A right-wing Zionist group in California infiltrated a student trip to Palestine in 2012, a raft of secret documents obtained by The Electronic Intifada shows.
The documents confirm long-held activist suspicions that anti-Palestinian political groups are spying on student activists.
The files give a rare insight into the murky world of pro-Israel groups’ surveillance of students and other activists in campuses across the United States.
Pro-Israel student Prescott Watson spied on delegation members and organizers of the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), a “conflict analysis” project of the University of California, and reported back to the Santa Cruz-based Amcha Initiative.
Amcha is a stridently anti-Palestinian group behind a number of initiatives to silence and intimidate students and teachers perceived to be critical of Israel.
OTI includes Palestinian Americans as members and “promotes a relatively unified, positive message about Palestinians,” Amcha’s 29-page report “from a student participant” warned.
Speaking to The Electronic Intifada from Jerusalem, where he now lives, Watson admitted that “I know the report very well.”
At first, Watson denied writing it, claiming it was the work of Amcha leader Tammi Rossman-Benjamin (who is a teacher, not a student) — adding that it was “more than just her” work. In a second interview later that day, after he said he had been in contact with Rossman-Benjamin, Watson stated instead that “I don’t wish to make a comment on whether or not I wrote the report.”
The report, which The Electronic Intifada is publishing today, detailed the nature of the delegation along with information on student members who were identified as sympathetic to Palestinian rights.
A lecturer in Hebrew employed by the University of California at Santa Cruz, Rossman-Benjamin is a notorious anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim activist with a history of harassment, intimidation and litigious threats against students and faculty.
The report indicates that Watson was tasked with building a case against the Olive Tree Initiative and individual students as part of the growing fight by Zionist groups against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and Palestine solidarity activism on campuses.
Though students involved with the Olive Tree Initiative expressed suspicions to the group’s leadership about Watson, they say their concerns weren’t taken seriously.
“Huge breach of trust”
These students told The Electronic Intifada the infiltration constitutes a “huge breach of trust” as their names and private conversations were recorded and catalogued by Amcha, and possibly shared with other anti-Palestinian groups.
An attorney has told The Electronic Intifada that such surveillance could be in violation of several laws.
George S. Rishmawi, the coordinator of the Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies in Bethlehem is a main target of the report’s concern. It complains that his “likeability translated into close relationships with students.” Rishmawi told The Electronic Intifada he was not entirely surprised to learn he was being spied on, saying he knew “I was being watched but they could not do anything about it and the program keeps going.”
Rishmawi said he had not suspected Watson at the time, but noted that Watson had been the trip’s photographer.
Although Watson was known on campus at Santa Cruz as pro-Israel, he seems to have played down this association in the process of his application for the Olive Tree trip. The biography he submitted to organizers did not mention this, instead portraying his motivation as professional and academic: “I’ve been drawn to the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to its seemingly intractable nature … the future state of Palestine will undoubtedly require much institutional growth.”
The report is one of many documents from the Amcha Initiative and the Investigative Taskforce on Campus Antisemitism (ITCA) that were obtained by The Electronic Intifada. Both Amcha and ITCA are run by Rossman-Benjamin.
The Electronic Intifada independently verified the authenticity of the documents, and Watson himself confirmed the report was a project of the Amcha Initiative.
The ITCA documents show a focus on collecting lists of names of Palestine solidarity activists, usually from petitions. There are also flyers advertising Palestinian solidarity groups’ events — including photos of hard copy flyers.
The documents include event reports, alleging anti-Semitism. Some of the most recent Amcha files show a focus on the American Studies Association vote to boycott Israeli academic institutions in December.
A document (created by Rossman-Benjamin, according to the file’s metadata) titled “National Association of American Indian and Indigenous Studies Council Members who Wrote the Declaration of Support for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions” contains a list of names of the council’s officers, alongside their email addresses, universities and indigenous nation.
The document’s metadata shows the file was created in January 2014, indicating that Rossman-Benjamin’s monitoring operations are active and ongoing.
Tellingly, any boycott of Israel is — by their definition — considered “anti-Semitic,” as is any sort of “demonization” or “delegitimization” of Israeli policies. The event reports categorize the type of anti-semitism — one such category is “BDS.”
Rossman-Benjamin has in the past attempted, unsuccessfully, to litigate against students, faculty and the university system itself, claiming Palestine solidarity activism and criticism of Israel is “anti-Semitism.”
The files are evidence she has gone further, and cultivates a small network of covert informers and occasional spies.
