Israel’s Scheme To Defund the BDS Movement

As end-of-the-year fundraising reached a fever pitch in December 2018, the account that the BDS National Committee (BNC) was using to receive donations became disabled. The BNC—the Palestinian group that….

As end-of-the-year fundraising reached a fever pitch in December 2018, the account that the BDS National Committee (BNC) was using to receive donations became disabled. The BNC—the Palestinian group that leads the global movement to boycott, sanction and divest from Israel as leverage against human rights abuses—immediately suspected the Israeli government.

The BNC’s account was with Donorbox, a fundraising platform used by thousands of organizations. Donorbox explained in a statement that, while it had nothing against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a letter it received from Shurat HaDin–Israel Law Center accused the BNC of ties to terrorism, and Donorbox closed the BNC’s account while “reviewing evidence.” Shurat HaDin has deep ties to the Israeli government.

An employee of Donorbox agreed to speak with In These Times on condition of anonymity, saying he feared for his personal safety because those involved have connections to Israeli intelligence and Palestinian political factions. “Shurat HaDin pressured one of our payment processors, which pressured us,” he wrote in an email.

The BNC quickly found an alternative to Donorbox and lost less than 12 hours of fundraising time, but the shutdown sent a stark signal: The Israeli government and its allies are coming for the BDS movement’s financial infrastructure.

“[Shurat HaDin is] pursuing McCarthyite legal warfare,” said Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement, in a statement at the time. “[It’s] a desperate attempt to undermine our ability to challenge Israel’s decades-old regime of apartheid and oppression.”

The tactic fits into a larger trend of cross-border attacks on civil society waged by repressive governments. China has reportedly spied on and intimidated activists in Europe working against policies targeting its Uighur Muslim minority, and Saudi Arabia has reportedly tried to hack into the phones of Amnesty International and dissidents living overseas.

In These Times has found that the account shutdown is the fruit of a much larger global campaign of litigation against the BDS movement. In filing lawsuits and legal threats, the Israeli government has cooperated with pro-Israel nonprofits around the world—backed, in some cases, by tax-subsidized donations from Americans, including Christian Zionists. Since 2013, in addition to at least two legal threats targeting the movement’s financial infrastructure, Shurat HaDin filed at least five complaints or lawsuits against boycott advocates and threatened to file two more. Shurat HaDin’s U.S. targets ranged from the Presbyterian Church to the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America to Airbnb.

Both Shurat HaDin and the International Legal Forum (another Israeli group with ties to the Israeli government) appear to be escalating their activities in the United States, according to In These Times’ investigation. In July, the Berkman Law Office, a New York firm, registered as a foreign agent for Shurat HaDin. In May, the Zionist Advocacy Center, a pro-Israel legal group run by New York lawyer David Abrams, registered as a foreign agent for the International Legal Forum. Documents filed as part of that registration show that Abrams will be assisting the group in “submitting reports of terrorist connections to financial services firms and prosecuting authorities.”

The call for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions originated with a coalition of Palestinian civil society groups—refugees, women’s groups, unions and others—in 2005, modeled on the global movement against apartheid in South Africa. The movement has three demands: an end to Israel’s occupation and separation wall, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees and descendants of refugees expelled by Israeli forces during Israel’s founding in 1948. Until those demands are met, BDS calls for boycotting and divesting from Israel and companies that violate Palestinian rights, as well as for international sanctions on Israel, such as ending military and free trade agreements.

The movement has successfully focused international attention on Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its system of military occupation and settlement-building on Palestinian land. In the United States, the movement has enjoyed a recent surge in prominence—and an accompanying backlash. In 2018, Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) endorsed BDS, becoming the first two federal elected officials to support boycotting Israel. In July, Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill condemning BDS, with all but 16 Democrats voting in favor. However, the Democratic Party rallied behind Tlaib and Omar a month later when Israel banned the pair from visiting Israel and Palestine.

The BDS movement threatens to become a growing public relations problem for Israel’s carefully cultivated image as a liberal democracy, which is how BDS found itself in the crosshairs of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs. The cabinet-level office is devoted to combatting threats identified by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, ranging from Iran to the Palestinians to the BDS movement, and draws on the resources of Israel’s national intelligence agency, the Mossad.

The Ministry finances and leads a campaign of online trolling, legal harassment and intelligence-gathering against BDS activists worldwide, according to investigative reports by Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the Qatari-funded English-language news agency Al Jazeera, among other outlets. BuzzFeed, for example, reported in September 2018 that the U.S. conservative mega-donor Sheldon Adelson had helped fund a “digital political astroturfing” app called Act.IL, created by ex-Israeli intelligence officers in partnership with the Israeli government, in which users are rewarded for completing pro-Israel “missions” online. Missions include arguable harassment of BDS proponents, such as petitioning an employer to fire a pro-Palestinian activist or posting the identities of George Washington University students who confidentially voted to support BDS.

