Conservatives Crash Congress in Ongoing Effort to Bash Legitimate Palestine Support Groups

Another sordid chapter in right-wing campaigns to undermine any efforts to hold Israel to humane standards of conduct.

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With help from radical right-wing Republicans and a media echo chamber, the neoconservative think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) has unleashed a politically motivated smear campaign against Muslim-American organizations and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to hold Israel accountable for human rights violations.

The target is the U.S.-based organization American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), which describes its mission as “educating people about Palestine, its rich cultural and historical heritage and about how the people of Palestine have been living under occupation for decades.” The group has chapters across the country, and it has partnered with a broad array of human rights organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace and the National Lawyers Guild.

Testifying at a joint hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month, the neoconservative ideologue and FDD vice president for research Jonathan Schanzer falsely painted AMP as a tool of Hamas, relying on what he called a “network analysis”—in which he attempted to portray the group's leaders as guilty based on flimsy claims about their past associations. He then used this wrong-headed evaluation to argue that AMP is engineering the BDS movement, and therefore the international human rights campaign is aligned with “terrorism.”

Schanzer builds this case even though he acknowledges that he has no evidence that AMP has done anything unlawful.

Amid the domestic climate of racist incitement against Muslims, Schanzer’s crusade is a transparent attempt to criminalize Muslim charitable giving and Palestine solidarity campaigning. Despite the political nature of his attack, Schanzer is being treated as a neutral expert by some congressional representatives, as well as by at least one journalist for the Times of Israel. The neoconservative Wall Street Journal reporter Bret Stephens, who previously published an article titled “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” quickly piled on, running a column this week that reads like Schanzer’s condensed talking points.

Hatem Bazian, a lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley and current chairman of AMP, told AlterNet that these developments “fit into a long and ongoing strategy of using Islamophobia to drive foreign policy and establishing guilt by association and innuendo targeting individuals who have the courage of constant engagement and critique regarding Palestine. A cluster of neoconservatives is using congressional committees to silence opposition to Israel and defame individuals in civil society.”

Criminalizing Charitable Giving

Schanzer, who trumpets his credentials as a terrorism finance analyst for the United States Department of the Treasury under the George W. Bush administration, rests his entire case on the argument that “at least seven individuals who work for or on behalf of AMP have worked for or on behalf of organizations previously shut down or held civilly liable in the United States for providing financial support to Hamas.”

This claim proves flimsy upon closer examination. One of the key “tainted” organizations named by Schanzer is the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), which used to be the largest Muslim charity in the United States. The accusations against HLF rest on the claim that the group donated to zakat (charitable) committees based in the occupied West Bank and Gaza that were tied to Hamas. Or, as George W. Bush put it in 2002, money from the foundation was used to “indoctrinate children to grow up to be suicide bombers.”

Yet, Bush never produced evidence to back up this claim about the HLF. Furthermore, during the organization’s 2007 trial, Edward Abington, who served as U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem from 1993 to 1997, reportedly testified that USAID “has periodically contributed to the same Zakat Committee named in the indictments, from before the time of the HLF indictment until today.”

In addition, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) observed in 2012 that the zakat committees in question also received funds from “the United Nations, and mainstream charities during the period of the government’s allegations against the Holy Land Foundation.”

As the ACLU noted in a 2009 report, “By the time of the 2007 criminal trial against the charity and five of its leaders, prosecutors no longer claimed HLF provided direct support to Hamas or for violent acts. Nor did the U.S. government allege hat HLF intended to support terrorism or that its funds were actually used for that purpose. Instead, prosecutors admitted all the money went to charitable aid.”

After the first trial ended in a hung jury, five leaders of HLF were eventually convicted in 2008 of criminal counts and handed hefty prison terms, even though, as the ACLU noted, “prosecutors again admitted that all funds went to local charity committees that were never on government watch lists.”

