A legal victory shows how anti-Israel groups use our campuses and the Internet.
On May 4, 2006, I decided to play hooky from work and went to UC Berkeley to attend an Israel Independence Day celebration. Unlike past years when a large crowd of students would be present with Israeli flags, balloons and music, and a large crowd Israeli folkdancing, there was a dismal turnout, less than ten people on a campus that has such a large Jewish population. As usual, the anti-Israel crowd from Cal’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) was nearby handing out flyers calling for a boycott of Israel and American Jews who allegedly run businesses in America and who might be sympathetic to the Jewish state. The SJP, as part of the International Solidarity Movement at UC Berkeley, began the campus divestment campaign against Israel in 2002 that has spread to college campuses nationwide. By 2006, the Jewish campus crowd was clearly cowed from holding a major event at Cal.
If you ever want to know how just five minutes can affect your life, read on: One of the anti-Israel students that day named Yaman Salahi, a member of the board of directors of the SJP, handed me a flyer promoting the Arab League boycott of Israel. I pointed out to him though that the historical information on the flyer was inaccurate, inflating the number of Palestinian Arab refuges well beyond their true number, a frequent exaggeration. The student at first began to debate with me. There was nothing personal in this encounter, so I handed the student my business card and suggested his club invite me to campus where we could have a lively debate on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. After all, this was a major university and place of learning.
On seeing who I was, a writer and pundit who has written many articles and exposes on the ISM, including here at Front Page Magazine, the student began to berate me and call me a “racist.” As the others from his SJP group gathered around me and began ranting at me and photographing me, I beat a hasty retreat. But the student I had first encountered began stalking me across the campus.
Before becoming a journalist I had worked fourteen years on the Cal campus and had a Palestinian Arab friend there who I ran into and began to chat with. But the student from the SJP suddenly showed up and butted into our conversation.
“You wouldn’t be talking with him if you knew who he was,” he told my friend. “Why not?” my friend asked. “Because he supports Israel,” came the reply. My friend asked the student if he was a Palestinian and he replied in Arabic that he was Syrian. He demanded to know why my friend was even talking to me. My friend, in turn, replied, “Look, he has his opinion and I have mine. We don’t have to agree with each other to be friends.” The student was asked to leave.
A few days later a friend called me to tell me a web blog had been set up exclusively dedicated to attacking me personally as a journalist. Dubbed Lee Kaplan Watch, it supposedly was to be an examination of my writing and research about the ISM to “discredit” me. The headline read, “Lee Kaplan is a self-proclaimed ‘investigative journalist’ who “represents the very worst of journalistic integrity and honesty, violating ethical norms by impersonating others and writing fabricated biographies of various persons involved in campus activism.” The headline also declared me a threat to academic freedom. The gist of the site was not to criticize my politics, or allay information in my articles with facts, but rather to incriminate me publicly via the Internet and render me unemployable as a journalist. Over the next several months articles appeared in bold headlines suggesting that I had been sued for libel (harmful to any journalist’s reputation), that I engaged in theft, that I violated confidentiality agreements, solicited donations for terrorist organizations, that I harassed families of pro-PLO activists and that I fabricated all of my articles from whole cloth.
None of these accusations were true, or even based on any real evidence. The purpose of the website, which claimed to be an exercise in free speech by two students from the SJP, was to intimidate me from using my rights of free speech to report on the ISM as I had done for the last four years. To these students, smearing my reputation as a journalist was a means to “discredit” the years of evidence I accumulated about the ISM.
There was a time when someone Jewish could visit the UC Berkeley campus and not be harassed and stalked afterward relentlessly as I was to be. But times have changed.
I immediately contacted the Dean of Student Conduct and complained that I should be able to come to campus without being followed and harassed in persona nd on the Internet. The Dean responsible claimed there was nothing he could do. The truth is, the Dean could do anything he wanted in terms of telling a student not to persist in harassing a visitor to campus. Had I been a woman who encountered a student who sexually stalked me on campus, no doubt UC Berkeley would have told the student to stop. But I was a writer and a Jew who frequently defends Israel in the press, and false accusations of criminal activity and libel were acceptable. A meeting with the student was suggested to ask him to stop, but ultimately the student refused to attend and the University did not insist.
