Human Rights

How Pro-Israel Fanatics Have Teamed up with Right-Wing Operatives to Crush Free Speech on Campus

A McCarthyite 'underground operation' to silence speech critical of Israel has a wider anti-progressive agenda.

This is part four of a four-part investigation. Read parts one, two and three.

At a Texas Retreat convened last June by long-time neoconservative agitator David Horowitz, a baby-faced operative named Charlie Kirk outlined an “undercover, underground plan” to “control student funding,” “censor professors” and “get rid of free speech zones.” His plan focused on channeling right-wing money into a full-bore attack on the grassroots movement to boycott, sanction, and divest from Israel as a means to pressure the country into respecting Palestinian human rights, known as BDS. The BDS movement has spread across US campuses and European capitals since it was devised by Palestinian civil society groups in 2005. 

Described by the National Journal as “the future of the conservative movement,” the 21-year-old Kirk is rapidly emerging as one the most influential right-wing campus organizers. Speaking before an audience of hundreds of conservative activists in a hotel ballroom in Dallas, Kirk laid out a strikingly authoritarian vision to systematically eradicate progressive political culture from American universities.

“What we’re doing in states like California, Massachusetts and New York, is we’re starting...a rather undercover, underground operation that is designed for one purpose only,” Kirk explained. “And that is to run -- and win -- Student Government Association races the same way we look at Congressional campaigns. If we can successfully retake the student governments...on these really, really far left campuses such as UC-Irvine, UCLA, and we run the student government association races with the same money, time, energy and resources [as] we do a Congressional campaign, then we can start to see...an effective, neutralizing factor on these campuses. You can control student funding, you can censor professors, you can get rid of free speech zones, you can then balance the curriculum, you then can use your student government post as a bully pulpit.”

Kirk pointed to BDS as a key target of his surreptitious takeover plan. “Who here has heard of BDS?” Kirk asked his audience, prompting a chorus of groans. “Every BDS resolution is passed because of student governments...They use student government associations to push this radical agenda on to these campuses…The only vulnerability there is, the only opening, is student government associations races and elections, and we’re investing a lot of time and energy and money in it. And you’d be amazed. If you spend $5,000 on a [student government] race, you can win. You could retake a whole college or university -- we did it at Arizona State University.”

(Video of Kirk’s appearance was mysteriously removed from David Horowitz Freedom Center’s Vimeo account. The authors of this article had previously downloaded the video, which has been re-uploaded here.)

While Kirk is not active within the Israel lobby, he has participated in Horowitz’s “Jew Hatred on Campus” campaign alongside the young zealots being prepared for future leadership roles. Last March, he appeared on a panel at Horowitz’s West Coast Retreat beside Daniel Mael and Chloe Valdary, two of the lobby’s most extensively groomed figures. Presenting himself as a seasoned operator, Kirk alluded to a project that he was working on with the David Horowitz Freedom Center to wage a slash-and-burn campaign against left-wing college activists online through social media.

(Less than a day after the video of this panel at Horowitz’s West Coast Retreat appeared on the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s Vimeo page, and just hours after Valdary promoted it on Facebook, the video was inexplicably removed. We were unable to download it at the time.)

According to the National Journal, Kirk has raised $1 million from right-wing donors “enthralled by his conservative promise.” And he has already pledged to spend a chunk of it to defeat BDS on campus through his “underground” plan. His funding will inevitably bolster the growing nexus between campus pro-Israel activism and the College Republicans. Whether or not Kirk is playing a role in the malicious blacklisting website Canary Mission, his participation in Horowitz’s “Jew Hatred” initiative and stated interest in defeating BDS on campus highlight the growing bond between the conservative movement and the Israel lobby.

If there is any single figure responsible for fusing the Israel lobby with the Republican Party, it is Sheldon Adelson. The 82-year-old casino baron, who is the single biggest contributor of political funds to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is also one of the largest individual contributors to the Republican Party, giving him enormous potential influence over its presidential primary campaign. In 2012, Adelson shelled out $150 million to defeat President Obama, dumping dark money into Republican Super PAC’s while funding a negative ad blitz. Over three years later, after Obama managed the historic passage of the Iran nuclear deal, Adelson and his allies are turning their attention to American campuses where Palestine solidarity activism is a thriving movement.

“You no longer have to worry about financing”

In June, the Israel lobby’s top right-wing activists convened at Adelson’s Venetian Luxury Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas. The organizations they represented included CAMERA, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum, the virulently Islamophobic Clarion Fund, and the Washington Free Beacon, a neoconservative online journal whose defamatory and frequently baseless articles attacking college students involved in Palestine solidarity activism have also served as blueprints for Canary Mission's dossiers. In all, fifty right-wing pro-Israel groups were represented at Adelson’s resort, regaling a coterie of twenty ultra-Zionist donors with their plans for crushing BDS on campus. As a fee for entering the gathering, each wealthy backer was required to pledge at least $1 million in donations over the next two years.

Pro-Israel lobbyists emerged from the gathering with a whopping $50 million in pledges for anti-BDS efforts. “You work together and we will raise you the money,” one of the major donors, Adam Milstein, assured his new beneficiaries after the meeting in Las Vegas. “You no longer have to worry about financing and fundraising. You just need to be united.”

