Who is Leopoldo Lopez?

Oslo Freedom Forum – Leopoldo López from OsloFreedomForum on Vimeo.

Above: Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez speaks at the 2009 Oslo Freedom Forum organized by his first cousin, Thor Halvorssen

It is hard to argue that many of those involved in anti-government protests in Venezuela don’t have legitimate grievances — widespread insecurity and media repression cannot be ignored — or that the government’s charges against opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, including “terrorism,” have been filed with sufficient substantiation.

But who is Lopez, and is there any evidence that his own methods are more democratic than those of the government he paints as corrupt and aims to topple through extra-constitutional means?

So far, US and international media has generally portrayed Lopez as an outspoken “maverick,” alluding only in passing to his oligarchic pedigree and hardline right-wing politics. Lopez has been involved in coup attempts that aimed to oust Hugo Chavez since the late president was first elected. Lopez’s leadership of the current round of protests after a hard fought election won by Chavez’s successor, President Nicolas Maduro, appears to be an extension of those efforts.

I wrote about Lopez in my investigation of Thor Halvorssen and his Potemkin Village-like Human Rights Foundation. Halvorssen is a former right-wing campus activist who has leveraged his fortune to establish a political empire advancing a transparently neoconservative agenda behind the patina of human rights.

Among Halvorssen’s main PR megaphones is Buzzfeed, whose correspondent Rosie Gray flew to Oslo in 2013 to write a fawning profile of him and his Oslo Freedom Forum. (Gray has not disclosed whether Halvorssen covered her travel expenses or provided her with resources like food and lodging). Michael Moynihan, another writer who was flown to Oslo to participate in Halvorssen’s confab, published an editorial in the Daily Beast this week praising “the handsome, telegenic, and Harvard-trained Leopoldo Lopez” and slamming President Nicolas Maduro as “Mussolini-on-the-piazza.” The Daily Beast followed up with a translated version of the dramatic and carefully staged speech Lopez delivered before he turned himself in to Venezuelan authorities, which Halvorssen promptly promoted on Twitter.

Besides being the son of a CIA asset who channeled money from Venezuelan oligarchs to the Nicaraguan Contras, Halvorssen happens to be Lopez’s first cousin — Leopoldo is the son of Thor’s oil executive aunt. Through his human rights apparatus, he has played a critical role in marketing Lopez to an international audience.

In 2009, Halvorssen showcased Lopez at his Oslo Freedom Forum, presenting him beside figures like Elie Wiesel and Vaclav Havel as a “human rights leader.” I wrote about the unusual spectacle for Electronic Intifada:

In 2010, Halvorssen invited his first cousin, the Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Lopez, the Harvard-educated mayor of a wealthy district in Caracas, was among the politicians who signed as witnesses in the new government after Chavez was briefly ousted in the failed US-backed coup in 2002.

Lopez is the son of a former oil executive — Halvorssen’s aunt — who allegedly funnelled profits from the state-run oil company into his new political party, leading to corruption charges that placed his political ambitions in peril, as the Associated Press reported in February (“Leopoldo Lopez, Opponent Of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Faces Corruption Charges In Venezuela”).

Described by the US embassy in Venezuela as “vindictive, and power-hungry” but also as “a necessity,” Lopez received large sums of financial support from the US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy.

At the 2009 Oslo Freedom Forum, Lopez was a presented as a “human rights leader,”appearing at an event that had been graced by Nobel Prize recipient Elie Wiesel and Nobel nominee Vaclav Havel. He stirred his audience with lofty rhetoric about peace, democracy and the coming wave of freedom, casting the Venezuelan opposition as “David against Goliath.” “We know that we will overcome,” Lopez proclaimed, “we know that change will come in Venezuela.”

Noting that Lopez’s appearance at the Oslo Freedom Forum was covered far more heavily in Venezuelan media than in Oslo, where it was virtually ignored, Manifestaccused Halvorssen of using his human rights confab for the purpose of “whitewashing Leopoldo Lopez … to establish a real contender for the Venezuelan presidency.”

The magazine described the Oslo Freedom Forum as a cleverly crafted “Washing Machine.”



“Time is running out”: The fierce urgency of tomorrow

I must govern the clock, not be governed by it.”
–Golda Meir

Since the dawn of the peace process, serious men and women have warned that time was running out on a two state solution. If dramatic, urgent measures were not taken and painful compromises not made, the apocalypse would soon be upon us all. Though the peace processors rarely stated what the End of Days would look like, its form was always implied: The failure to establish a Palestinian state somewhere in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip would bring Israeli apartheid into the open, plunging the Jewish state into a crisis of legitimacy that would result in its rapid unraveling.

The transformation of an ethnically exclusivist Jewish state into a multi-ethnic confederation or democratic bi-national state is absolutely unacceptable to all parties involved in the peace process. That includes the Palestinian Authority, whose legitimacy rests on the notion that it will eventually become the steward of an autocratic Arab state with the consent of Israel and support from the US and EU. So as the facts on the ground render Palestinian statehood a fantasy, the peace processors must continually wind back the alarm clock on apartheid, indefinitely postponing the date with destiny to preserve the status quo and secure their paychecks.

Below, I have compiled news clippings dating back to 1981 that demonstrate the unusually fluid conception of time in the minds of the peace processors. Time may have run out long ago, but for them, it is never too late to negotiate.

