Al Jazeera's Undercover Israel Lobby Reporter Speaks on Gaza
Al Jazeera investigative journalist James Kleinfeld talks Western policy towards Palestine supporters, the evolution of discourse about the Israeli occupation, and what he sees in Israel's future.
In 2016, Al Jazeera Investigative Unit reporter James Kleinfeld went undercover in the United States, documenting through clandestine audio and video recordings how pro-Israel lobbying organizations campaigned to sway government, media, and academia, targeting every level of pro-Palestine sentiment from elected politicians to college students. His undercover operation formed the second part of a two-part series looking at Israel’s foreign influence operations in the US and the UK. The revelations in this series demonstrated the depths of influence being exercised by these organizations, including the direct involvement of Israeli officials in them at times, sent shockwaves through British and American politics alike.
Controversy over the idea of a secret investigation into Israel’s lobbying efforts led to both Democratic and Republican politicians in the United States moving to force Al Jazeera and its reporters to register as foreign agents of Qatar. Extensive pressure on the Gulf state forced its release off the airwaves, and was eventually leaked to the press. At one time in the not-so-distant past, even discussing the idea of a pro-Israel lobby was an earth-shattering accusation. Much has changed.
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I spoke to James Kleinfeld following the resumption of the Israeli bombardment in Gaza, where we discussed Western media coverage, Keir Starmer, the current state of Israel-Palestine discourse, shifts in government policy, and where he sees Israel’s future heading.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Séamus: It's been about 6 years since The Lobby was released, both investigations in the United Kingdom and in the United States. The crux of these undercover stories was that this extensive network of pro-Israel lobbying was being done behind the scenes, by organizations with public faces but behind the scenes deliberately targeted politicians who were supportive of Palestine or simply critical of Israel's occupation, sometimes with the direct support of those who worked inside the Israeli government. There might not be a lot of familiar faces to be seen out front and in the media, but are there any familiar tactics you've seen in the media as this war in Gaza has gone on that you remember witnessing during your investigations?
James: The basic contours of the Israel lobby’s media strategy during this conflict is much the same as always. Diverting attention away from Israel’s crimes; casting Israelis and Jews worldwide as the primary victims of the conflict; whilst manufacturing consent for the unhindered deployment of Israel’s military capabilities.
I often think about a quote from the Lobby USA, words spoken by David Hazony, then Managing Director of the Israel Project, a former Israel lobby group involved in media manipulation and social media disinformation. He said that, “you can get a lot more done by making questions get asked by journalists…if you create it from multiple directions at the same time from multiple journalists, that creates a sense of crisis.”
The sense of crisis he was referring to back then in 2016, a crisis which is still with us today, is that of an apparently rampant atmosphere of anti-semitism in the United States. The Israel lobby has always sought to fabricate this crisis of anti-semitism, both as a means of dominating the media narrative, creating a distraction from Israel’s ever degenerating image, and in order to delegitimize the growing support for Palestinian human rights across the world.
This manufactured crisis can take many forms. The ADL for example counts a decent number of pro-Palestine demonstrations in its anti-semitism statistics in the United States. You’ve got benign expressions of Palestine sympathy like “from the river to the sea” which are [then] redefined as being anti-semitic by the lobby. And then the hyper-fixation on lone Jewish students who claim to be frightened by their pro-Palestine classmates. The incidents may differ from case to case, but the effect is always the same: while Israel slaughters men, women and children by the tens of thousands, the media instead trains its focus on the phantom phenomena cooked up by highly sophisticated and well funded lobbying organizations.
S: How has Israel maneuvered itself in the PR game since this most recent war in Gaza began? A lot of analysts have made the observation that Israel's strategy has gotten sloppier or less focused. Would that also be your characterization or is that just wishful thinking?