An Israeli-American real estate baron convicted of tax evasion, Tuvia “Adam” Milstein was exposed in 2014 for funneling donations to UCLA student government candidates who personally pledged “to make sure that UCLA will maintains [sic] its allegiance to Israel.” He colluded further with UCLA Hillel -- the base of the major pro-Israel organizations on campus -- to develop “an ongoing strategy to delegitimize and discredit” any student organizations that support divestment.

While Adelson and Milstein typically support outfits operating on the right-wing of the political spectrum, one of the Democratic Party’s most powerful individual donors, Israeli-American tycoon Haim Saban, seemed eager to throw his financial weight behind their initiative. A Beverly Hills-based billionaire who earned much of his fortune by selling the Fox Family franchise to Walt Disney, Saban is so determined to control the narrative around Israel-Palestine that he previously considered purchasing the Los Angeles Times and transforming it into a pro-Israel propaganda organ. Last year, Saban and Adelson openly mulled buying the New York Times, in order to shift the Times’ editorial line closer to the Israeli government’s rightist agenda.

“I’m a one issue guy and my issue is Israel,” Saban said.

To advance his single-minded goal, Saban has made himself one of the most significant individual contributors to the Democratic Party. His generous donations to Obama’s presidential campaigns secured an appointment as special US representative to the 2012 United Nations General Assembly for his wife, former pop singer and Playboy “Disco Queens” //www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/6457/morphed model Cheryl Saban. A frequent White House guest during Bill Clinton’s presidency, Saban has been an aggressive supporter of Hillary Clinton and mega-donor to the Clinton Foundation. His millions have funded the construction of the Democratic National Committee headquarters and the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Washington’s Brookings Institute.

This year, as Saban mobilized to back Hillary Clinton’s second bid for the White House, he was forced to turn his attention to a more urgent concern: The BDS campaign that hadstripped his Israeli Partner corporation of the right to use the brand of French-based Orange telecommunications. Seated beside Adelson’s on stage at the casino baron’s Las Vegas anti-BDS conference, Saban openly panicked about BDS, warning of “an anti-Semitic tsunami coming at us.”

Saban called for an initiative to punish corporations that refused to work inside Israel or the territories it occupies through military force: “Any company that chooses to boycott business in Israel is going to look at this case, and once we’re done they’re going to think twice whether they want to take on Israel or not,” Saban declared. “Trust me, this is just the beginning.”

Saban’s expressions of panic elicited a letter from Hillary Clinton in which she promised to “make countering BDS a priority.” Next to her signature was a handwritten note of assurance from Clinton: “Looking forward to working with you on this.”

This October, however, Saban suddenly withdrew his support from the anti-BDS campaign headed by Adelson. “He didn’t like that Adelson was pushing the group towards funding right-wing groups that are only speaking in a right-wing echo chamber — and not towards pushing a message that would actually change hearts and minds,” a pro-Israel lobbyist toldNathan Guttman of the Forward.

Pro-Israel money is flowing disproportionately into the coffers of right-wing groups that are not only determined to obstruct Palestine solidarity efforts, but which are organizing on firmly partisan lines. The initiative devised at Adelson’s casino last June is a prime example: Its first administrative hire was David Brog, the Executive Director of the Christians United For Israel organization that supports the Israeli settlement enterprise and whose almost evangelical Republican membership advances the End Times as the solution to the Israel-Palestine crisis. And the national student network he would preside over was named the “Campus Maccabees.”

“With strength, determination, and unity, the Campus Maccabees will unite the best pro-Israel organizations, reverse the rising tide of anti-Semitism on our campuses, and succeed in the battle against the hate groups that seek Israel’s destruction,” Adelson proclaimed in a press release, embracing David Horowitz’s directive to paint Students for Justice in Palestine as a “hate group.”

For those familiar with Jewish history, the name of Adelson’s newfangled initiative contains striking resonances. The Maccabees were first and second century BCE religious zealots who slaughtered, forcibly converted and circumcised fellow Jews who attempted to assimilate into the Seleucid Empire’s Hellenistic culture. Once the Maccabees secured power through disproportionate force, retaking the Temple and smashing the empire’s idols, they imposed a draconian theocratic order on their subjects. Mythologized in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the Maccabees became heroes of the early Zionists who colonized historic Palestine.

The inauguration of the Campus Maccabees offers a massive cash infusion to the expansion of the movement of which Canary Mission appears to be a pilot project. With unprecedented resources, these hardline elements are expanding their campaign beyond fighting BDS in order to castigate liberal pro-Israel groups that supported Obama’s Iran deal such as J Street.

As the bipartisan consensus that once underlined pro-Israel organizing becomes a relic of the past, some campus activists are beginning to worry that the Israel lobby has crossed the line. “The pro-Israel community is increasingly being perceived as right-wing fanatics,” complained Justin Hayet, a star of the Crossing the Line propaganda film series produced by the Aish-affiliated Jerusalem U. “If we let that stigma perpetuate, fighting BDS on campus will become increasingly challenging.”

Max Blumenthal is a senior editor of the Grayzone Project at AlterNet, and the award-winning author of Goliath, Republican Gomorrah, and The 51 Day War. He is the co-host of the podcast, Moderate Rebels. Follow him on Twitter at @MaxBlumenthal.

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

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