Disturbing the Peace

The local conversation between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activists is getting less civil every day. And Lee Kaplan's tactics aren't helping.

After selling his business in 2001, Kaplan found himself with some free time and extra money. One spring afternoon, he went up to the Cal campus for Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. He planned to participate in the ceremonial reading of victims' names, and was shocked when an organizer respectfully turned him away. She pointed out that he was wearing a jacket with an Israeli flag on the back, and explained that the Hillel Center had decided to separate the remembrance ceremony from support for the state of Israel. "We don't want to upset the Jews for Palestine who are here on the quad," Kaplan remembers her saying.

Across from the noisy Jews for Palestine demonstration, he noticed an outnumbered clutch of students holding flimsy "Support Israel" signs. This handful of students, primarily Russian Jews, would soon gain the benefit of Kaplan's time, money, and dedication. With them, Kaplan formed Dafka, a student group dedicated to counteracting the Palestinian sympathizers on the Cal campus. Kaplan poured his energy into Dafka for several fractious years, until his work came to the attention of the conservative pundit David Horowitz. The two men quickly realized they could work together: Horowitz was starting Students for Academic Freedom, a national network of student groups that would agitate for "ideological balance" on college campuses, and he needed organizers. Kaplan signed on, and was soon writing articles about his experiences on university grounds for Horowitz's online publication, FrontPage Magazine.

Kaplan's first undercover excursion didn't require hair dye or makeup, because his targets didn't yet know his face. In 2003 he attended a conference at Ohio State for pro-Palestinian student activists, masquerading as a reporter from Indy Media, and wrote up a fiery report. Speakers at the conference heaped praise on the freedom fighters of Afghanistan and Iraq, which was tantamount to endorsing Al Qaeda, Kaplan wrote. He also said that he attended a workshop on how to deal with Zionist arguments, in which students discussed how to "dismiss concern over suicide bombings." The article buzzed around right-wing circles, and alerted Palestinian activists to the agent provocateurin their midst.

A Palestinian sympathizer in front of the Israeli consulate.
A Palestinian sympathizer in front of the Israeli consulate.

Kaplan became increasingly focused on the International Solidarity Movement, a loose network of activists who throw themselves in harm's way for the Palestinian cause. They travel to Gaza Strip or West Bank towns — wherever there's likely to be trouble — and act as human shields for Palestinians who may be in danger from the Israeli military. The group became infamous back in 2002, when members joined Yasser Arafat during a siege on his Ramallah compound and bunked with Palestinian militants occupying the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Kaplan thinks the ISM epitomizes the trouble here at home: The group attracts devoted progressives and idealistic college students through lies and propaganda, he believes. "The ISM says one thing, and does another. They'll say, 'We're peace activists,' but they really support terror. They speak in code. Like, they'll say, 'We're for nonviolence but we recognize the Palestinians' right to resist with military action.' What kind of baloney is that? They're saying, 'It's not our place to tell people not to kill Jews.'"

By the summer of 2004 Kaplan had infiltrated enough conferences and written enough scathing articles to qualify as persona non grata in Palestinian activist circles — but he still felt he hadn't gone deep enough. How did these activists talk about their work when they were sure no one else was listening? When he got word of a planned training session for ISM volunteers in San Francisco, he felt he had to be there. He decided to use his acting skills and professional makeup to transform himself into a Pakistani with a grudge against Israel.

The training session was held at an old storefront theater on Mission Street. Organizers simulated oppressive West Bank conditions by interrogating the potential volunteers on their way in, and by padlocking them inside for the duration of the session. The radical talk at the event, Kaplan says, made him understand the true nature of his opposition. "I really thought what I was going to find was college students being useful idiots, but these are downright evil people," he explains. "These are people who consider themselves subversives; these are people who want to destroy not just Israel — they want to destroy America. They have no compunction about working with murderers and terrorists; they have no compunction about lying."

In Kaplan's fondest dreams, the leaders of the ISM and similar groups will be indicted by the federal government for providing material support to groups that the U.S. State Department has designated as foreign terrorist organizations — like Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But because he has been disappointed by the government's inaction, he does what he can on his own. If his articles prevent college students from being won over by the ISM's rhetoric of "Israeli apartheid," he says, that might help choke off support for those in the occupied territories who seek to "destroy Israel and perpetuate endless war against the West."

The people he encountered at the Mission District training session were running off, Kaplan says, to emulate Rachel Corrie, the young woman from Washington State who traveled to the Gaza Strip with the ISM. When Corrie died during an attempt to stop an Israeli military bulldozer in March 2003, her American passport made it a minor media event, and she promptly became a martyr to American activists in the cause.

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