“[The Ministry’s] attacks on the BDS movement are part of a larger campaign to stifle the growing support for Palestinian rights, using dirty tactics including cyberbullying and false legal claims that intimidate and try to silence criticism of Israeli policy,” says Rebecca Vilkomerson, who was executive director of the pro-BDS Palestine solidarity group Jewish Voice for Peace for ten years. “These disingenuous attacks—including anti-BDS legislation at the state and national level—lead directly to violations of our First Amendment right to free speech.”

In These Times has determined that, starting late in 2018, the Ministry teamed up with Shurat HaDin and the International Legal Forum to shut down pro-BDS financial accounts. Representatives of both Shurat HaDin and the International Legal Forum confirmed to In These Times that they collaborate with Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, and according to Israeli government documents reviewed by In These Times, the International Legal Forum receives direct funding from the Ministry.

But the full story of exactly why the BNC’s Donorbox account was shut down didn’t emerge until this past June. In a report sent to journalists, the Ministry revealed that an “undisclosed economic campaign” over the past two years had resulted in the closure of 30 financial accounts belonging to organizations as varied as the BNC and Al-Haq, a globally respected Palestinian human rights NGO.

In the Donorbox case, Shurat HaDin and the Ministry argued that the BNC was linked to terrorism by its connection to the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine. The Council is made up of the leading Palestinian political factions, including militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. This information wasn’t secret and didn’t require some sophisticated intelligence operation; the Council is listed as a member on BNC’s website.

Shurat HaDin alleged that BNC fundraising could be in violation of the U.S. law that prohibits “material support” to terrorism, a statute the ACLU says is overly broad and potentially criminalizes freedom of association and humanitarian support in areas where militant groups operate. The Center for Constitutional Rights dismissed Shurat HaDin’s complaint to Donorbox as relying on “unsupported and false claims that funds raised by the BNC ‘may’ go to groups designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.”

Meanwhile, the anonymous Donorbox employee tells In These Times, “Our company does not have the capability to investigate if U.S.-sanction[ed] groups are working with BDS. Thus, we are stuck between a rock and the hard place.”

The open collaboration between the Ministry and Israeli nonprofit groups to shut down the financial infrastructure of Palestinian rights groups is a new front in Israel’s battle against the nonviolent BDS movement. But it isn’t the first time Israel’s government has used hardball tactics to combat BDS.

Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs was founded in 2006, but Israel didn’t pay much attention to the nascent BDS movement until late 2009-10, according to Yossi Kuperwasser, who served as director general of the ministry from 2009-14.

That period was a turning point for efforts to hold Israel accountable for its policies toward Gaza, the coastal strip that has been battered by Israeli assaults and economically devastated by an Israeli land, air and sea blockade. In September 2009, the UN Human Rights Council released a report authored by Richard Goldstone, a respected Jewish South African judge, who accused both Israel and Palestinian militant groups of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during Israel’s 2008-09 assault on Gaza. Then, in May 2010, Israeli commandos raided a Turkish ship trying to break the sea blockade of Gaza, killing nine people. That episode sparked international condemnation of Israel’s excessive use of force and of its policies toward Gaza, and Israel ultimately loosened the blockade.

The Goldstone report and the attempt to break Israel’s blockade were not BDS initiatives, but they did fuel BDS calls to hold Israel accountable for human rights abuses. Kuperwasser explains that if an eminent figure like Goldstone could accuse Israel of possible war crimes, it meant that the BDS movement’s efforts to “delegitimize” Israel might convince liberals.

“This [idea of delegitimizing Israel] was … a red light,” Kuperwasser tells In These Times. “The most important thing [was] to prevent the movement of this idea from the extreme progressive part [to] … reasonable people.”

Since that period, Kuperwasser says, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs has stepped up its efforts to undermine activists calling for the boycott of Israel. Its budget has steadily grown. In 2015, the Ministry received about $2.5 million; by 2017, that budget had more than quintupled to $13.2 million. In late 2017, the Israeli government, as a whole, announced it would set aside $72 million to attack BDS.

Using that money, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs has embarked on a campaign of surveillance and propaganda targeting the BDS movement.

Because Israel controls all entry and exit points to the Palestinian territories, perhaps the Ministry’s most potent tool is a 2017 law allowing Israel to bar supporters of BDS from entering Israel and Palestine. While the Ministry of the Interior has ultimate authority over whom it lets in, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs supplies the Interior with information about critics of Israel to guide those decisions. Members of U.S.-based organizations Jewish Voice for Peace, American Friends Service Committee and Code Pink have been banned, in addition to Reps. Tlaib and Omar in August. The law is also being used to deport Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s Israel-Palestine director. Shurat HaDin kicked off the deportation with a 2017 petition to the Israeli government.

To carry out its attacks on BDS, the Ministry has drawn on the resources of the Mossad. In 2018, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan met with Mossad head Yossi Cohen to discuss “the struggle against the boycott.”

But perhaps the Ministry’s most prominent partner in this effort is Shurat HaDin. Founded in 2003, the nonprofit has made headlines for suing Iran and the Palestinian Authority to win settlements for Israeli and U.S. victims of militant attacks, with help from the Mossad. Yair Netanyahu, the son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, worked as social media coordinator for Shurat HaDin for nearly a year.

