Spying on Sarsour: Israeli firm compiled BDS dossier for Adelson-funded U.S. group di Uri Blau
A Haaretz investigation can reveal that a secretive Israeli firm collected intelligence on American citizen Linda Sarsour and her family, acting on behalf of an American-Israeli organization established to combat the BDS movement.
Israel Cyber Shield (ICS) delivered the dossier to the pro-Israel Act.IL group, which used it as the basis of a campaign to discourage U.S. colleges from allowing the pro-BDS activist to speak on campus. Act.IL’s CEO, Yarden Ben Yosef, confirmed to Haaretz that his group receives materials from ICS.
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ICS is headed by Eran Vasker, a former officer in the Israel Police’s international crime division. His name has previously been associated with the Strategic Affairs Ministry.
The ministry is responsible for Israeli efforts to fight activists in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. It is headed by Gilad Erdan and its director general is Sima Vaknin-Gil, formerly the chief military censor.
Generally speaking, Israel conducts its anti-BDS battle in relative secrecy, including through private entities. This is meant to stop its activities being formally associated with the government, which could expose it to criticism and public supervision. To this end, and as previously reported by Haaretz, a public-benefit corporation called Kella Shlomo was set up in late 2016.
Kella Shlomo’s shareholders and directors include the ministry’s former director general, Yossi Kuperwasser; former UN ambassador Dore Gold, who is also a former adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; and former UN ambassador Ron Prosor.
A document describing its work with the Strategic Affairs Ministry reveals its only activity is fighting the delegitimization of Israel. It has been allocated 128 million shekels ($36 million) from the ministry’s coffers over three years. An equivalent amount, or more, is expected to be raised from donors, though the corporation is expected to continue operating according to the ministry’s orders.
The initial documents filed by Kella Shlomo name Vasker as a consultant and one of the corporation’s three signatories.Vasker is a lawyer and accountant who, as noted, used to work for the Israel Police. Based on his LinkedIn profile, he has also in recent years advised on intelligence and computer systems to various organizations, including law enforcement authorietes
ICS monitors and collects information on specific targets, including organizations and individuals. Its employees, including alumni of Unit 8200 (an elite army intelligence division), are experts on tracking down information that is online but not easy for the average web user to access.
An ICS employee – who is registered with LinkedIn as a project manager (but without mentioning ICS’ name) and previously served as an analyst in the Israel Defense Forces – published a job ad several months ago, seeking English-speaking analysts for the corporation. This showed that the firm is collecting information from the internet and maintaining various online avatars. The ad stated, “Both the positions are highly challenging and are for individuals who understand the field. They are very rewarding and give those involved a deep sense of satisfaction knowing that they are contributing to the future of the State of Israel.”
A few months ago, ICS gave Act.IL a file with information about Sarsour, who is one of the most prominent Palestinian-American activists in the United States, known for her support of BDS and opposition to Israel. The data was the basis for Act.IL’s anti-Sarsour efforts.
Act.IL’s goal is to create a community of volunteers who work online on Israel’s behalf. Its partners include the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya (IDC), the Israeli American Council (IAC) and the Maccabee Task Force – the last two being U.S. nonprofits backed by billionaire Sheldon Adelson. ct.IL CEO Ben Yosef told Haaretz that the venture is supported by various funds, but that the IAC is its main funder.
It runs an app (also called Act.IL), which is an independent tool to enable pro-Israel activists worldwide to “support Israel’s image and fight against the demonization” of the Jewish state via social media.
In the United States, Act.IL runs “communication rooms” where volunteers sit with the organization’s people, brainstorming how to engage local communities in pro-Israel activity – for instance, by signing petitions, sharing items on social media, distributing letters and commenting on articles.
Sarsour is a well-known figure in the United States, and not only because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She is co-chair of the Women’s March movement and spoke at its main Washington rally after Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. She has been harshly critical of Israel and was quoted as saying that a person can’t be feminist and Zionist at the same time.
A student who volunteered with Act.IL told Haaretz that the material it received on Sarsour included a password-protected file containing information on her parents, and another file with more than 10 pages all marked “Confidential.” Aside from information taken from her social media accounts and press interviews, the file also included legal information related to a court case she was involved in.
It is clear the material on Sarsour was systematically organized. The dossier concluded with an executive summary that highlighted her apparent weak points.
Act.IL used the information to prepare a letter that was distributed via its app to the heads of universities where Sarsour had appeared, as part of a broader campaign – in which IAC was also a partner – to try to prevent U.S. colleges extending invitations to the pro-BDS activist.
Allegations in the Sarsour file included a story that she applauded violence toward Israeli soldiers, and another saying she wrongly claimed Israeli soldiers had murdered a knife-wielding Palestinian teenage girl, when actually she had been wounded. Another document claimed that Sarsour was photographed next to a man who had raised funds for Hamas. She was also quoted as having tweeted, “Nothing is creepier than Zionism.” Other tweets in the file showed Sarsour’s alleged support for Sharia law and an attack on a woman who had undergone female circumcision.
Haaretz reached out to various people involved in Israel’s anti-BDS efforts, but it was clear none wanted to discuss ICS.
In a telephone conversation, Vasker confirmed he had helped Kuperwasser in the fight against BDS, saying he had proposed a technological idea. However, he added that he is not now active in the Kella Shlomo corporation.
In another conversation, he confirmed that ICS is a project he manages, but refused to disclose its clients.
Later, Vasker wrote Haaretz that he could not disclose ICS’ clients or investors, but said it wasn’t an Israeli ministry.
“ICS is a project I run,” he wrote. “It doesn’t work for the Israeli government and has not received any budget from it. ICS operates lawfully, engaging in research and information on anti-Israeli activity, the delegitimization movement and its activists – as reflected in their visible activity on social media. We do not engage in building files on activists or their families. It seems you must have confused us with other organizations.”
Initially, Ben Yosef refused to answer questions about the relationship between Act.IL and ICS. Later, though, he confirmed to Haaretz that Act.IL does receive material from Vasker’s ICS, but insisted his group does not pay for it.
“There has never been a transfer of funds between us and that organization,” he said. “Our cooperation with [ICS] is similar to that which we have with other groups, and includes sharing data.”
Vaknin-Gil said she cannot comment on the activity of ICS, which she defined as a nonprofit organization even though it isn’t registered as one. She added that her office does not work with ICS.