitimate activism into the realm of covert surveillance. In 2012, Rossman-Benjamin dispatched a student, Prescott Watson, to spy on a conflict analysis project of the University of California called the Olive Tree Initiative. With the information illicitly gathered by Watson, she produced a report based on private conversations and the personal information of Berkeley students to paint Olive Tree as a vehicle for promoting anti-Semitism. Documents leaked to journalists Asa Winstanley and Nora Barrows-Friedman found that Rossman-Benjamin had become obsessed with monitoring students well beyond this single initiative; she had spent years filing away their personal information into a database.

Rebecca Pierce, a graduate of UC–Santa Cruz and former student of Rossman-Benjamin, told us that the professor would often be seen seated towards the back of Palestine-related events on campus, jotting down notes on BDS activists that she would later turn into files.

Links to Canary Mission and The Islamophobia Industry

Canary Mission, the malicious Israeli government-linked website that seeks to deny employment opportunities to students who campaign for Palestinian rights, has acknowledged its heavy reliance on the material Rossman-Benjamin gathered on the activists she’s tracked.

As retribution for her public opposition to Rossman-Benjamin’s activities on campus, Pierce received a dossier at Canary Mission and consequently became the target of online harassmentthat resulted from the malicious listing. While Rossman-Benjamin has denied playing an operational role in Canary Mission, much of Pierce’s profile on the site specifically cited her criticism of her former professor, as though Rossman-Benjamin had supplied the material firsthand. Of over 140 students, activists and academics currently designated for blacklisting by Canary Mission, a disproportionate number have been enrolled at the California campuses that Rossman-Benjamin has obsessively monitored.

While some of the Canary Mission listings cite Rossman-Benjamin’s AMCHA Initiative as a source, others refer directly to material gathered by Charles Jacobs’ Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT) and his former outfit, the David Project. In fact, many of the figures featured on Canary Mission are longstanding targets of Jacobs, from Columbia University professors Joseph Massad and Rashid Khalidi to Northeastern University professor Dennis Sullivan and student Max Geller. To generate its dossier on Geller, Canary Mission relied almost entirely on material first published in David Horowitz’s FrontPageMag by the Research Director for Jacobs’ APT, Ilya Feoktistov. (Jacobs and Feoktistov have co-authored articles published in right-wing outlets, including Breitbart and the Daily Caller.)


Charles Jacobs is one of the country’s leaders in McCarthy-style tactics against Muslims and Palestine solidarity

So who is Jacobs? Like his ally, Rossman-Benjamin, he has spent much of his career painting those who disagree with his hardline agenda, especially liberal Jews, as anti-Semites and terrorist sympathizers. He has sometimes inspired threats against his targets — and hailed those who have made incitement their business. A tireless crusader against Muslim American communal organizing, Jacobs has said that Muslims “should be required to attend sensitivity training about Judaism and about American values of tolerance.” He has even celebrated Pamela Geller, who is possibly America’s most belligerent Islamophobe, as a “Jewish heroine.”

In a recent article for The American Thinker, a right-wing blog that plays host to open and active white supremacists, Jacobs sought to answer complaints by anonymous Christian friends about “Jewish political ineptitude.” Jacobs said he informed the Christians that “universalized Jews” were infected with a “Jewish cognitive disease." He called it “Jupus,” in reference to the autoimmune disease known as lupus. According to Jacobs’ diagnosis, this psychological virus had infected liberal Jews to the point that they had become suicidal. “To the ‘progressives,’ ARAB LIVES MATTER — but only if Jews kill them,” he alleged.

While Jacobs refused to reply to our questions about what role, if any, he has played in Canary Mission, some of his favorite academic and activist targets have become the subjects of dossiers on the website.

In 1982, when Israel’s first prime minister from the Likud Party, Menachem Begin, launched a catastrophic invasion of Lebanon, a new generation of pro-Israel hardliners emerged to defend Israeli policies from global criticism. These Likud loyalists formed CAMERA, apressure group that leveraged advances in digital data and ultimately, the Internet, to assail media organizations and reporters who diverged from a right-wing Zionist narrative. Charles Jacobs was one of the group’s founders in Boston, where CAMERA’s headquarters has been located ever since. Today, CAMERA is funded heavily by Seth Klarman, the Boston-based hedge funder whose digital newspaper, The Times of Israel, has hosted Canary Mission’s banner ads.

Former NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin has estimated that 90 percent of the zealots confronting him about his network’s Israel-Palestine coverage were “calling [him] because CAMERA had told them to.”