Google, who provided the free web log, even ignored letters to their abuse department that clearly showed the web blog violated Google’s own terms and conditions at the time about not creating web blogs to solely attack one individual or for stalking. Google’s new terms (since changed) now allow personal attacks and stalking until stopped by court order.
Fellow journalists advised me the smear site was actually a compliment: “It shows how effective your work is that they are doing this to you, “ they would say. But there was a downside; as a journalist, as in any other profession, my reputation for being honest in what I report is vital to my finding work, anywhere, at any time. The website had few viewers, true, but it nonetheless contained libelous information about me that could hurt my career—the aim of its creators.
Despite my alleged “self-proclaimed” status as an investigative journalist, I was able to show Yaman Salahi that he had an uncle he never even knew about who heads the Muslim Brotherhood in London as I began to research my attacker.
Apparently, the poor number of viewers to the smear site was not enough for Salahi; over time, the student became even more obsessed with attacking me personally over the Web. He arranged to have content changed on my websites and those of my publishers. Unknown to me, he began emailing threats to people I do business with and to my publishers too. The letters accused me of defamation against unnamed individuals and of causing “material damage” to countless people. They concluded with an ominous threat that if they did not stop doing business with me, the student had a wide circle of friends on the Internet with whom he could interlink and attack their businesses. I lost two literary jobs at the same time the emails were sent, not because of my work, but because the publishers were concerned for their businesses after seeing how I was being defamed on the Web.
They were right to be concerned. One of them in Canada discovered that an article of mine she published had had the photos switched of an ISM cell in Boston with photos of me as Big Brother like from the book 1984, costing her considerable time and money to have them fixed, a problem that nearly cost me a job with her. The Cal student at Berkeley took great glee in what he had done, even posting in detail how he achieved it on his website to attack me, something that would later be evidence in court. Over time, the student became even more obsessed and lived up to the computer skills he professed to have over the Internet. He began interlinking over with other web blogs set up by other students and other people active in the ISM and even began sending out whatever false accusations he could to web sources citing himself anonymously as a viable news source. Incredibly, many of the other sites printed his calumny. Even worse, one of his affiliates began running pornographic images of homosexual and other sex scenes and cartoons with my head photo shopped onto the bodies. In one, I was a voyeur in a woman’s bathroom with an Israeli flag on the wall. In another, my head was blown off and death threats were included.
It should be noted these are people who declare themselves “peace activists” and lovers of humanity, who somehow believe it is their right to do such things. Such people are also frequent defenders of terrorists and totalitarians overseas.
I’ve written in the past how terrorist groups and their supporters use the Internet to keep the Middle East conflict roiling on forever, and my experience was just another example of this.
As other web blogs sprang up repeating the personal smears on the Lee Kaplan Watch smear site as if they were true, Google and the University saw nothing wrong with all this. For years before, an Internet search engine search under my name brought up in first place archives of my articles at various publishers like Front Page Magazine, The Israel National News and Canada Free Press. But through relentless use of his Internet skills and working with his friends in the ISM, the SJP student managed to push his smear site against me to number one on some of the major search engines whenever my name was entered. This was intentional to “discredit” me even if the information to do so was false. In his sick and twisted mind, he was somehow fighting the battle for “Palestine.”
Finally, a colleague at Front Page Magazine contacted me. “I didn’t know you were sued for libel,” he said. I wasn’t. But even he had seen so much of this stuff on the Web he assumed it must be true.
It became time to act.
The student had boasted from day one that I could never sue him. He had a right to blog, he wrote, no matter what he said that was untrue. Google and the University were inclined to ignore him, and besides, as he claimed on his blog, he had offers from lawyers who work with the ISM to represent him for free if I ever sued. At the same time, a lawsuit could take years and attorney’s fees would cost me more than my losses that I might never recoup.