Continue reading

A Response to JJ Goldberg of the Forward

Picking up where Eric Alterman left off, and defending his thousands of words of error-laden invective, JJ Goldberg of the Jewish Daily Forward has turned out an indignant non-review (see the latest Alterman flubs here) of my book that reveals its chapter titles but fails to discuss their contents. Goldberg warps the responses of Alterman’s many critics, failing to provide links, and concludes with a distorted account of an exchange I had with Ian Lustick, mangling my quotes to falsely to suggest I had demanded the mass departure of Jewish Israelis from historic Palestine. Goldberg might have once been a sharpshooter in the Israeli Border Police, but in his attempt to reinforce Alterman’s attacks, he badly misses the mark.

Echoing Alterman, Goldberg expresses outrage with the titles of the chapters in Goliath but makes no attempt to present what I actually wrote in them or why they are titled as they are. For instance, he bemoans the name of my chapter, “This Belongs To The White Man,” but does not mention that the title was merely a reference to the notorious statement by former Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who said the following about non-Jewish African asylum seekers in Israel: “Most of those people arriving here are Muslims, who think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man.”

Ignoring the hard facts presented in Goliath, Goldberg has spent the years since Israel elected the most right-wing government in its history projecting his political wishful thinking onto the country’s pro-settler leadership, imagining everyone from Benjamin Netanyahu to Shaul Mofaz (check out this howler) as potential peacemakers, which is not unlike describing Rob Ford as the political future of Canada.

Goldberg has labored to sustain his trance-like optimism in the face of the reality of record settlement construction as well as other harsh realities. After the Egyptian military staged its coup, an act that has led the U.S. to cut military aid, Goldberg warned that any reduction in military aid to Egypt would “kill Mideast peace hopes,” writing that “America’s billion-dollar-plus annual aid package to Egypt does not exist for Egypt’s benefit, but for Israel’s.” Apart from this strange formulation, as though Egypt only exists for the U.S. as a function of his notion of what its policy should be toward Israel, he completely neglected to mention the U.S. at all, as though the U.S. has no independent interests or principles of our own at stake.

To clarify Goldberg’s distortions for readers of The Forward: Goldberg claims I did not “tell[] of the thousands of rockets bombarding Negev towns for years” before Operation Cast Lead. However, I wrote on the first page of my book that “Hamas’s armed wing…fired dozens of rockets” in November 2008.

Similarly, Goldberg claims I did not “mention the hundreds of Israelis killed by…suicide bombers.” In fact, I devoted an entire chapter of the book to Nurit Peled-Elhanan, a remarkable Israeli academic whose daughter, Smadar, was killed by a suicide bomber. I discuss at length her and her husband’s experience after their daughter’s murder and how they became two of their society’s more outspoken opponents of the Israeli occupation. I go on to detail Israeli society’s response to suicide bombings during the Second Intifada in my chapter, “The Big Quiet,” explaining how it influenced the rise of hafrada, or Israel’s policy of demographic separation.

Goldberg further takes issue with an exchange between Ian Lustick and me during an October 17 discussion of Goliath at the University of Pennsylvania. But, not providing the link to the video, he produced a badly mangled version of my remarks.

Here is the context to the exchange in question: Lustick had remarked that Israeli society could increasingly be described as “fascistic,” suggesting that Israel had possibly crossed a moral Rubicon, then asked me to take on the role of God and decide whether to destroy “Gomorrah,” even though there were some “good” people living inside it – people like the Israeli dissidents, critics and reformers I profile extensively in Goliath.

My response proposed a direction for preserving the presence of Jewish Israelis in a future Israel-Palestine while stripping away the violent, inhumane mechanisms of demographic engineering, endless dispossession and the walls that have pitted Israeli Jews against the Arab world. My prescription was essentially a rejection of Ehud Barak’s explicitly colonial view of Israel as a Europeanized “villa in the jungle.”

Philip Weiss of the Mondoweiss.com website transcribed parts of my answer and summarized the rest. Here is the relevant part of transcript, which Goldberg omitted. (The full exchange arrives around 38:00 in the video):

“As for the Jewish Israelis… These are Israelis who are attracted to Europe, who do not feel that they are part of the Arab world. And it’s that attraction to Europe, that manifestation of Herzl’s famous quote, that the Jewish state will be ‘a rampart of civilization against barbarism,’ which has led to the present crisis and the failure of Zionism. Because there is absolutely no way for Jewish people in Israel/Palestine to become indigenized under the present order, and that’s really what has to happen. You have to be willing to be a part of the Arab world, because you’re living in the Arab world. If you don’t, then you have to maintain this system and continue to harden the present system.”

My meaning is plain: That the walls must come down — the separation wall, the legal walls of ethnic discrimination, and the psychological walls — as a basis for true peace.