“As a consequence of its campaign against NPR, CAMERA acted as the enabler for some seriously disturbed people,” Dvorkin added, noting that he received so many direct death threats he was forced to report them to the FBI.

In 2003, as the Second Intifada raged and the U.S. invasion of Iraq began, Jacobs gathered with a network of pro-Israel groups to discuss plans for confronting the sudden rise in Palestine solidarity activism on campus. A memo he commissioned from McKinsey and Company called for a plan to “take back the campus by influencing public opinion through lectures, the Internet, and coalitions.” The lobbying discussions generated support for the David Project, a campus advocacy group that Jacobs founded to destroy the careers of academic critics of Israel, particularly prominent Palestinian professors such as Joseph Massad and Rashid Khalidi, both professors at Columbia University. In Boston, in 2004, Jacobs led a divisive and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to block the construction of an Islamic community center, relying on nuisance lawsuits and bogus accusations that the center was a front for “the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia or … the Moslem Brotherhood.”

Jacobs’ divisive approach rankled the sensibilities of liberal Jews in Boston and beyond. One of his critics, longtime Americans for Peace Now leader Leonard Fein, accused the David Project of “doing an ongoing disservice to the Jewish community. Where bridges could be built,” Fein wrote, “it prefers confrontation; where sober analysis is called for, it opts for polemic.”

When Jacobs resigned as director of the David Project in 2008, the organization underwent a substantial makeover. Under the leadership of David Bernstein, the David Project began channeling its resources into relationship-building and repairing frayed ties with liberal Jewish groups, largely abandoning the “name and shame” tactics that generated so much friction under Jacobs’ watch. Bernstein, a lobbyist formerly employed by the center-right American Jewish Committee, worried that “a pervasively negative atmosphere will affect the long-term thinking of current college students, negatively affecting strong bipartisan support for Israel.”

The newly conciliatory approach infuriated Jacobs, who insisted, “Unless you expose and humiliate and taunt and legally threaten and politically challenge the use of the podium as propaganda ... then you have a problem.”

Through the ironically named Americans for Peace and Tolerance, the organization Jacobs founded after leaving the David Project, Jacobs redoubled his efforts with the help of a new breed of zealots. Jacobs helped launch the career of Chloe Valdary, the Christian Zionist activist, featuring her in an APT-produced video in 2013 equating the global BDS movement with Nazi Germany and suggesting it could lead to a second genocide of Jews.

That same year, Jacobs initiated a crusade to censor high school curricula in the Newton, Mass. school district, alleging through a series of newspaper ads that school textbooks demonized Israel and “glorified Islam.” But Jacobs admitted, “We don’t know exactly what students are being taught,” and the local Anti-Defamation League issued its objection to his campaign. In fact, not one parent of any student in the Newton schools publicly supported Jacobs, including the parent who filed the initial complaint about the textbook content.

When Newton’s School Committee vice chairman Matt Hills formally rejected Jacobs’ charges, declaring, “there is not a single accusation that has merit,” Jacobs placed ads in local papers featuring Hills’ home phone number. According to the Boston Globe, Hills received more than 100 threatening phone calls as a result of Jacobs’ campaign, “some in the middle of the night and almost all from outside Newton.” Hills, whose wife was the president of the Temple Emanuel synagogue, required a police detail to provide security at their home.

Back in California, where Rossman-Benjamin is lobbying to silence student advocates of Palestinian rights, some students who have no role in the BDS movement are finding their names on the malicious Canary Mission website. Among those deceptively listed on Canary Mission as an “active supporter” of BDS is a student named Emily Chen. Chen’s only involvement in any BDS-related campaign appears to have been voting in favor of a resolution to divest from corporations active in the Occupied Palestinian Territories while serving as a member of UC-Berkeley’s Student Government Council. Nils Gilbertson, another student government member who voted for the resolution but who has no record as an activist, is also blacklisted at Canary Mission.

With support from powerful Democrats like Napolitano and Feinstein, zealots like Rossman-Benjamin and Jacobs seem unconcerned about the consequences of their campaigning. Even as they leave a trail of polarization and rancor, these activists are now on the verge of an unprecedented windfall in funding from a new coalition of right-wing pro-Israel billionaires.

 

Max Blumenthal is a senior editor of the Grayzone Project at AlterNet, and the award-winning author of Goliath and Republican Gomorrah. His most recent book is The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza. Follow him on Twitter at @MaxBlumenthal.

Julia Carmel is a freelance writer. You can find her on Twitter at @JuliaCarmel_

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