The Electronic Intifada obtained Amcha’s report on the July-August 2012 Olive Tree Initiative delegation along with an accompanying executive summary. Its intended audience is designated as “the American Jewish Community.”
The metadata of both files lists “Tammi Benjamin” as their author. This could support Watson’s initial answer that she actually authored it (although that contradicts the report’s claim to have been written by a student participant).
Rossman-Benjamin herself did not reply to The Electronic Intifada’s requests for comment via voicemail and email.
The report focuses on the trip’s itinerary and how the student participants reflected on their experiences afterwards.
“Information students post on social media outlets after the trip suggests that most may have a decidedly pro‐Palestinian perspective that was either developed or reinforced during the trip,” the report states.
This suggests that Watson — or other Amcha informants — continued to monitor trip participants for some time after returning from Palestine.
Related but separate from the report is a cache of documents from the Investigative Taskforce on Campus Antisemitism. These are confidential reports on student activism, email correspondences, and files that look like a character assessment of students and activists.
They are mostly survey-type reports on Palestine solidarity events, deciding whether or not the event was “anti-semitic” (almost always checked “yes”).
There also seems to be an attempt by Rossman-Benjamin to compile a private database of political organizations on US campuses, as well as events. These groups are classified according to the following “type”: “Arab,” “Christian,” “Muslim,” “Jewish,” “Politically Leftist,” “Right Wing/Neo-Nazi,” “Other” or “Not Sure.”
Rossman-Benjamin’s database also includes entries on individuals. One long entry details the work of Palestinian American poet and activist Remi Kanazi, designating him as having engaged in “anti-Semitic activity” (classifications: “BDS,” “Delegitimization” and “Demonization”).
It then cites a long list of Kanazi’s YouTube videos and public Facebook postings, as well as one article published by The Electronic Intifada.
Strategy of infiltration
This strategy of infiltration and surveillance fits within a wider pattern that has emerged over the last four years. In 2010, influential Israeli think tank the Reut Institute argued that “Israel must identify and focus its efforts on global hubs of delegitimization (such as London, Toronto, Madrid, and the [San Francisco] Bay Area). In this context, Israel should sabotage network catalysts and drive a wedge between its component parts” (emphasis added).
Reut’s recommendations on fighting “delegitimization” were quickly adopted by the Israeli government and pro-Israel groups leading the fight against Palestinian rights in the United States.
It was revealed last year that Israeli spy agencies decided in 2010, after a global wave of revulsion against Israel’s deadly attack on the Mavi Marmara aid boat to Gaza, to make “monitoring” foreign activists a focus of their work.
However, the Olive Tree Initiative is hardly a radical, left-wing, pro-BDS group. It has been heavily criticized by Palestine solidarity activists as an organization that seeks to portray a false image of “balance” between the occupier, Israel, and the occupied Palestinians.
The Olive Tree Initiative is a project of the University of California and organizes delegations of students to the Middle East. Itineraries include the occupied West Bank and the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, present-day Israel and Jordan.
Students involved with Palestine solidarity activism have described the efforts of the Olive Tree Initiative as those of “normalization” — promoting hollow “dialogue” between Israelis and Palestinians instead of addressing the root cause: Israel’s settler-colonialism and military occupation.
In April 2013, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau issued a statement that condemned the passage of a recent divestment resolution on campus while lauding the Olive Tree Initiative as an “endeavor that is fostering dialogue and discussion here on campus and in the Middle East.”
Rahim Kurwa, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, wrote last February that “OTI has become complicit in oppression” of Palestinians precisely because of the organization’s refusal to address the root causes of what it calls the “conflict” (“Why students in solidarity with Palestine should not join the Olive Tree Initiative,” Jadaliyya, 6 February 2013).
In seeking to undermine and surveil efforts of a group that has been criticized by student Palestine solidarity groups, Amcha and ITCA betray their obsession with ideological Zionist purity. This is extreme hostility towards anything remotely resembling support of Palestinian rights.
The report on the Olive Tree Initiative trip is undated, but there is mention in the text of “Operation Pillar of Defense,” Israel’s lethal assault on Gaza in November 2012. The file’s metadata suggests it was written sometime between then and 1 April 2013.
The executive summary contains some small details not in the accompanying full report. Its metadata again identifies “Tammi Benjamin” as author.
The summary opens by identifying the report’s rationale: “the academic community has embraced the [OTI] program, and the Jewish community, beginning with the Orange County Jewish Federation’s generous funding of the OTI’s genesis at UC Irvine in 2007, has and continues to support it with money and approval.”