Goldberg claimed without evidence that “Lustick appear[ed] stunned,” when Lustick nodded in acknowledgement of my answer and did not express any perceptible displeasure; nor did he state any to me. In fact, what I said was intended to support what Lustick wrote in his recent essay on the “Two State Illusion” for the New York Times, Lustick offered a remarkably similar vision of an alternative future allowing Israeli Jews to live in peace in the Middle East; in which ultra-Orthodox Jews and Mizrahi Jews of Arab descent – groups routinely derided by liberal Zionists like Goldberg as retrograde and politically burdensome — could emerge as their society’s bridge builders, forging practical alliances with Palestinians:

“In such a radically new environment, secular Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank could ally with Tel Aviv’s post-Zionists, non-Jewish Russian-speaking immigrants, foreign workers and global-village Israeli entrepreneurs. Anti-nationalist ultra-Orthodox Jews might find common cause with Muslim traditionalists. Untethered to statist Zionism in a rapidly changing Middle East, Israelis whose families came from Arab countries might find new reasons to think of themselves not as ‘Eastern,’ but as Arab. Masses of downtrodden and exploited Muslim and Arab refugees, in Gaza, the West Bank and in Israel itself could see democracy, not Islam, as the solution for translating what they have (numbers) into what they want (rights and resources). Israeli Jews committed above all to settling throughout the greater Land of Israel may find arrangements based on a confederation, or a regional formula more attractive than narrow Israeli nationalism.”

I mentioned in my reply to Lustick that his question related to a debate that was raging among many of my leftist friends and acquaintances in Tel Aviv. As I detail in the final chapter of Goliath, “The Exodus Party,” a number of my human rights-minded Israel friends have chosen to exercise the secondary, “emergency” passports that provide multitudes of Ashkenazi Jewish Israelis with EU citizenship, and they have moved to places like Berlin and London. Then there are others, like the Israeli journalist Haggai Matar, who are seeking means of assimilating themselves into the wider culture of the Middle East.

Goldberg has claimed, “Outside the far-left and anti-Israel blogosphere, ‘Goliath’ has been ignored.” But it is Goldberg who has ignored reviews by figures like Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz’s military and political correspondent, and Akiva Eldar, the Israeli journalist and author who served as chief political columnist for Haaretz for 35 years — writers who could hardly be described as “anti-Israel.” Eldar wrote that, “a significant part of [Goliath’s] strength lies in the effect that is naturally created when a foreign correspondent describes the reality of your life and surroundings. Thus, as if from a bas relief, details are raised to which the local eye has become so accustomed that it no longer notices their existence.”

I hoped to engage Goldberg in a discussion about his critiques of my book and about the future of Israel-Palestine. Unfortunately, that debate will apparently not take place. When Atlantic editor Robert Wright invited Goldberg to engage with me on the online political debating forum Bloggingheads, Goldberg declined, as Alterman did before him.

Goliath visits Los Angeles, November 4

On November 4, I will be discussing “Goliath” in Los Angeles with UCLA’s Gabriel Piterberg, the author of the excellent intellectual history of the Zionist movement, “The Returns of Zionism.” I will post a complete schedule of book tour related events in the coming days, including several more Los Angeles-area appearances. LA event

Here’s the complete video of my discussion of Goliath and Israel-Palestine at University of Pennsylvania with Ian Lustick (read Phil Weiss’s coverage of the event here):

Another Problem From Hell? Adelson and Wiesel Laud Rwanda’s Kagame at NYC Genocide Panel

At New York’s Cooper Union, where Abraham Lincoln launched his presidential campaign, I witnessed pro-Israel Republican billionaire Sheldon Adelson laud the “military genius” of Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame while a crowd consisting mostly of Jewish Americans cheered. Organized by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the popular TV personality and failed New Jersey congressional candidate whose hapless campaign was bankrolled by Adelson, and hosted by NYU’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, the bizarre event centered a discussion of the “strong protecting the weak” from genocide. 
The evening’s guest of honor was Elie Wiesel, the 85-year-old Nobel prize winning author who Boteach compared to Nelson Mandela and hailed as “the prince of the Jewish people.” Wiesel joined Adelson in celebrating Kagame, lending his reputation as the world’s most famous Holocaust survivor to a man accused of propelling the worst genocide since World War Two and described by leading Rwanda expert Philip Reyntjens as “probably the worst war criminal in office today.” 
When Wiesel urged the audience to speak up against injustice, a young human rights activist named Rob Conrad rose from the crowd, attempting to interject facts about Kagame’s role in supporting the M23 rebel militia that has fueled the genocide in the Congo, relying on child soldiers in a conflict that has left millions dead. Wiesel watched in silence as Kagame’s personal security detail ripped the protester from his seat, covered his mouth and manhandled him all the way to the exit door. The Congolese human rights activist Kambale Musavuli told me he was removed from the event by Rwandan security before it even began, raising questions about whether NYU’s Bronfman Center shared its list of attendees with Kagame’s personal detail. 
After Boteach delivered a lengthy treatise on shared Israeli-Rwandan values, highlighting countless UN condemnations of both nations’ human rights violations as a positive trait, me and Alex Kane of Mondoweiss attempted to question him and his fellow panelists (no questions were allowed from the crowd during the event). Besides being the man Boteach described as “the very conscience of the six million martyred in the Holocaust,” Wiesel has been the chairman of Elad, a pro-settler organization that is orchestrating the demolition of Palestinian homes in occupied East Jerusalem to build a biblical theme park. And Adelson was perhaps the most generous patron of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career. We wanted to know what could be done to protect Palestinians from the individuals and ventures they supported. Naturally, they did not want to answer, though Adelson volunteered a dark fantasy to Kane: “You should have your mouth duct taped!” 

