On June 29, during a conference at the Gaza Strip’s Al-Quds Open University titled “The Zionist Narrative Between Cassation and Dismantlement,” Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas stated: “There have become convictions and shifts in the world’s public opinion and at the level of parliaments towards reconsidering the Palestinian narrative.” Unfortunately, there is some truth to his words.
What Abbas did not mention, however, is why this shift is taking place. It would be easy — and indeed correct — to place a substantial portion of the blame on NGOs that promulgate lies about Israel, as Human Rights Watch and B’tselem did with their recent reports that inaccurately condemned Israel as an apartheid state. One could also rightfully blame the PA itself, for its self-portrayal of perpetual victimhood at the hands of supposed Israeli aggression, despite its policy of financing terror and inciting violence in its schoolbooks.
But there is another element to the campaign to erode Israel’s public image that seldom gets the attention it deserves: the foreign influence of Middle East regimes.
It is common knowledge to anyone well-versed in international politics that countries frequently pursue methods of molding their adversaries’ public opinion to align with their own objectives. Often these methods are clandestine and leak to the public in cryptic fragments. This year, however, Iran, Turkey, and Islamic terrorist organizations have intensified their efforts to openly infiltrate the minds of susceptible young Americans through the anti-Israel movement.
On June 18, the Center for Islam & Global Affairs (CIGA), housed at Turkey’s Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, launched its second international conference on Palestine. This hate-filled extravaganza lasted for five days and featured lectures by western professors and anti-Israel activists from around the world.
This conference was particularly insidious, even to those familiar with the campaign to delegitimize Israel, because it took place under the auspices of the authoritarian Turkish government and the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Turkish umbrella group Global Coalition for Quds and Palestine (GCQP).
The host of the event was Sami Al-Arian, a former professor at the University of South Florida who pled guilty in 2006 to assisting the U.S.-designated terror organization Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). He was subsequently deported to Turkey.
Among the conference’s illustrious speakers was GCQP secretary-general Mohammad Akram Al-Adlouni, who authored a 1991 document in which he expressed support for “civilizational Jihad” to eliminate western society from within. Although it is still debated, there are experts who contend that the document was adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Adlouni’s lecture was never delivered after his problematic ties were exposed.
Other speakers included the Hamas-supporting Osama Abuirshaid, the executive director of American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), and Estee Chandler, a senior member of the radical Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that hosted a notorious Palestinian terrorist at a Chicago summit and recently glorified the First Intifada, a violent Palestinian uprising in the 1980s that took the lives of many Israelis. JVP boasts over 70 chapters across the United States, many on university campuses.
Perhaps most worrying, however, is that eleven American professors spoke at the conference, nine of whom teach at public universities. The professors hail from institutions including the University of Denver, Columbia University, Ohio State University, and the University of Arizona. Some of these professors are highly influential among students, such as Lubna Qutami of UCLA, who founded the terror-supporting student organization Palestinian Youth Movement, and Rabab Abdulhadi of San Francisco State University, who attempted to host convicted airplane hijacker Leila Khaled at an event for students.
Over the course of the conference, countless false accusations were levied at Israel by the speakers to instill the notion that Israel is an evil state worthy of annihilation. Al-Arian himself was not shy about voicing his desire to see Israel’s demise, asserting that “the essence of the struggle should be to dismantle this structure.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran has also been attempting to shape the minds of American youth through the anti-Israel movement. Six months before the Turkey-based event, Iran joined 60 anti-Israel groups and a number of U.S.-designated terrorist organizations for two virtual events based out of Gaza and Tehran titled “Year to Confront Normalization” and “Together Against Normalization,” respectively. The events aired simultaneously on Lebanon’s pro-Hezbollah Al-Mayadeen television network and were livestreamed on Facebook side by side.
Speakers included Ziyad al-Nakhalah, leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad; Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh; and Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, speaker of the Iranian parliament. Many of the groups promoting the event enlist American students as dutiful soldiers in their crusade against Israel. A prime example is the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network (SPPSN), a proxy of the Marxist-Leninist terror group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Samidoun played a key role in organizing many of the student-led #DayofRage and #DaysofResistance protests that swept across U.S. cities in the summer of 2020. These protests, ostensibly against police brutality, were used to demonize Israel and the U.S. It is no coincidence that chants of “death to America” and “death to Israel” were heard at the SPPSN’s rally in Brooklyn.
How should the U.S. respond to Turkey’s and Iran’s attempts to cognitively influence American students? In the case of Iran, the U.S. must emphasize that Tehran’s efforts will decrease the likelihood of a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. The U.S. must not allow the Iranians to freely hijack the hearts and minds of American citizens to push their regional and global agenda.
As for Turkey, the U.S. is more constrained due to its membership in NATO and other strategic considerations, such as the presence of U.S. aircraft at Turkey’s Incirlik airbase. That, however, should not prevent the U.S. from encouraging more-moderate Middle East states — particularly those that have normalized ties with Israel — to implement measures that would regionally weaken and isolate Ankara.
If there is one takeaway from all this, it’s that there is a contingent of supposed peace activists, academics, and student groups that serve as an ideological backdoor for radical Middle Eastern extremism into the United States. Having been a professor himself, Al-Arian is all too aware of the ability professors possess to mold the minds of impressionable young students. Iran, which has essentially adopted “Death to America” as its unofficial slogan since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, is all too eager to capitalize on this trend, as is Turkey, whose relationship with the U.S. has become increasingly adversarial over the last decade.
The U.S. cannot prevent Americans from participating in events like these, but Washington must make it abundantly clear to these countries and their radical allies that just as physical, economic, and cyber attacks are unacceptable, so too cognitive attacks on the minds of young Americans will not be tolerated.
— Brigadier General (reserve) Yosef Kuperwasser formerly led the research-and-assessment division of Israeli Military Intelligence. He is currently a senior project director at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Eitan Fischberger, a former staff sergeant in the Israeli Air Force, is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His writing has appeared in RealClearPolitics, NBC News THINK, National Interest, and more.