Catch him if you can: How a hasbara impostor fooled the Israeli Right

Thousands of Israelis fell in love with Wilhelm T. Roth, an Austrian aristocrat, strategic consultant and high-flying pro-Israel advocate, only to realize that he was in fact a 30-year-old small-time right-wing politico. It’s not him, it’s them: His fanciful stories of EU decision-makers warming to the Israeli narrative were just what they wanted to hear.

By Gilad Halpern

The so-called Wilhelm T. Roth meeting with Likud MK Anat Berko. (screen capture from Uriah Canaff's Twitter account)
The so-called Wilhelm T. Roth meeting with Likud MK Anat Berko. (screen capture from Uriah Canaff’s Twitter account)

For just over a year, in 2013-2014, I was the editor of a radio program called Journeys that was dedicated to hearing the stories of people who have journeyed to Israel and, for whatever reason, now call it home. My role, among other things, was to search for potential guests, hopefully hailing from as diverse a background as possible. In other words, the farther from the “New Jersey to Raanana” paradigm, the better.

Around that time I became aware of Wilhelm T. Roth, a former political advisor to Austria’s far-right Freedom Party and a pro-Israel advocate. A descendant of Austrian aristocracy, he went on to found the Israel Europe Freedom Center that sought to sway the European Right toward Israeli policies.

On paper, he was an ideal guest. His story was interesting and unconventional, and he seemed to be seeking media attention. But a brief Google search raised too many questions: his activity, so it seemed, amounted to no more than lengthy Facebook posts (which were, by the way, all in Hebrew). There was no mention of the Israel Europe Freedom Center anywhere except on Facebook. A Google search of his name yielded barely any results in German. But most importantly, the level of the insights he offered in his Facebook posts betrayed a woeful ignorance of European politics, the kind you would expect more from an Israeli right-wing loudmouth than from someone who was a close observer – let alone an actor. It sounded fishy, so I gave up.

Now it has emerged that Roth is indeed an Israeli right-wing loudmouth who defrauded dozens, if not hundreds, of right-wing activists, journalists and politicians. The right-leaning news site NRG (owned by Sheldon Adelson) revealed that the blue-blooded Roth is in fact Moshe Heruti, a 30 year-old from the city of Givatayim, near Tel Aviv, who realized that a fake identity is a sure way to stand out among Israel’s many self-proclaimed defenders.

Moshe Heruti (Wilhelm T. Roth) defending Israeli policies on Al Jazeera. (screen capture)
Moshe Heruti (Wilhelm T. Roth) defending Israeli policies on Al Jazeera. (screenshot)

Heruti presented himself as a former advisor to Austria’s Freedom Party, a partner in a strategic consultancy firm in Brussels, and no stranger to decision-makers in Berlin, London, and other European capitals. It was all lies, damn lies. Nor was the Israel Europe Freedom Center ever registered either as a company or an NGO, in Israel or anywhere else.

Roth had become a media star, a go-to person whenever European affairs were discussed in the right-wing media, but not only. His opinion pieces were published widely in the mainstream media, he was interviewed on prime-time radio and television, and was lauded by several right-wing columnists, most notably Israel Hayom‘s Dror Eydar and Army Radio’s Erel Segal, two of Netanyahu’s most vocal defenders in the press. Even Yaron London, the anchor of Channel 10’s prestigious current affairs magazine, London and Kirschenbaum, said the show tried to pursue him several times to appear as a guest and comment on European politics.

It turned out that only recently did suspicions of Roth’s collaborators begin adding up – only now, after he operated freely since 2012 at least, defrauding hundreds of people, including then-Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan with whom Heruti met in a bid to raise funds for his “hasbara” (state-sponsored public diplomacy) operation. However, a quick Google search, like the one I did, combined with a dose of common sense, would have solved the mystery. How did he fool so many people today in the Information Age when it is virtually impossible to hide details about one’s past, let alone radically embellish them?

According to Gidon Dokow, the author of the piece for NRG, Heruti was wooed left, right, and center because he filled a void: most of the Israeli analysts of European affairs are left-leaning and the media, always on the prowl for balance, embraced him with open arms.

I think the answer is simpler: for the Israeli Right, Roth was a dream come true. Whenever terrorism strikes Europe, they chant in unison: “Now these naïve Europeans will start to come round.” Wilhelm T. Roth was a European who came round, and not just a simpleton — someone who allegedly had a say in decision-making circles.

Roth’s gambit was music to their ears. By and large, it went along the following lines: Europeans are now starting to realize that an Islamic takeover is imminent, that terror and violence are part and parcel of Islam, and that their continent is the battleground of an inchoate clash of civilizations. And more importantly, here’s a European who says that Israel is one of the good guys, and that the occupation isn’t really the source of Palestinian violence, only an excuse.

Wilhelm T. Roth was the Trofim Lysenko of “hasbara” – a particularly pathetic example of Israel’s confirmation bias, of how disjointed its worldview is from that of the rest of the world.

And the most obvious sign – that everybody nonetheless missed – was that most of Roth’s publications were in Hebrew. It was yet another proof of something we already knew: that ironically, hasbara – Israel’s public diplomacy – is done mainly for internal purposes.

Gilad Halpern is an Israeli journalist and broadcaster, host of The Tel Aviv Review – Ideas from Israel podcast on TLV1 Radio.

Newsletter banner