October 17, Goliath comes to UPenn, with Ian Lustick

I will be speaking on October 17 with Ian Lustick, professor of political science at UPenn and author of the widely discussed New York Times op-ed on the two state illusion. Lustick recently responded to critics of his piece here, writing:

The most important message in my article was not that two states are absolutely impossible—indeed I did not say that and do not believe it. Rather, my argument is that paths to political decisions in Israel and the United States that could result in that outcome via negotiations are so implausible that the negotiations themselves end up protecting and deepening oppressive conditions. In addition, by diverting energies from the difficult search for alternatives, however painful they may be, fixation on the tantalizing mirage of the two-state solution’s imminent arrival increases the likelihood that when transformative change comes, that change will be catastrophic.


Please join us for a lunchtime talk with award-winning journalist Max Blumenthal, author of the new book GOLIATH: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. Max will discuss his book and the future of Israel-Palestine with Professor Ian Lustick, author of a recent, explosive opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday Review, “Two-State Illusion.” The discussion will be followed by a book signing and light snacks on the Van Pelt 6th floor balcony.

Netanyahu’s Terrible Tale

On October 1, at the conclusion of a lengthy speech demanding prolonged sanctions against Iran and pledging Israel’s willingness to take unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear program, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned back to the nightmare of 19th century Europe. He told of how an anti-Semitic mob brutalized his grandfather, Natan Milikovsky and his younger brother, Judah, using the story to present Israel as the only sanctuary for Jews in an eternally hostile world:

Ladies and gentlemen, one cold day in the 19th century, my grandfather Nathan and his younger brother Judah were standing in a railway station in the heart of Europe. They were seen by a group of anti-Semitic hoodlums who ran towards them waving clubs, screaming death to the Jews. My grandfather shouted to his younger brother to flee and save himself and he then stood alone against the raging mob to slow it down. They beat him senseless. They left him for dead. And before he passed out covered in his own blood, he said to himself, “What a disgrace. What a disgrace. The descendants of the Maccabees lie in the mud powerless to defend themselves.” He promised himself then that if he lived, he would take his family to the Jewish homeland and help build a future for the Jewish people. I stand here today as Israel’s prime minister because my grandfather kept that promise….

Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit described the moment as “chilling,” citing the story as proof that Netanyahu “meant every word” of his threats against Iran. But Bibi has deployed the harrowing tale at least once before, and in a far less dramatic setting than the UN General Assembly.

In January 2011, at the July 2011 Manufacturers Association Conference in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu described his grandfather’s beating during the conclusion of a diatribe in which he demanded the mass expulsion of non-Jewish African asylum seekers to save Israel’s Jewish demographic majority and declared his refusal to remove an illegal settlement outpost.

Complaining that Israel has ”turned into almost the only first-world country that refugees can walk to from the third world,” Netanyahu warned, ”A stream of refugees threaten to wash away our achievements and harm our existence as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Currently, Saharonim Prison in the Negev Desert holds around 2000 African migrants and asylum seekers, including women and children who have fled genocide and war. Under an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Act, which Netanyahu supported and signed into law, but which was recently overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court, the state was authorized to arrest any non-Jewish African resident without charges or trial and hold them in prisons like Saharonim for as long as three years. Reuven Rivlin, the former speaker of the Knesset, has called the prison a “concentration camp[].”

Netanyahu brought his speech to the Manufacturers Association Conference to a close with the story of his grandfather’s beating. According to the Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu recalled:

“[My grandfather] said that once he was at a train station with his brother, and rioters yelled ‘Yid’ at them and beat them with clubs. They threw his brother into the mud, and he jumped in the mud to save him. Then, my grandfather said to himself – what an embarrassment that the descendants of King David and the Maccabees are stuck in the mud. If I live, I will move to the Land of Israel.”

Saharonim and Ketziot prisons for non-Jewish Africans (photo by Noam Sheizaf)

Saharonim and Ketziot prisons for non-Jewish Africans (photo by Noam Sheizaf)


Towards Civil War in Egypt? (Updated)


A man succumbs to teargas inhalation near a Roxy Square field hospital

Update: Video here shows a Muslim Brotherhood member firing what appears to be birdshot from a shotgun at anti-Morsi protesters; this video confirms rumors that state security bolstered Muslim Brotherhood lines, firing on anti-Morsi forces when MB members retreated. Finally, another video contains footage of fire apparently exchanged from both sides.

Last night, thousands of opposition protesters appeared in front of Egypt’s presidential palace in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis to voice their anger with President Mohamed Morsi’s draft constitution. Influenced almost completely by Muslim Brotherhood officials and their Salafist allies, the proposed constitution is a divisive document. At the protest, the mostly secular, upper middle class crowd went well beyond the demand for a constitutional dialogue, denouncing Morsi as a dictator and calling for his ouster. “Erhal!” (“Leave”), they chanted; “Dictator, Dictator, Morsi, it’s your turn!” was another cadence that filled the air outside the palace.

Though I was unable to confirm reports that state security were driven away from the protest, forced to leave their helmets and even teargas shells behind, I saw them boarding buses and trucks by the hundreds on Salah Salem Boulevard. Soon after, Morsi evacuated the presidential palace, with protesters pelting his motorcade with stones as it pulled away. The protest was apparently seen by the Muslim Brotherhood leadership as a major transgression. A red line had been crossed. As Yasser Borhami, a Salafist preacher supportive of Morsi, told Al Jazeera, the opposition provoked violence by “saying words insulting of the president.”

