Pro-Israel Group's Money Trail Veers Hard Right
WASHINGTON - StandWithUs - an "organization that ensures that Israel's side of the story is told" - has become increasingly aggressive in challenging the "pro-Israel" credentials of moderate Jewish-American groups, going so far as to suggest that receiving money from Arab donors and supporters of Human Rights Watch undermines a group's commitment to Israel and peace.
J Street - the "Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace" advocacy group - faced criticism last week for accepting contributions from donors who have been critical of Israeli government actions.
But an IPS investigation into the tax records of the donors to StandWithUs, which professes to be ideologically neutral, found a web of funders who support organisations that have been accused of anti-Muslim propaganda and encouraging a militant Israeli and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Some of these organisations have tied the origins of Palestinian nationalism to Nazi ideology, and suggested that a vast Muslim conspiracy - in a similar vein to the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion - is mobilising to undermine the U.S. constitution and impose Sharia law.
StandWithUs, known in its tax filings as the "Israel Emergency Alliance", unleashed a flurry of faxes to 160 lawmakers on Oct. 16 expressing concern over their plans to attend the J Street conference, "Driving Change, Securing Peace", in Washington from Oct. 25-28.
The faxes warned lawmakers that while "J Street claims to be 'pro-Israel' and 'pro-peace' and to represent mainstream Jewish opinion, we are troubled because their positions seem to undermine Israel and its search for peace with security. Their views may also contribute to anti-Israel biases and misinformation."
Five members of Congress dropped out of the conference. J Street characterised the campaign as the work of "neoconservatives and their Swift Boat tactics" led by the neoconservative Weekly Standard magazine.
MJ Rosenberg, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a research centre that monitors "conservative misinformation" in the media, told IPS, "These are essentially opponents of the peace process who believe the only way to support Israel is to oppose a diplomatic solution the conflict."
The biggest donors to StandWithUs since 2005, according to a search of publicly available tax returns, were foundations controlled by Susan Wexner, who has contributed over 850,000 dollars to the group.
Wexner's family founded The Limited, which currently operates such well-known brands as Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works, Henri Bendel, C. O. Bigelow, The White Barn Candle Company, and La Senza.
Wexner also made contributions to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD).
MEMRI describes itself as "bridging the language gap which exists between the West and the Middle East, providing timely translations of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu-Pashtu media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends in the Middle East".
Critics say the group is a propaganda outlet, and accuse it of mistranslation and overstating the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Middle East media.
"My problem with MEMRI is that it poses as a research institute when it's basically a propaganda operation," wrote the Middle East editor for The Guardian, Brian Whittaker, in an email debate with MEMRI President Yigal Carmon.
"As with all propaganda, that involves a certain amount of dishonesty and deception. The items you translate are chosen largely to suit your political agenda. They are unrepresentative and give an unfair picture of the Arab media as a whole."
The executive director of StandWithUs, Roz Rothstein, responded to IPS, "MEMRI is used by every news publication on the planet. People don't look at MEMRI as right-wing. It's just verbatim Arabic translation. They've never been cited for inaccurate translation."
In 2007, CNN correspondent Atika Shubert and Arabic translators accused MEMRI of mistranslating portions of a Palestinian children's television programme.
"Media watchdog MEMRI translates one caller as saying - quote - 'We will annihilate the Jews,"' said Shubert. "But, according to several Arabic speakers used by CNN, the caller actually says 'The Jews are killing us."'
CAMERA, another media watchdog group, has caught criticism for denying reliable reports of settlement expansions, leading the executive director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, Donald Wagner, to describe CAMERA as "a well-known source of extremist pro-Israel propaganda that is routinely challenged by Israeli and international human rights and peace organizations for its consistent misrepresentation of the facts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies is a policy institute "founded shortly after 9/11 by a group of visionary philanthropists and policymakers to support the defense of democratic societies under assault by terrorism and militant Islamism", according to its website.
However, the group has frequently been cited for pushing a hawkish U.S. foreign policy in Iraq and Iran, and the Christian Science Monitor called it one of the "top neocon think tanks".
Larry and Andrew Hochberg contributed over 400,000 dollars to StandWithUs since 2005 and also contributed to FDD and Honest Reporting, another watchdog group that monitors the media and "exposes cases of bias" against Israel.
Much like MEMRI, Honest Reporting has come under attack for taking words and phrases out of context and for producing the documentary "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West".
Twenty-eight million copies of the film were distributed by direct mail and newspaper inserts before the U.S. presidential election last November.
Regarding the film, Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic wrote that it "takes a serious issue, and a serious threat - that of Islamism - and makes it into a cartoon. Its central argument is that the 'Islamofascism' of today is not only the equivalent of Nazism, but worse than Nazism. This is quite a thing for a Jewish organization to argue."
According to Rothstein, "Obsession is the story of radical Islam."
"Radical Islam has impacted the Middle East greatly," she said. "All this stuff comes from a very fundamentalist religious position and looking at it does not make you right- or left-wing."
Sandra and Lawrence Post contributed just under 70,000 dollars to StandWithUs since 2005 and contributed to MEMRI and Christians United For Israel (CUFI), a U.S. "pro-Israel" Christian organisation founded and chaired by controversial pastor John Hagee.
Neoconservatives and other members of the far-right came into direct conflict with J Street in May 2008 when J Street issued a statement calling on Republican presidential candidate John McCain to "renounce John Hagee once and for all".
Many Jews took offence with Hagee's characterisation of Hitler as doing God's work by helping to bring Jews to Israel to fulfil Biblical prophesy, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) found itself in the difficult position of fighting to keep its pro-Israel credentials while not severing its valuable ties to the Christian-Zionist movement and the Christian Right.
Asked if the philanthropy of their donors reflected a right-wing political leaning by StandWithUs, Rothstein rejected the idea.
"I don't think it's fair since our tent is pretty broad," she said. "Some people call us 'left of centre', others call us 'right of centre' and some call us 'centre"'.
"We see it as our job to help people understand that the founding document of Hamas calls for the elimination of Israel," Rothstein added. "If J Street is interested in negotiating with Hamas - who are absolute fundamentalists and violent - it's like a phony dream to want to sit down with someone who is intending to kill you."
Defenders of J Street see StandWithUs and their supporters very differently.
"They're attacking J Street because J Street would have [U.S. President Barack] Obama's back," said Rosenberg. "In the old days, if anyone put pressures on Israel, the whole community rises up against it. Here it is, new situation, they have Netanyahu's back."