Israel’s volunteer thought-police

Right-wing activists have been infiltrating human rights and anti-occupation organizations. The spies did do serious damage, but to a much bigger target than they intended: Israeli society.

‘Ad Kan’ undercover agent Amir Beit Arieh speaking to Channel 2 about infiltrating left-wing organizations. (Screenshot)
‘Ad Kan’ undercover agent Amir Beit Arieh speaking to Channel 2 about infiltrating left-wing organizations. (Screenshot)

Two weeks ago I wrote about a right-wing group trying to recruit people to a “top secret” mission: spying on left-wing organizations in Israel. The outfit was largely a one-man show. I thought it was a colorful but probably not very serious example of the latest “hasbara” antics – propaganda or public diplomacy – gone too far.

I was naïve. Two weeks later, we learned that right-wing impostors have been infiltrating, befriending and filming  left-wing organizations for several years. Israel’s vaunted investigative news program “Uvda” aired a damning story about far left-wing activist Ezra Nawi based on the documentation of such self-anointed spies. Breaking the Silence, the ex-soldiers’ testimonial organization, found another mole who had burrowed into its inner circle as well. The daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot ran a lengthy spread revealing (rather banal) details of a meeting the group held with former director-general of the Foreign Ministry and retired ambassador Alon Liel.

Amir Beit Arieh, the young man who had spied on Breaking the Silence, told Channel 2 this week that the goal was to trap those on the far left “who will stop at nothing,” he says, to end to the occupation.

So infiltration is no longer a threat but a reality. What do we need to know about this, and what does it mean?

Tripping themselves up

First, it’s important to understand who the spies are. Beyond their personal background, Walla news portal reported this week that their organization, “Ad Kan” is funded partly by the “Samaria Settlers’ Committee.” That’s the same group which in 2015 created an eerie youtube ad attacking the foreign funding of left-wing NGOs, replete with Nazi-era anti-Semitic caricatures and a gruesome hanging at the end.

The Committee is also a partially publicly funded organization – so Israeli taxpayers are likely paying to send citizens to spy on each other. How much? The Walla reporter didn’t know yet. Which is odd, considering how important financial transparency is for the Right.

This highlights the next point, that right-wing activists are turning out contradictions that could also be described as screaming hypocrisies. The arrest and indictment of murder suspects in the Duma case led the Right in Israel to express unprecedented concern for human and civil rights. Torture, it turns out, is a bad thing when right-wing suspects have to endure it.

The spy ring’s crowning achievement was to capture veteran activist Ezra Nawi boasting that he would turn over a Palestinian land broker to the Palestinian authorities, who he suggests might torture and kill the broker for selling land to Jews. Never has such somber concern been heard for the life of a Palestinian from the Right. Amir, the Ad Kan spy interviewed on Channel 2, spoke with gravitas how their people passed the information to the police. He seemed surprised nothing had happened. Why, I never knew you cared.

The right-wing organization, ‘Ad Kan,’ sent its employees to infiltrate human rights organizations and record their every move with hidden cameras. The man on the left is the ‘infiltrator,’ Ezra Nawi is on the right. (Screenshot)
The right-wing organization, ‘Ad Kan,’ sent its employees to infiltrate human rights organizations and record their every move with hidden cameras. The man on the left is the ‘infiltrator,’ Ezra Nawi is on the right. (Screenshot)

One must also be aware that nothing actually happened to the land broker, or apparently to anyone else, as a result of Ezra Nawi’s mouthing off. After two years, an undisclosed amount of funding and who knows how many moles, all the spies found were distasteful statements in a private conversation by a known lefty eccentric who has no trouble getting into trouble – and getting found out – all by himself. When asked if they had uncovered anything really unkosher about the organizations he spied on, Amir tried to gaze meaningfully at the interviewer as he said “not everything we’ve collected has been released yet.” But he looked like an acting student who hadn’t gotten meaningful gazes down well.

Meanwhile, the Right publishes videos on YouTube inciting violence against human rights workers, viewed by tens of thousands. Its extremists kill sleeping families with babies and murder teenagers through the preferred method of burning alive, while its spokespeople accuse the Left of “stopping at nothing” to end the occupation.

These irreconcilable contradictions lead me to wonder if the Right is starting confuse even itself. Several of the infiltrators stated on news programs that after joining left-wing activists they learned that the latter are genuine people who believe in their cause, not “monsters,” and that the IDF does some pretty bad things to Palestinians in the field as well. Lying and spying does not do wonders for their own credibility; what’s confusing is that they seem to know it. The Channel 2 reporter asked Amir why he should believe his statement that the infiltration has ended and Amir admits “you’re right. You can’t believe me.”

The vanity project and the boring Left

So the Left turns out to be more boring – and more genuine – than its detractors would have liked.

So are the spies. Far from showing any plucky Israeli genius or originality, they chose the oldest tactic in the book. The American civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s were riddled with infiltrators, mostly operated by the FBI and the military.

These are individual citizens – for lack of a better term, hacks. What did they hope to accomplish? Given that they are spying on organizations whose mission is to raise awareness about the occupation, and who irritate Israeli society primarily by refusing to shut up, the idea of exposing untold secrets seems an unlikely prospect in hindsight. And since the infiltrators weren’t sent or being handled by some actual spy agency, it looks an awful lot like these people are seeking adventure – and attention.

They got on national TV, knowing the power of grainy hidden camera footage to turn utterly boring sentences into headlines when backed by ominous music. For two years they stuffed their egos with the conviction that they were doing something important, something no one actually asked them to do. This is not a Zionist project; it is a vanity project.

These great big ideologues didn’t even take real risks. They hung out with a bunch of lefties.

Israel pays the price

So what harm did the spy-ruse actually do? And where will it end? It is easy to claim that if the Left has nothing to hide, it has nothing to fear. That’s naïve. The spies did do serious damage, to a much bigger target than they intended. The real victim is Israeli society.

Yes, the infiltrators can take some credit for adding another layer of stress for left-wing organizations. Everyone knows a quote can be taken out of context and we all speak cautiously when “on record.” Left wingers must now be permanently on their guard, triple check everything said in a private conversation, when telling jokes, blowing off steam, voicing irreverent opinions or anything else.

In addition to the herculean task of changing Israeli policy, activists must now divert attention and resources to ferreting out moles and responding to publicity about the moles instead of opposing the occupation.

But the most disturbing part of the story for me is that these are our people, civilians, not the government or intelligence agencies (who most of us assume already snoop). I view these spying antics as a new predator in the war on minds.

I have written before that hasbara is dangerous, not so much because of right-wing positions on Israel, but because in its name people are trained to think in constrained, persuasion-oriented, message-box mentalities that cannot be limited to the topic of Israel only.

The “top secret hasbara agent” project was an eerie extreme: it trains people just to insinuate the Right’s messaging in normal conversations in daily life, absent of any framework. So people willingly program their own conversational paths not only on hasbara missions, or as employees of the Foreign Ministry, but with friends, family and colleagues. At the dinner table.

The spying revealed this week gives us a glimpse of something even worse: a society of people who not only self-program their own thoughts, but willingly police those of others. A society in which anyone drinking coffee at a nearby table, sitting down the hall at work or on the bus or on line at the bank might be secretly filming your politically unpalatable words and who knows, maybe your thoughts, too, for that scandalous headline on the nightly news. All it takes is a grainy film and some ominous music. Who needs the headache? Perhaps it’s better not to think those thoughts at all.