This afternoon, the Muslim Brotherhood called for a million man march on the presidential palace, where opposition protesters were still encamped. The clashes that had been expected all week were now inevitable, as Morsi seemed determined to prove his political legitimacy through a massive display of street-level manpower. By 6 PM, streets near Heliopolis’ Roxy Square were lined with buses and vans used to shepherd in thousands of Brotherhood supporters from the countryside and the provinces. The details of what happened next may require another day to clarify, but what is clear is that the Brotherhood organized a march that was certain to spark violent clashes, and that the decision was made at the highest levels of the organization’s political echelon.

I arrived at Roxy Square around 7 PM with Cliff Cheney, a Cairo-based photojournalist and videographer covering the revolutionary tumult. By then the fighting was in full swing. Huge throngs of opposition demonstrators swelled towards the pro-Morsi crowds, pelting them with stones. Fusillades of teargas flew in return, possibly from state security bolstering the pro-Morsi lines. The sound of shotguns loaded with birdshot thundered from inside the melee, and molotov cocktails streaked above the crowd, lobbed from both sides. One by one, young men came stumbling towards a makeshift field hospital and crumpled onto the sidewalk, overcome by gas inhalation. Others suffering more serious injuries were loaded into ambulances roaring through the crowd every few minutes.

An opposition protester who had been in the thick of the fighting told me the Brotherhood mustered larger numbers but the anti-government forces were “more daring.” To make up for lost ground, he said the Brotherhood activists began firing rubber and possibly live bullets. “Everyone around me was falling,” he said. Wael Eskandar, an Egyptian blogger and opposition supporter present during the clashes, claimed firearms, including an automatic rifle, were used by pro-Morsi activists “early and with high frequency.” On the other hand, a reporter for the Egyptian daily Al Ahram reported seeing a man “recklessly” using a gun against pro-Morsi demonstrators.

As the night wore on, a spokesman for the Brotherhood appeared on a local Cairo radio show to dismiss claims that the march was a violent provocation. He insisted no opposition protesters were in their tents when the Brotherhood members arrived at the palace. However, other witnesses at the scene told me those who had encamped at the palace were badly beaten. By 9 PM, hundreds were reported injured and each side reported at least one fatality. Among those reportedly killed was Egyptian Popular Alliance activist Mirna Emad.

During the clashes, countless activists told me to leave for my own safety. “This is not a foreign friendly demonstration,” one told me. Indeed, Western reporters are not always welcome at such events, and in contrast to my experience at the popular protests in the West Bank, some demonstrators treat those who brandish cameras with extreme hostility. So I could not take photos or shoot video with the kind of frequency I’m accustomed to. When a wave of Brotherhood activists broke through opposition lines, pushing the crowd back and sending hundreds sprinting away from the square, I ran with them. And I did not return. I learned later that a Western photojournalist became trapped in a dress shop as the situation deteriorated.

Each side took casualties and neither appears ready to relent. The polarization is deepening with each passing day. It appears that the fighting will persist as December 15, the date of the constitutional referendum, draws closer. If Morsi’s legitimacy is contingent on his ability to maintain stability, he risks forfeiting it by allowing the kind of violence seen in Roxy Square tonight to occur on his watch.

Mazhar Shaheen, the famed imam known as the “Tahrir Preacher” for his role in the January 25 revolution, said tonight, “What is happening threatens to lead to a civil war… We should all be ashamed to participate in the collapse of the nation.”

Meet The Right-Wing Extremist Behind Anti-Muslim Film That Sparked Deadly Riots

"Innocence of Muslims" consultant Steve Klein is a veteran anti-Muslim organizer with close ties to the Christian right in California

"Innocence of Muslims" consultant Steve Klein is a veteran anti-Muslim organizer with close ties to the Christian right in California

The US Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three US diplomats were killed in attacks and rioting provoked by an obscure, low-budget anti-Muslim film called “The Innocence of Muslims.” The producer of the film is a real estate developer supposedly named “Sam Bacile” who claims to be an Israeli Jew. Bacile told the AP the film was made with $5 million raised from “100 Jewish donors.” He said he was motivated to help his native country, Israel, by exposing the evils of Islam.

While Bacile claims to be in hiding, and his identity remains murky, another character who has been publicly listed as a consultant on the film is a known anti-Muslim activist with ties to the extreme Christian right and the militia movement. He is Steve Klein, a Hemet, California based insurance salesman who claims to have led a “hunter-killer team” in Vietnam.”

Klein is a right-wing extremist who emerged from the same axis of Islamophobia that produced Anders Behring Breivik and which takes inspiration from the writings of Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, and Daniel Pipes.

It appears Klein (or someone who shares his name and views) is an enthusiastic commenter on Geller’s website, Atlas Shrugged, where he recently complained about Mitt Romney’s “support for a Muslim state in Israel’s Heartland.” In July 2011, Spencer’s website, Jihad Watch, promoted a rally Klein organized alongside the anti-Muslim Coptic extremist Joseph Nasrallah to demand the firing of LA County Sheriff Lee Baca, whom they painted as a dupe for Hamas.