Shurat HaDin has threatened the BDS movement and filed multiple lawsuits aimed at undermining it. Shurat HaDin asked the U.S. Internal Revenue Service in 2014 to revoke the tax-exempt status of the Presbyterian Church after the church divested from three corporations involved in the occupation of Palestine; filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board in 2016 after the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America endorsed BDS; and sued Airbnb on behalf of Israeli settlers for discrimination in 2018 after the home-sharing company decided to remove Jewish-only West Bank settlement listings from its platform. The Airbnb complaint in particular turned U.S. federal law on its head by arguing that delisting the settlements, despite discriminating against Palestinians, is a violation of the Fair Housing Act, a major civil rights-era law. (After heavy pressure from pro-Israel groups, Airbnb reversed its decision earlier this year and the lawsuit was settled.)

Shurat HaDin has not succeeded in U.S. federal courts with its attacks on the right to boycott, but that doesn’t matter much. Shurat HaDin is backed by a network of donors, many of them U.S. foundations, whose annual tax-exempt donations underwrite a never-ending series of legal claims that tie up their targets in expensive litigation. Those donations include $1.1 million from U.S. foundations and nonprofits over the past decade, according to an In These Times review. Among its most prominent donors are John Hagee Ministries, the evangelical ministry run by far-right Christian Zionist John Hagee, which has donated at least $225,000 to Shurat HaDin; the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, which has given $475,000; and the Michael and Andrea Leven Family Foundation, run by Michael Leven, the former COO of Sheldon Adelson’s casino empire Las Vegas Sands, which has sent $25,000.

“They have a lot of resources, so they can throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall,” says Liz Jackson, a senior staff attorney for Palestine Legal, which defends Palestine advocates’ free speech rights and has defended those whom Shurat HaDin has targeted. “[They] paint anyone who’s an advocate for human rights as a terrorist. … It’s a win-win strategy because they have enough money that they can afford to lose. And even when they lose a case, they get media.”

Shurat HaDin tells In These Times that it directly collaborated with the Ministry of Strategic Affairs in at least two instances. “Sometimes, if they need a warning letter or other legal action to be taken, and they themselves as the Israeli government cannot do it, they ask us to write the letter or bring the legal action,” Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, founder and director of Shurat HaDin, tells In These Times.

In addition to targeting the BNC’s Donorbox account, Darshan-Leitner says Shurat HaDin teamed up with the Ministry to go after the bank account of Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, a German NGO. The alleged crime? In 2019, its parent group, European Jews for a Just Peace, invited Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian woman accused by Israel of taking part in a militant attack carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, to speak at an event. Odeh denies participation and says her confession about the attack was tortured out of her by Israeli forces.

In response to the pressure, the Bank for Social Economy shut down the German group’s bank account. The International Legal Forum, for its part, has formed a global network to go after critics of Israel in courts around the world, with official backing from Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs. The organization’s head is Yifa Segal, who previously worked as a lawyer for Shurat HaDin. Segal confirmed to In These Times in an interview that the group has accepted Ministry funding.

In Israel, the International Legal Forum defended an anti-BDS law that lets Israelis sue boycott advocates. In Spain in 2015, it assisted action against cities that passed resolutions endorsing BDS—one city then withdrew its pro-BDS resolution, and another resolution was nullified by a Spanish judge. In the United States, it advocated against a 2016 State Department reminder that products made in illegal West Bank settlements should not be labeled as “made in Israel.” In October 2018, it sued the city of Durham, N.C., and its police chief for discrimination because a non-binding City Council resolution opposed the Durham police doing military-style international trainings. The resolution passed at the request of Palestinian rights organizers who lobby against police training exchanges between U.S. police and Israeli forces.

In September 2017, the Ministry filed documents announcing it would pay the Israel Bar Association to partner with the International Legal Forum in organizing a conference on anti-BDS legal strategies. In 2018, the Ministry announced its intention to provide up to $1 million in financial assistance to the International Legal Forum to foster an international network of attorneys to promote legal research on BDS.

Now, the International Legal Forum has registered as a foreign agent in the United States, tapping the Zionist Advocacy Center to file legal claims about alleged terrorism. It remains unclear what, exactly, that means and which organizations will be targeted. David Abrams, Zionist Advocacy Center executive director, twice told In These Times he had “no comment” for this story.

In the registration documents, Abrams states the International Legal Forum does not take foreign funding, despite what In These Times learned from Israeli government documents and was told by the International Legal Forum’s president, Yifa Segal, herself.

There’s concern among Palestinian rights advocates that Abrams and others are laying the groundwork to step up more financial and legal fights against BDS advocates, but leaders in the BDS movement say they are uncowed and view the response as a measure of their success.

“The Israeli far-right regime’s relentless and desperate measures of repression against the BDS movement are failing,” BDS movement co-founder Omar Barghouti tells In These Times. “The movement’s supporters are increasing like never before, its impact is growing steadily and impressively, and its fundraisers are hitting new records. While Israel is now a model for authoritarian and fascist forces, from Italy to Hungary to Brazil to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the BDS movement for Palestinian rights has become an integral part of the global anti-fascist and progressive wave that strives for freedom, justice and equality for all.”