I took the most economical route; I sued him in small claims court for the maximum amount. But this wasn’t easy either. The student began ducking service of papers for the case. A legal subpoena submitted to UC Berkeley for the student’s address solely to serve him papers was ignored by the University’s attorney even though it was illegal to do so. The student was again so cocky he posted all the legal documents to the case on the Web including my personal address, boasting that he was not worried because the University’s and other attorneys advised him he could not be touched. He then sent me emails demanding “discovery” items for the case, something that was his downfall. By California law his posting of the legal documents and demands for information from me that I supplied meant he was legally joined and established that he knew about the lawsuit. So when the day of the trial came, and he did not show up because he still managed to duck service, he lost automatically by a default judgment. He told the judge at a later hearing that he knew he was sued, but figured by ducking service he need not appear, he’d just let me chase him. The judge was not impressed, but permitted him a new hearing anyway.
The student subsequently got the default judgment vacated and a trial was held. The same tactics of lying and citing himself all over the Web did not impress the judge and I was awarded over $7,500 in damages after four hearings over the better part of a year. Still, the legal system allowed him one last appeal, and this time he could have a lawyer, probably a free one furnished by another ISM group. I would have to pay for mine.
At the final hearing, Salahi was represented by Adam Gutride of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that is part of the ISM and rubs elbows at Washington conclaves that are funded by Saudi Arabia with the most virulent and anti-Semitic of anti-Israel groups like Al Awda and even neo-Nazis like David Duke, and which I have exposed in earlier articles here at Front Page Magazine, especially one about their abuse of their non-profit status. Most likely Gutride was pro-bono like Salahi boasted. Their defense? Tons of articles with more libelous accusations and web logs such that Salahi had generated by interlinking from his own smear site.
The judge didn’t buy their defense and they submitted so many declarations full of contradictory lies that were proven in court that I won.
Did Salahi, the SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace learn anything from this? No. Today on the smear site Salahi writes about the “Failure of the US Justice System” and vows to persevere on in attacking me personally on the Web. He lost the lawsuit after three judges concurred he was in the wrong, but to him it’s the fault of the judge, the legal system, my “enormous ego,” anything and anyone, but himself. And that is the same mentality of those in the ISM who attack Israel’s and America’s existence and act as a support network and as human shields for terrorist groups—they are never wrong, and any amount of lying, or misrepresentation in their goal is a worthy pursuit.
The court awarded me over $7,500 in damages after Salahi’s last appeal, yet Salahi, undeterred, began another Internet campaign claiming the lawsuit had chilling effects on free speech. Leftist websites cross the country repeated all his misinformation as if it was true. He was the victim, as was freedom of speech. All of this despite the fact he was still publishing the libel against me on his web blog as before. According to Salahi, bloggers should be allowed to say anything they want, no matter how untrue, on the Web and reap no repercussions for it. Two Superior Court judges saw things differently and did not buy his argument.
At the last trial, the judge tried to probe what was in Salahi’s mind when he conveyed threats to one of my publishers. Salahi claimed he’d made the threats because I allegedly accused him of being a Nazi (I hadn’t) and that he was fearful that should he visit Syria in the future, that post World War II refuge for Nazi war criminals might persecute him during his visit. The judge only shook his head in disbelief.
Meanwhile, I’ve learned to set up my own web log in which I deconstruct the smear articles on Salahi’s smear site. Not one thing he accused me of in my articles has proven true to date save confusing the nationality of one person in the ISM. Over time my new blog will appear next to his smear entry on the search engines. Another benefit of my suit is that another affiliated website of his that was set up with a different ISP to attack me personally with more smear articles was removed for violations of service after I showed them the results of my lawsuit. I may sue Google also in the near future.
One thing is for certain: I will continue to expose the illegal and warmongering activities of the ISM in my research and work. This case was not about freedom of speech for the students in the SJP who sought to smear me. It was about trying to curb my freedom of speech, and it failed.