Klein is also closely affiliated with the Christian right in California, organizing resentment against all the usual targets — Muslims, homosexuals, feminists, and even Mormons. He is a board member and founder of a group called Courageous Christians United, which promotes anti-Mormon, anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim literature (including the work of Robert Spencer) on its website. In 2002, Klein ran for the California Insurance Commissioner under the American Independent Party, an extremist fringe party linked to the militia movement, garnering a piddling 2 percent of the vote.

Klein has been closely affiliated with the Church at Kaweah, an extreme evangelical church located 70 miles southeast of Fresno that serves as a nexus of neo-Confederate, Christian Reconstructionist, and militia movement elements. The Southern Poverty Law Center produced a report on Kaweah this spring that noted Klein’s long record of activist against Muslims:

Over the past year, Johnson and the church militia have developed a relationship with Steve Klein, a longtime religious-right activist who brags about having led a “hunter killer” team as a Marine in Vietnam. Klein, who calls Islam a “penis-driven religion” and thinks Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca is a Muslim Brotherhood patsy, is allied with Christian activist groups across California. In 2011, as head of the Concerned Citizens for the First Amendment, he worked with the Vista, Calif.-based Christian Anti-Defamation Commission on a campaign to “arm” students with the “truth about Islam and Muhammad” — mainly by leafleting high schools with literature depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a sex-crazed pedophile.

Klein, based in Hemet, Calif., has been active in extremist movements for decades. In 1977, he founded Courageous Christians United, which now conducts “respectful confrontations” outside of abortion clinics, Mormon temples and mosques. Klein also has ties to the Minuteman movement. In 2007, he sued the city of San Clemente for ordering him to stop leafleting cars with pamphlets opposing illegal immigration.

Like many other activists who fashion themselves as “counter-Jihadists,” Klein has organized against the construction of mosques in his area. While leafleting against a planned mosque in Temecula, California, which he claimed would herald the introduction of Shariah law to the quiet suburb, Klein remarked, “It all comes down to the first amendment. I don’t care if you disagree with me. Just don’t cut off my head.”

Klein appears to be allied with the National American Coptic Assembly, a radical Islamophobic group headed by Morris Sadik. Sadik claims to have discovered the film and began promoting it online. Once it went viral, the trailer was translated into Arabic, sparking outrage in the Middle East, and ultimately, to the deadly attacks carried out by Muslim extremists today.

Klein claims credit for inspiring “Sam Bacile” to produce “The Innocence of Muslims,” promising him he would be “the next Theo Van Gogh,” referring to the Dutch columnist who was murdered by a Muslim extremist. Of the attacks in Libya, Klein said, “We went into this knowing this was probably going to happen.”

The right to resist is universal: A farewell to Al Akhbar and Assad’s apologists

“Syrian weapons are being used – most unfortunately – against our camp, while the rulers of Damascus continue to repeat that they are here in Lebanon in order to defend our camp. This is a murderous lie, a lie which pains us more than anyone else… But we wish to inform you that we will fight in defense of this camp with our bare hands if all our ammunition is spent and all our weapons are gone, and that we will tighten our belts so that hunger will not kill us. For we have taken a decision not to surrender and we shall not surrender…”

–open letter from the residents of Tal al Zataar refugee camp to the world, July 13, 1976

I recently learned of a major exodus of key staffers at Al Akhbar caused at least in part by disagreements with the newspaper leadership’s pro-Assad tendency. The revelation helps explain why Al Akhbar English now prominently features the malevolent propaganda of Amal Saad Ghorayeb and the dillentantish quasi-analysis of Sharmine Narwani alongside editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin’s friendly advice for Bashar Assad, whom he attempts to depict as an earnest reformer overwhelmed by events.

When I joined the fledgling Al Akhbar English website last fall, I was excited to contribute my writing on the Israel-Palestine situation and US foreign policy to a paper that I considered one of the most courageous publications in the Arab world. At the time, the Syrian uprising had just begun, and apparently, so had the debates inside Al Akhbar, which reflected the discussions within the wider Lebanese Left. Almost a year later, the results of the debate have become clear on the pages of the paper, where despite the presence of a few dissident voices, the apologia for Assad and his crimes has reached unbearable levels.

I considered responding on my blog to some of the more outlandish ravings published at Al Akhbar, but eventually decided my energy would be better spent on covering the topics I knew best — and which I could discuss with the authority of journalistic experience. Meanwhile, my frustration and embarrassment mounted as one Ghorayeb screed after another appeared on the site, each one more risible than the next.

Following her vehement defense of the Syrian dictator’s use of surgery metaphors to refer to his security forces’ brutal crackdowns, Al Akhbar English featured Ghorayeb’s daftest work to date: an attack on Arab Third Wayers (supporters of the anti-imperialist, anti-authoritarian political tendency) in which she asserted that “the real litmus of Arab intellectuals’ and activists’ commitment to the Palestinian cause is no longer their support for Palestinian rights, but rather, their support for the Assad leadership’s struggle against the imperialist-Zionist-Arab moderate axis’ onslaught against it.”

Ghorayeb’s rant, rightly condemned by As’ad Abu Khalil as an “outrage,” was of a piece with the Syrian regime’s long record of exploiting the Palestinian struggle to advance its narrow self-interests. For me, it was the final straw. Had Al Akhbar’s editorial leadership provided a platform to Ghorayeb and other apologists because of the quality of their writing or because of their willingness to defend the regime behind the cover of leftist ideology? This had become a salient question.

