Investigation: How anti-Israel groups tried to turn failure at CUFI Summit into social media success
How protests and disruptions play out on social media is the endgame for anti-Israel groups, an important lesson for pro-Israel groups faced with similar attacks.
Over the past several weeks, the Legal Insurrection Foundation has investigated the coalition of anti-Israel groups that organized protests and disruptions at the annual Christians United for Israel (CUFI) summit July 7-9, 2019
Calling their campaign “Rise against Racism”, Counter CUFI followed the traditional modus operandi of intersectional anti-Israel groups, seeking to build an anti-Israel coalition along racial and religious identity lines, portraying Israel as a white supremacist colonialist oppressive enterprise, and lauding themselves as the underdog heroes speaking truth to power.
What is clear is that the endgame for anti-Israel activists is to create a social media narrative that is both hostile to Israel and overstates the impact of the activists. The perception, not the reality, of protests and disruptions is what matters to them, so even when they lose, they feel like they won. That is an important lesson that pro-Israel groups facing protests and disruptions need to understand, and be proactive in opposing.
1. Investigation Into Counter CUFI.
My report on June 30, 2019, Investigation: Anti-Israel groups plan disruption of Christians United for Israel Annual Summit, presented background on the campaign’s four co-sponsoring group and exposed Counter CUFI’s plan to stage a disruption inside the summit. We were the only news outlet to report on the planned disruption inside the venue.
My second post on the Counter CUFI activities, Anti-Israel groups lock down planning for disruption inside Christians United For Israel Summit, recounted my efforts to report on Counter CUFI’s “Nonviolent direct action training and preparation”— and how Counter CUFI organizers expelled me from the public event. (The organizers also expelled another individual from the public, live-streamed panel with Linda Sarsour that evening, despite the fact that he was only sitting and listening quietly. They justified his expulsion by alleging his association with LIF, and forced him to leave by calling the police.)My most recent post, Anti-Israel Protesters Surround and Try To Intimidate Journalist Outside CUFI Summit, covered my experience in trying to speak to the Counter CUFI protesters outside the summit. As we showed in our video, the protesters called me names, surrounded me and held keffiyehs in my face, and tried to block my camera’s sight-lines.
We have learned a lot from monitoring and researching the Counter CUFI campaign. We explore below some of the ways in which Counter CUFI’s attempted to create the false internet impression of success.
2. Counter CUFI claimed its events were open to the public, but then clamped down.
Counter CUFI worked hard to keep people who were not anti-Israel activists from participating in or attending its events, even though those events were open to the public. As we documented earlier, the Counter CUFI two-day program was advertised as open to the public, with two events (the Sunday, July 7 “non-violent training event” and the Monday, July 8 “pre-action” meeting) that required online registration to receive the location and participate. All events were free.I registered about two weeks before the Counter CUFI program and again the day of the training. Though the online materials promised the receipt of an email with location information for the training and pre-action meeting, no such email ever arrived. Counter CUFI was clearly vetting registrants and purposefully excluding those with whom it might disagree.
Counter CUFI’s effort was again emphasized on Sunday, July 7, when I tried to attend Counter CUFI’s activism training. Though the Counter CUFI organizers had not mentioned it beforehand, its registration email (sent by FOSNA National Organizer Rochelle Watson) now asked participants to bring IDs.At the event, FOSNA staffer Kali Rubaii was one of the Counter CUFI activists responsible for checking IDs. Upon seeing my ID, she claimed that my name was not on the list and that I would not be allowed in. When I protested, she stood uncomfortably close to me, trying to block my camera’s sight-line. Below (and here) is a short clip showing how close she stood and the extent to which she was able to obstruct my view.
It did not seem to matter to Counter CUFI that I have never violently or loudly disrupted any anti-Israel event, though I have attended plenty. The mere fact of my investigation of Counter CUFI’s ideology was enough for the program’s organizers and the staff of the hosting church to eject me from the event.
By contrast, the Counter CUFI team orchestrated multiple disruptions inside the CUFI summit (including one by FOSNA executive director Tarek Abuata, who forced security to carry him from the building as he shrieked that “people of god” should “wake up” and that “Zionism is racism”), its member group AMP encourages similar disruptions by its employees.
For example, Kareem El-Hosseiny (an AMP employee and the Counter CUFI organizer who said that I was unwelcome at Counter CUFI because of my former affiliation with CAMERA) and Taher Herzallah (another AMP employee and Counter CUFI organizer) were both ejected for disrupting the confirmation hearing of U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.You can watch their disruptions of Ambassador Friedman’s remarks below. Meanwhile, Herzallah’s main claim to fame is his 2010 misdemeanor charge for planning and executing disruptions during former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech at UC Irvine. On that occasion, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas called the disruption “censorship by a few” and said, “History requires us to draw a line in the sand against this sort of organized thuggery.” At the July 8 protest outside the CUFI summit, Herzallah and El-Hosseiny participated in Counter CUFI’s effort to intimidate me by surrounding me and waving keffiyehs in my face to prevent me from asking questions.