The report itself ultimately advises that: “the Jewish community should seriously rethink its support of OTI as well as consider the harm OTI can do to Jewish students and the community.”
“Severe anti-Israel bias”
The summary claims that the report “finds the experience to be permeated with a systemic and severe anti-Israel bias.”
The summary’s author quickly identifies a major complaint: “The central organizer, tour guide and event facilitator throughout the time in the West Bank was George [S.] Rishmawi, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, who advocated openly for Palestinian resistance and delegitimized nearly every Israeli perspective.”
The report takes particular issue with Rishmawi, whose inclusion as “a central figure” is identified as perhaps the “trip’s most major failure.”
“His likeability translated into close relationships with students and significant one‐on‐one time with students in discussion circles,” it laments.
Another main problem identified is the students themselves, who the author accuses of “ intellectual laziness.” The author writes, “OTI relies heavily on discussion, requiring a ‘mixed bag’ of students,” and deduces that this was a “major problem.”
It is clear from OTI’s publicity material that it prides itself in student inclusion from “all different religious backgrounds” and other perspectives and origins. The report, however, judged that the students on the trip “had a tendency to track into anti‐Israel groupthink.”
Another concern for the report’s author was that the overall message of the trip was not sufficiently pro-Israel. Although admitting that OTI founder Daniel Wehrenfennig’s “interventions were often sympathetic to Israel,” overall “the itinerary promotes a relatively unified, positive message about Palestinians.” Amcha also criticizes what they say are its “simplistic and negative messages about Israel and Israelis.”
Despite Wehrenfennig’s supposedly balancing interventions, the author is suspicious of him: “Daniel’s ideas on Zionism are unclear,” the report states.
BDS “a key concern”
Similarly, the report is wary of Corey Feinstein, an OTI leader at the University of California Los Angeles: “As an undergrad, Corey suggested that he was in the pro‐Israel camp” but “he may have [since] moved more to the center of the spectrum.”
The report clarifies the reason for this scrutiny: “Corey may have started training to eventually take Daniel’s place on these trips so that Daniel will no longer travel to the region on a regular basis.”
Another central concern in the report is the prospect that students may get involved in solidarity activism on return from Palestine. “BDS is a key concern, and OTI members’ support of it is a topic worthy of investigation,” the report states. “Among Palestinian speakers [on the trip] … support for multiple types of BDS was near universal.”
Olive Tree Initiative’s student fundraising director at UCLA “credited with gathering over $100,000 annually” is said to have “connections to BDS groups” and is “a Palestinian‐American,” the report’s author notes.
In a statement to The Electronic Intifada, the Olive Tree Initiative’s Daniel Wehrenfennig said that the surveillance of students exposed by the revelation of this report “[does] not represent a direct violation of the UC Student Code of Conduct and the UC/OTI Student Conduct Contract and Participation Agreement.”
However, the statement notes, “OTI participants of any experiential learning trip verbally commit to a community agreement designed to create a ‘safe space’ with each other where they can reflect and speak openly to each other as part of the learning experience. They accept that all interaction on the trip remains confidential within the group and commit to not publicly quote statements/comments expressed by fellow participants during the trip without their permission. Students are encouraged to journal and to report about their own opinion, but not to involve other participants without their express permission.”
Wehrenfennig adds, “If a student who participated on the trip circulated a report containing confidential statements to non-trip participants without the consent of those quoted, this would be a violation of the OTI Trip Participant’s Community Agreement.”
Violation of laws
Community agreement infractions aside, Liz Jackson, staff attorney with Palestine Solidarity Legal Support and cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said that Amcha’s surveillance actions may be in violation of several laws.
“Activists concerned about their privacy can take comfort knowing that private citizens violate California state privacy laws when they spy on others in California and there is a reasonable expectation of privacy,” she told The Electronic Intifada.
“Depending on the extent of the surveillance,” Jackson added, “Amcha may be in violation of the California wiretapping law, the constitutional right of privacy and other laws that prohibit public disclosure of private facts, and deceit.”
Former student members of OTI say they were shocked and disturbed by the report and the informant’s detailed surveillance for the Amcha Initiative.
Speaking to The Electronic Intifada on the condition of anonymity, the students said in a collective statement that they regard this report as a “huge breach of trust for both members of Santa Cruz OTI and the wider OTI family.”
The students collectively added that this behavior “completely undermines efforts to bring students together on this complicated issue, and is especially harmful for Palestinian students who are targeted by groups like Amcha.”
They said it was distressing that a former member of their group would have used school funds “in a manner that put their fellow students at risk, and could have damaged a celebrated University of California program.”