I was forced to conclude that unless I was prepared to spend endless stores of energy jousting with Assad apologists, I was merely providing them cover by keeping my name and reputation associated with Al Akhbar. More importantly, I decided that if I kept quiet any longer, I would be betraying my principles and those of the people who have encouraged and inspired me over the years. There is simply no excuse for me to remain involved for another day with such a morally compromised outlet. And so, instead of preparing to throw up in my own mouth each time I click on one of the pro-regime op-eds appearing with regularity on Al Akhbar English’s home page, I am washing my hands of the whole operation.

I can not disagree with anyone who claims that the United States and the Saudi royals aim to ratchet up their regional influence on the backs of the shabby Syrian National Council while Israel cheers on the sidelines. Though it is far from certain whether these forces will realize a fraction of their goals, it is imperative to reject the foreign designs on Syria and Lebanon, just as authentic Syrian dissidents like Michel Kilo have done. Yet the mere existence of Western meddling does not automatically make Assad a subaltern anti-imperial hero at the helm of a “frontline resisting state,” as Ghorayeb has sought to paint him. Nor does it offer any legitimate grounds for nickel-and-diming civilian casualty counts, blaming the victims of his regime, or hyping the Muslim Threat Factor to delegitimize the internal opposition.

In the end, Assad will be remembered as an authoritarian tyrant whose regime represented little more than the interests of a rich neoliberal business class and a fascistic security apparatus. Those who have thrown their intellectual weight behind his campaign of brutality have cast the sincerity of their commitment to popular struggle and anti-imperial resistance into serious doubt. By denying the Syrian people the right to revolution while supporting the Palestinian struggle, they are no less hypocritical than the Zionists who cynically celebrate the Syrian uprising while seeking to crush any iteration of Palestinian resistance. In my opinion, the right to resist tyranny is indivisible and universal. It can be denied to no one.

Throughout the past weeks, as my sense of anguish mounted, I have thought about the bravery of the Lebanese leftists who fought beside the Palestinian fedayeen at Sidon, halting the US-approved Syrian invasion of Lebanon, which Hafez al-Assad had designed in part to break the back of the Palestinian national cause. And I recalled stories of the Lebanese activists who broke through the Syrian army’s blockade of Tal al Zataar to provide food and supplies to the Palestinian refugees defending their camp against imminent destruction. The long history of sacrifice and courage by the Lebanese and Syrian people in support of the Palestinian struggle — and in defiance of self-interested autocrats — crystallizes an important fact that should not have to be repeated: Palestine will never be free as long as the Arab world lives under the control of dictators.

At Al Akhbar English, Ghorayeb has attempted to advance the opposite argument: that supporting Assad regime is synonymous with support for the Palestinian struggle, and possibly more important. This is what prompted her to falsely claim that “Syrian officials do not meet with their Israeli counterparts,” ignoring the fact that Syrian and Israeli officials dined together at a 2007 commemoration for the Madrid peace talks, and that the Syrians offered the Israelis negotiations over the Golan Heights “without preconditions,” a position the regime maintained until as late as December 2009. Outside of negotiations with Israel, it is unclear what concrete steps Syria’s government was willing to take to regain the Golan.

In the same column in which she praised the Assad regime for blocking Syrian access to Israeli websites and for refusing to give interviews to Israeli reporters, she cited an Israeli professor and an article in the right-of-center Israeli news site, the Times of Israel, to support her points. Apparently the Syrian people must do as Assad says, but not as his apologists in Beirut do.

Besides exploiting the Palestinian cause, the Assad apologists have eagerly played the Al Qaeda card to stoke fears of an Islamic takeover of Syria. Back in 2003, Assad accused the US of deliberately overestimating the strength of Al Qaeda in order to justify its so-called war on terror. “I cannot believe that bin Laden is the person able to outmanoeuvre the entire world,” Assad said at the time. He asked, “Is there really an entity called Al Qaeda? It was in Afghanistan, but is it there anymore?” But now, in a transparent bid for sympathy from the outside world, Assad insists that the Syrian armed opposition is controlled almost entirely by Al Qaeda-like jihadists who have come from abroad to place the country under Islamic control. In his address to the Syrian People’s Assembly on June 3, the dictator tried to hammer the theme home by using the term “terrorists” or “terrorism” a whopping 43 times. That is a full ten times more than George W. Bush during his speech to Congress in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Echoing Assad, Ghorayeb has referred to the Syrian army’s pornographically violent crackdowns on what by all accounts is still a mostly homegrown resistance as “the regime’s war against the foreign sponsored terrorists and insurrectionists,” calling for “a security solution to root [them] out.” At the Al Akhbar’s Arabic site, Jean Aziz predicted a complete Salafi takeover of Syria if Assad falls. Meanwhile, Ibrahim al Amin claimed that the Syrian opposition “cop[ied] the modus operandi which was devised by the leadership of al-Qaeda,” then uncritically quoted an unnamed regime source who insisted that “a hardline majority of the armed groups have come to be led by non-Syrians.”  Similarly, Narwani assertedthat a shadowy 5000-man ultra-Islamist militia has been operating inside the city of Homs with “plans to declare an Islamic Caliphate in Syria” — Creeping Shariah! She based her remarkable assertion on a single conversation with an anonymous journalist.