3. Counter CUFI non-transparency about their activities.
Though participants recorded my presence at the Sunday training and the Monday protest, and Counter CUFI’s official videographer (as well as an apparently unaffiliated documentary filmmaker) followed me as I tried to speak to protesters, Counter CUFI organizers repeatedly demanded I not film or photograph them in a public space. None would answer me when I asked what they were afraid of.
Further, when it became clear to Counter CUFI folks that I was photographing and recording their attempts to kick me out of their Sunday training program, one of the organizers—Allison Tanner, pastor at the Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church—even asked me repeatedly to give her my phone. (I refused.) In the aftermath of the Counter CUFI action, the organizers have continued efforts to avoid civil criticism, much less engaging with it. (Perhaps these groups are concerned that their arguments are not compelling enough to change anyone’s mind?) Umbrella group and Counter CUFI co-sponsor USCPR blocked me on Twitter after I tweeted LI’s previous coverage of the protest.
4. Counter CUFI portrayed failed protests as big victories
The groups behind Counter CUFI have been careful to portray themselves and their Counter CUFI action as effective, successful, widely acknowledged, and morally superior. They are not.
For example, most of the Monday, July 8 outdoor Counter CUFI protest was located next to the back entrance of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where CUFI’s summit was held.
[A screenshot of the Google Street View of the Counter CUFI protest location.]The police had blocked off the road, forbidding cars from driving by the protest—which is normal practice when the convention center hosts large events. No bystanders crossed the area either, because police advised passersby to go around the center on the other side. And, as I noticed after leaving the protest, the noise of the demonstration was immediately garbled and then silenced by the roar of adjacent city traffic.
It seems that few, whether neutral or not, knew the demonstrators were there; there were no other journalists at the protest, (though many watched and reported on the CUFI summit itself) and more than a week later, there has been almost no positive coverage of Counter CUFI’s activity other than by Counter CUFI members and supporters.
But that didn’t stop FOSNA from sending a self-aggrandizing e-mailing during the protesters’ brief “sit-in” at the front of the convention center before being forced to move to their more permanent location in around back. In its mailing, FOSNA claimed that the Counter CUFI protesters’ sit-in was “blocking” the summit entrance, and praised its own cohort for “bearing sacred witness”. FOSNA failed to note that by the time Counter CUFI actually arrived at the convention center, most CUFI attendees were already inside—and there was almost nobody for the protesters to block.
Further, Counter CUFI’s protester attendance only amounted to about half of its stated goal.
As we reported in our first post on the subject, FOSNA executive director Tarek Abuata announced at a June 22 planning meeting that he hoped to have at least 200 people turn out. But by Abuata’s own account (see my tweet above and FOSNA’s press release published here), only about 100 people actually did. As we noted earlier, FOSNA attempted to compensate for the smaller turnout by posting tightly cropped video and photos to make it appear that there was a large crowd.
Despite the unexpectedly small turnout and the lack of press interest, the Counter CUFI coalition has remained relentlessly self-congratulatory. Tarek Abuata of FOSNA sent a self-delusional second mailing the day after the protest; in it, he called the Counter CUFI activities “powerful” and insisted that he and his colleagues successfully delivered a denunciation of Christian Zionism.That the action was “powerful” is dubious; recordings of Counter CUFI’s disruptions show that they were often unintelligible, and were met with deafening chants of “Israel lives!” from the CUFI audience.
But FOSNA and Counter CUFI went further, still. On July 11, Rochelle Watson sent out a mailing claiming that “we shook the CUFI constituency” and calling their behavior “a powerful action!”
We’re not sure which constituency Watson meant; photos, videos, and testimonials from the CUFI Summit show thousands of attendees enjoying themselves and expressing support for Israel. None seem to be shaken by the protesters’ momentary interruptions.
To reinforce her claim that protesters successfully “shook” CUFI participants, Watson included links to two protester testimonials. These testimonials show the use of deceptive propaganda techniques: One of the accounts demonized the CUFI audience, claiming that, “Their faces were full of ridicule, hate, and a strangely gleeful mocking.”
The other testimonial echoed FOSNA’s self-praise, calling the protest “an action for social justice standing against racism”.
(You can read the entire account here.)
Finally, Counter CUFI even provided its participants with canned social media posts about the protest, suggesting that followers copy and paste pre-written tweets, facebook posts, and graphics.
Below is the entire “social media toolkit” presented by FOSNA and friends.
Naturally, the “toolkit” is heavy on emotional language, self-aggrandizement, and charges of racism against CUFI.
5. Trying to Spin Failure Into Success.
Counter CUFI’s claim of victory rings hollow. But to their supporters on their email lists, and their followers on Twitter and Facebook, things might have looked very different. By closing the information loop, anti-Israel activists attempted to create a false impression which undoubtedly will be used for fundraising.
This is an important lesson for groups faced with such protests and disruptions. By being proactive, which CUFI appears to have done, the truth of what happens can be more widely shared. The Counter CUFI demonstrations was relegated to an obscure side of the venue, and the disrupters were removed immediately.
Nothing can prevent the haters from hating or believing what they want, but getting the truth out to the more neutral and broader audience is critical.
Samantha Mandeles is Senior Researcher and Outreach Director at the Legal Insurrection Foundation.DONATE
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