The Electronic Intifada also showed the report to Yara Karmalawy, a former student member of OTI who participated in the September delegation that immediately followed the July-August trip in which Watson participated. The report included quotes from Karmalawy’s social media posts about her OTI experience.
“I was shocked, to say the least,” she said. “I could not believe the detail in these allegations.”
Karmalawy added, “Amcha is trying to find anti-Israel sentiment from the smallest things. They’re trying to convince Jewish students not to be involved with OTI.”
History of incitement
Amcha and ITCA’s co-founder, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, has previously claimed students involved in Palestine solidarity organizing have ties to “terrorist organizations” and that “many of them are foreign students who come from countries and cultures where anti-Semitism is how they think about the world.” Her racist statements were caught on video in 2012.
University of California at Santa Cruz students at the time called on the university to condemn her hate speech. The administration declined to comment, and officials failed to hold Rossman-Benjamin to account.
Rossman-Benjamin has also harassed professors in California who have been publicly supportive of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement; or who have simply linked to Palestine-related material in class syllabi.
She once demanded the California Attorney General prosecute David Klein, a professor in California State University at Northridge, for posting about his support for the BDS movement on his faculty website.
However, Rossman-Benjamin has yet to succeed in her efforts to pressure universities — and the state — into punishing such professors.
The Amcha Initiative was also behind legal complaints alleging that Jewish students were being discriminated against by Palestine solidarity activism on campuses. The complaints were thrown out by the Department of Education in August.
According to Internal Revenue Service information returns, Amcha — listed as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) charity — received $199,155 in revenue for 2012. It paid out more than $48,000 in “professional fees and other payments to independent contractors.”
Though Amcha and ITCA have not publicly listed their grantors, both have received funds from the MZ Foundation, which is based in Oakland, California. Amcha is listed on their website as a grantee.
The foundation was bankrolled by real-estate magnate Myron Zimmerman to the tune of $2 million in 2012, information returns show. The forms also show the foundation gave a grant of $1,000 to ITCA that year.
Besides funding Amcha and ITCA, the MZ Foundation has given grants to an astounding array of notorious anti-Palestinian, Islamophobic and far right-wing Zionist groups.
The list includes the far-right Israeli Zionist youth movement Im Tirtzu; right-wing Israeli media watchdog groups CAMERA and the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI); Christian Zionist organization Christians United For Israel, led by anti-Semitic pastor John Hagee; the American Freedom Defense Initiative, led by notorious Islamophobe Pamela Geller; Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a Boston-based Zionist group linked to recent death threats against a Jewish member of Students for Justice in Palestine at Boston University; anti-Palestinian group StandWithUs; and the far-right David Horowitz Freedom Center — among many others.
In statements to The Electronic Intifada, former Olive Tree Initiative members said they had suspected that Prescott Watson spied on them during their trip. But allegations of involvement in a wider surveillance program in the University of California system have dogged Watson.
“It’s come up quite a bit in student debates,” Watson said in his second conversation with The Electronic Intifada. He did not deny the allegation of spying: “I kind of find it a little bit amusing, because let’s face it, look I actually was technically one of the student leaders at the Olive Tree Initiative at Santa Cruz … So this whole ‘monitoring’ thing: it’s sort of a nice way to spin it but there’s not that much monitoring to do.”
He conceded that, “I really only started my work with the Olive Tree Initiative a few months before I went on the trip.”
He also made a “firm denial that I was using video cameras or whatever to record stuff on campus related to … exposing anyone or anything of the sort.” He said he had been employed by the university as a student photographer, so some students might have got the wrong idea: “they could have asked me. They never did.”
Watson was a student at UC Santa Cruz between 2010 and 2013, where he was a member of the Santa Cruz Israel Action Committee. He now lives in Jerusalem, currently employed by OurCrowd, an Israeli venture capitalist firm.
Photos on one Olive Tree Initiative Facebook page, as well as in at least one student press report, confirm that Watson was on the same July-August 2012 trip to Palestine that is the subject of the Amcha report.
Other Amcha files obtained by The Electronic Intifada show that Watson was active with the group at least as early as February 2012. Several PDF files list Watson as author in their metadata.
A 109-page list of signatories to a 19 September 2011 letter penned by Amcha to UC President Mark Yudof includes Watson. Among general accusations of an anti-Semitic climate at the University of California, the letter denounced the OTI program. Watson participated in the OTI trip that took place the following summer.
Before joining the OTI delegation, it appears Watson was helping Amcha collect and store information on speakers and events at California campuses.
