Everything you need to know about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and what’s being done to combat BDS.
Israel is influencing student, activist and parliamentary groups in the UK, offering financial and strategic assistance in order to gather support among young organisers and shape British politics, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit reveals.
For six months, undercover reporter Robin (an alias) infiltrated pro-Israeli groups working to counter the powerful and growing movement against the illegal occupation of Palestinian land.
He uncovered a close link between Shai Masot, whose business card described him as a senior political officer at the Israeli embassy in London, and a network of politicians, activists and analysts in Britain who are sympathetic to Israel.
The aggressive lobbying comes as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement swells, and as the opposition Labour Party is led by Jeremy Corbyn, a vocal supporter of Palestinian interests.
BDS enjoys wide support at British universities; in June 2015 the National Union of Students (NUS) voted for the boycott.
A year later the NUS elected its first black, Muslim, female president: Malia Bouattia – a pro-Palestinian human rights supporter.
Unlike the NUS, the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) comprising 64 Jewish societies at British universities, strongly opposes the BDS movement.
Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit discovered that the UJS not only received money from the Israeli embassy, but also attempted to influence the NUS presidency election, and even oust Bouattia following her victory.
Michael Rubin, a young parliamentary officer and pro-Israel activist who claimed to work “with the ambassador and embassy quite a lot”, told Robin that Bouattia was “really bad” and “awful”.
“We were campaigning for the person running against her because we didn’t want her to win,” said Rubin, who was at the time of the election chairman of the Labour Students group.
During the election campaign, Richard Brooks, NUS vice president, held “secret” meetings with Russell Langer, UJS campaign director, and Rubin.
“We’d have our secret little purpose meeting where we’d plan how to get moderate people with good politics and any number of things elected to certain places,” he said, adding that the group worked “quite closely together”.
Robin explored with Brooks the possibility of ousting Bouattia.
“You can speak to me because I’m helping organise them,” said Brooks, who once took the unusual step of criticising the NUS president on national radio.
The investigation also reveals that the UJS sent Brooks on a paid trip to Israel, something he failed to mention in his radio interview.
The NUS represents more than four million students.
Notable politicians who have served as NUS leader include Labour politicians Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary and Charles Clarke, a former home secretary.
Elsewhere, Adam Schapira, who ran an unsuccessful bid for the UJS presidency, told our undercover reporter: “The Israeli embassy in the UK gives money to UJS.”
Schapira earlier worked with the Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think-tank which aims to “intelligently educate about Zionism and the Arab-Israeli conflict”.
Schapira confirmed to our reporter that the powerful American pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, is channelling money to British campuses through the Pinsker Centre.
“Groups like AIPAC gave some money,” he said.
Such groups work hard to counter the BDS movement, which is modelled after the mass campaign to isolate South Africa during the apartheid era, and aims to pressure Israel through tactics of economic and cultural isolation.
Throughout the investigation, Robin posed as a graduate activist with strong sympathies towards Israel who was keen to help combat the BDS movement.
Masot, the Israeli embassy diplomat, insisted to Robin that it was particularly important for him to build support for Israel among all levels of the Labour Party, which he said was being run by “crazy” leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn.
At one point, he offered Robin a job running the youth wing of the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI).
In a discussion at a Tube station, Robin asked Masot: “Have you ever built something, like a group?”
Masot replied: “In Israel and here … Nothing that I can share but yeah. It’s good to leave those organisations independent, but we help them to actually [establish].”
Masot tutored Robin step-by-step on how to set up a new pro-Israel group, and offered the embassy’s support in securing an “interesting speaker” at events.
The Israeli diplomat boasted that he had the idea to form a youth branch of the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) – an offshoot of the 2,000-member strong group – that was realised last year.
LFI and CFI were founded in the 1950s and 1970s respectively.
“[But] there’s no one who’s educating the grassroots of the party … Specifically in the Labour. Conservatives don’t need it,” Masot told Robin.
In a further attempt to influence the opposition, Masot said that he was involved with the youth arm of the Fabian Society, an influential Labour Party think-tank, and that he once “took a group of Fabians to Israel”.
One “Fabian”, Martin Edobor, later told Robin in a London pub that Masot was “a great guy”.
Edobor added that he had been on a delegation to Israel, and dismissed a recent story in Haaretz about Israel cutting water supply in the occupied West Bank as “false” and “propaganda”.
On its website, the Fabian Society says it is “a pluralist movement to create space for open debate” which believes “in the fight against inequality”.
Later, in a private meeting at a London hotel with embassy staff and British supporters of Israel, Masot introduced Robin to Michael Freeman, head of civil affairs at the Israeli embassy.
Freeman told Robin that the embassy was looking for someone to “research into the different BDS movements, who they are, what they are”, before Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, took to the stage as guest of honour.
Erdan’s ministry’s main task is to counter the BDS movement worldwide
According to Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist and writer who specialises in security and intelligence affairs, the ministry recruits “mainly former intelligence officers”.
Masot, who is well-connected, then suggested that Robin contact Rubin, the parliamentary officer, for advice on establishing a new group. Rubin told our undercover reporter that Labour MP and LFI chairwoman Joan Ryan spoke with Masot “most days”.
“The Labour Party at the moment is not in a good place to say the least,” Rubin said, as he advised Robin to befriend “young people coming through who have … good views on Israel”.
Regarding the Young LFI group, Rubin said: “I think we just have to be careful that not to be seen as ‘young Israeli embassy’ … We do work really closely together, it’s just publicly we just try to keep LFI as a separate identity to the embassy of course. Being LFI allows us to reach out to people who wouldn’t want to get involved with the embassy. Ultimately we want the same end goal of getting more people to be pro-Israel and understand the conflict.”
Ben White, a researcher and journalist who has written about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, told Al Jazeera that Israel increasingly seeks to influence British politicians as fears over the BDS movement grow.
“We know that the Israeli foreign ministry – and also interestingly the Israeli ministry of strategic affairs, which it actually seemed that this individual [Masot] is an employee of – are very focused on fighting what they see as dangerous, powerful, solidarity activism, with particular focus on trying to thwart and undermine BDS campaign,” said White.
Al Jazeera Investigative Unit’s series “The Lobby” can be viewed on Al Jazeera at the following times:
Episode One: Young Friends of Israel – Wednesday, January 11, 22:30 GMT
Episode Two: The Training Session – Thursday, January 12, 22:30 GMT
Episode Three: The Anti-Semitic Trope – Friday, January 13, 22:30 GMT
Episode Four: The Takedown – Saturday, January 14, 22:30 GMT
The series will also be available online.