According to Omar Shakir, a Bertha fellow at CCR, the outcome was a “great travesty of American justice. You have individuals engaged in charitable activity, supporting a community affected by years of occupation and dispossession, that are serving decades-long prison sentences for giving to the same charities that USAID and other multilateral organizations were giving to at the same time. This grew out of the hysterical fear mongering of the post-9/11 period and represents a blight on the American justice system.”

Tom Melsheimer, a former federal prosecutor in Dallas, made a similar point to a Texas ABC affiliate in 2009. “To spend millions of dollars in time and expenses to prosecute people who were of no real threat to anyone, under the banner of a terrorism case, is a waste of precious federal resource,” he stated, adding: “I think this case proves that, with enough effort, the federal government can convict nearly anyone.”

Buried within Schanzer's testimony is his admission that "we have seen no evidence of illicit activity" by AMP. Given this lack of evidence, Schanzer is being dangerously reckless with people's lives by by employing dog whistles and innuendo to insinuate their guilt. In fact, if he has no evidence, it is unclear why he delivered a lengthy testimony to congressional representatives.

Rabbi Joseph Berman, government affairs liaison for Jewish Voice for Peace, told AlterNet that the fresh round of attacks citing this old case is “an attempt by a right-wing organization to discredit the legal, non-violent, and righteous movement for Palestinian human rights."

A Politically-Motivated Attack

“This is an Islamophobia campaign,” said Osama Abu-Irshaid, the national policy director for AMP who is personally targeted by Schanzer’s latest campaign. “This is an attempt to criminalize and delegitimize work for Palestine in the United States, using AMP to delegitimize the BDS movement.”

This would not be the first time that Israel supporters embraced such tactics. Shakir noted that Palestine Legal and CCR in 2015 alone recorded “over 240 incidents of suppression using a wide variety of tactics to attack organizations for engaging in first-amendment-protected advocacy for Palestinian rights.”

“This trend is especially pernicious in the climate that we have now where Islamophobia is prevalent and even the faintest myth of ties to terrorism can undermine reputations, destroy careers, and affect the lives of individuals doing nothing more than engaging in constitutional rights,” Shakir added.

For his part, Schanzer is not shy about his efforts to malign BDS. “The overlap of former employees of organizations that provided support to Hamas who now play important roles in AMP speaks volumes about the real agenda of key components of the BDS campaign,” he testified at the hearing.

In levying this attack, Schanzer has plenty of company. Israel announced in February that it is pouring $26 million into a cyber initiative to sabotage BDS and spy on Muslim activists in the U.S. and Europe. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has made attacking BDS a centerpiece of her campaign, and all Republican contenders are angling to demonstrate their support for the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The FDD, meanwhile, has a direct interest in polarizing this climate further. While the organization describes itself as a “non-profit, non-partisan policy institute working to defend free nations against their enemies,” it is in fact aligned with Israel’s Likud government and the militaristic wing of the Republican Party. Founded in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the foundation was described in 2003 by The American Conservative as “an aggressive new neoconservative think tank” that emerged from a former “tightly knit group of billionaire philanthropists conceived of a plan to win American sympathy for Israel’s response to the Palestinian intifada.” As journalist Eli Clifton reported, FDD has received millions in donations from right-wing pro-Israel oligarchs Paul Singer, Sheldon Adelson, and Bernard Marcus.

Schanzer reflects the ethos of his workplace. As journalist Emily Cadei noted in 2014, he and other FDD colleagues had become “go to” hawkish sources on Iran for the New York Times, AP and others.

FDD, however, is certainly not the first organization to attack AMP. The organization is a favorite punching bag for Stephen Emerson, a notoriously anti-Muslim pundit now infamous for conjuring up the myth of Muslim "no go zones."

Notably, Schanzer was co-hosted by Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, which is chaired by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX). Poe has falsely insinuated that Obama is not a U.S. citizen and referred to undocumented people as “grasshoppers.” Poe provoked outrage in 2007 when he quoted Civil War Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford, a founder of the Ku Klux Klan, on the floor of the House. 

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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