In joining the Assad regime’s campaign to delegitimize the Syrian opposition by casting it as a bunch of irrational jihadis (ironically, they seem to have little problem with Hezbollah’s core Islamist values), Assad’s apologists have unwittingly adopted the “war on terror” lexicon introduced by George W. Bush, Ariel Sharon, and the neocon cabal after 9-11. Not only have they invoked the scary specter of The Terrorists (gasp!) to justify morally indefensible acts of violent repression, like pro-Israel hasbarists, they have resorted to rhetorical sophistry to dismiss the regime’s atrocities as necessary evils, unfortunate accidents (what al-Amin called “mistakes”), or fabrications of the regime’s opponents (see Ghorayeb on “unsubstantiated allegations of war crimes.”) I wonder, as I do with Zionist fanatics, if there is any limit to the carnage Assad’s apologists will tolerate in the name of the greater cause.

In the true spirit of the Israeli occupation, which refused to allow reporters into Gaza to document the horrors of Operation Cast Lead, and which has stripped journalists of their press credentials as punishment for their perceived “anti-Israel bias,” Narwani spent several thousand words breathlesslycomplaining about “Western journalists” who “head straight for the Syrian activist, the anti-regime demonstration, the man with the gun in a ‘hot spot.’” Narawani’s justifications for keeping the foreign press corps away from the scene of Assad’s crimes were disturbingly similar to those of Danny Seaman, the Israeli Government Press Office director during Cast Lead, who said, “Any journalist who enters Gaza becomes a fig leaf and front for the Hamas terror organization, and I see no reason why we should help that.”

Then there was Narwani’s attempt to spin the regime’s artillery assault on the neighborhood of Baba Amr. Her analysis, if you can call it that, immediately reminded me of US military propaganda following the attack on the Iraqi city of Fallujah, a “shake-and-bake” artillery assault that included the firing of white phosphorous shells on a city center in order to, as Ghorayeb might have said, “root out” the terrorists. “While the dominant narrative in the international media assumed an unprovoked army attack on a civilian population,” Narwani wrote of the indiscriminate assault that flattened the Homs neighborhood, “there remains little evidence to back this scenario, particularly after information emerged that the neighborhood was an armed opposition stronghold, most of the population had vacated the neighborhood in advance, and reports of activists exaggerating violence trickled out.”

Like the neocon chickenhawks who cheered on America’s invasion of Iraq from the offices of Washington’s American Enterprise Institute, none of Assad’s apologists appear to have done any journalistic fieldwork to support their opinions. Ghorayeb and Narwani seem to have confined themselves to Beirut, where Ghorayeb consults the writings of V.I. Lenin and Paulo Freire to back up her hallucinatory portrayal of Assad as a subaltern freedom fighter, while Narwani cobbles together a scattershot of YouTube clips and hearsay from journalists she hangs out with to justify the regime’s very own “war on terror.”

Al-Amin’s sourcing is even more dubious. In a column about supposed armed infiltration from Lebanon to Syria, for example, he cited “records of investigations with those detained for transporting and smuggling weapons and explosives…” Perhaps al-Amin could clarify his cryptic language. In particular, he might explain whether he was referring to notes of interrogations of imprisoned opposition members that he received from regime sources. If so, can he confirm that these interrogations did not involve torture?

My issues with Al Akhbar are not limited to its opinion section. A profile originally published at Al Akhbar’s Arabic site (later translated into English) of Bassel Shehadeh, the video journalist killed inside Homs, did not even bother to note that he was killed by the Syrian army — “bullets” were said to be the cause of his death. And it was the only coverage I could find about his death in the paper, which has too often presented events in Syria in curiously vague terms, especially when they concern the regime’s misdeeds.

According to a close friend of Shehadeh who was also covering the opposition in Homs and across Syria, “Bassel was an essential part of the Homs revolution. He was close to the leadership of the Homs resistance, and he lived on the front lines.” Before he decided to return to Syria to support the uprising, Shehadeh was a Fulbright scholar studying at Syracuse University’s fine arts program. He put his studies on hold to train activists inside the besieged city of Homs, believing all along that his history of good luck in the midst of danger would somehow protect him from death.

As a Christian who fiercely rejected sectarianism, Shehadeh’s very presence shook the Syrian regime. After he was killed, the army shelled the Christian neighborhood of Hamidyeh to prevent his funeral, then a gang of shabiha attacked a memorial service for him in Damascus that would have presented a rare display of Christian-Sunni solidarity. It was this sense of solidarity that appeared to threaten the regime the most. As Shehadeh’s mother reportedly said, “They feared him in life, and they feared him in death.”

A few years ago, while visiting the offices of the Nation Magazine, a publication I frequently write for, I reflected on what it might have been like to be working there during the 1930′s when its editorial leadership supported Stalin and willfully ignored his crimes. What were the internal debates like, I wondered, and how would I have reacted? The past few weeks at Al Akhbar have brought those questions back into my thoughts, and they are no longer hypothetical. The paper’s opinion pages have become a playpen for dictator enablers, but unlike the 1930′s-era Nation Magazine, there is less excuse for their apologia. Indeed, given the easy accessibility of online media produced by Syrian activists and journalists, there is no way for Assad’s apologists to claim they did not know about the regime’s crimes.

At this point, I have no excuse either. I am no longer a contributor to Al Akhbar. It is time to move on.