Files from February 2012 — created by Watson, according to the metadata — show an interest in collecting internal college emails and society flyers advertising a 20 February Ilan Pappe talk at California State University Northridge. Pappe, an anti-Zionist Israeli historian, author and professor of history, was planning a speaking tour of California universities.
Watson told The Electronic Intifada that “I don’t remember writing about Ilan Pappe” although “I have a pretty negative view of him as an academic having read his books.”
As The Electronic Intifada reported at the time, Amcha pressured university officials to shut down the Pappe events — calling Pappe “anti-Semitic” in his “rhetoric.” But the California State University (CSU) system balked at their demands and Pappe’s speaking tour went ahead as planned.
The files show that Amcha stored scanned copies of Pappe’s travel expense and speaking fee claim forms, as well as college emails about the trip. These appear to have been disclosed by the college as part of the failed legal action against David Klein.
Added to the other evidence, the fact that the Pappe talk at CSU-Northridge took place 200 miles southeast of Watson’s own campus at UC Santa Cruz suggests that Watson was active with Amcha, rather than just reporting something he saw once as a student.
Another large file (apparently created by Rossman-Benjamin) contains a 46-page list of signatories to a 6 February 2012 letter to CSU Chancellor Charles Reed denouncing the administration’s sponsorship of Pappe’s speaking tour. Watson’s name is at the very top of this signatory list, even before Rossman-Benjamin’s.
Links to Israel
There is a history for such infiltration of Palestine solidarity groups by Zionist organizations, who often have links to the Israeli government.
Probably the most well known spy was Roy Bullock, paid by the Anti-Defamation League to infiltrate and sabotage the movement back in the 1980s. Bullock compiled files on thousands of progressive, left-wing and Arab groups and individuals.
According to the Village Voice’s late investigative reporter Robert Friedman, writing in 1993: “Police confiscated ADL files on hundreds of mainstream groups ranging from ACT UP to Peace Now.” Also according to Friedman, ADL’s data was habitually made available to Israeli agencies.
Rossman-Benjamin did not reply to an email from The Electronic Intifada asking where she was sending all this information.
Civil suits against Bullock and the ADL in the 1990s were settled out of court in 2002 for tens of thousands of dollars. But the ADL’s covert network of anti-Palestinian sabotage goes back at least as far as 1969. FBI files obtained under freedom of information laws show that ADL agents (one posing as a journalist) infiltrated a closed Organization of Arab Students conference that year.
Attorney Liz Jackson remarked that Palestine Solidarity Legal Support “was formed partly in response to the fact that students who want to engage in critical exploration of the Palestine/Israel question are subjected to private and government surveillance as part of an escalating repression campaign.”
For example, she added, “documents revealed in the [Edward] Snowden leaks demonstrated that the National Security Agency has given over private emails of US citizens to the Israeli government. FBI surveillance of Palestine human rights activism is also known to occur.”
Along with the ADL’s long history of spying on Palestine activists, Jackson said that there is increasing evidence “of other private Israeli-aligned groups intruding on the personal lives of Palestine activists in order to intimidate them. This [Amcha report] is yet another example.”
She noted that “history shows that this kind of surveillance of human rights activists exposes much more about those conducting the surveillance than it does about those they’re spying on.”
This type of surveillance of students involved in Palestine solidarity organizing is not surprising given the climate of anti-Palestinian, anti-BDS efforts in Israel lobby circles. The revelation of Amcha’s covert actions highlights the consequences of the University of California’s reluctance to challenge anti-Palestinian agitators.
Over the past several years, students and rights groups have urged the University of California to formally condemn the attempts of right-wing groups like Amcha to shut down academic freedom and Palestine activism through intimidation and threats.
If left unchecked, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin and Amcha will continue to put students — especially those of Palestinian and Muslim descent — in danger. By slandering their legitimate organizing for Palestinian rights as “anti-Semitic” and “tied to terrorism,” these groups implicitly threaten to expose students to broader government surveillance programs.
University administrations must now act in order to protect their students.
This article was first published at The Electronic Intifada.
Asa Winstanley and Nora Barrows-Friedman are associate editors of The Electronic Intifada.
Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and editor with The Electronic Intifada, and contributes to Al-Jazeera English, Inter Press Service, Truthout.org, Left Turn magazine, and various other international media outlets. From 2003-2010, she was the Senior Producer and co-host of Flashpoints, an award-winning investigative newsmagazine operating out of KPFA/Pacifica Radio in Berkeley, California. Nora has been regularly reporting from Palestine since 2004.