A group of hard-line U.S. neo-conservatives and former Israeli diplomats, among others, are behind the mass distribution, ahead of the November U.S. presidential election, of a controversial DVD that critics have denounced as Islamophobic.
The group, the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), is working with another organisation called the Clarion Fund, which produced the 60-minute video and is itself tied closely to an Israeli organisation called Aish Hatorah.
The Fund is currently distributing some 28 million copies of the DVD through newspaper inserts in key electoral ''swing'' states – states like Michigan, Ohio, and Florida that, according to recent polling, could go either way in November's presidential election.
According to Delaware incorporation papers, the Clarion Fund is based at the same New York address as Aish Hatorah, a self-described "apolitical" group dedicated to educating Jews about their heritage.
The Clarion Fund's street address as listed on the group's website and a DVD mailer for the film is apparently not a physical address, but rather a "virtual address" that goes to a post office box in New York City.
Critics allege that the movie "Obsession" is "hate propaganda" which paints Muslims as violent extremists and, among other things, explicitly compares the threat posed by radical Islam to that of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
At least two major metropolitan newspapers solicited to insert the paid advertisement into their product have refused to do so because of a perceived bias in the film.
"Despite the perilous state of American newspapers, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch advertising department took an ethical stand and refused to distribute the DVD of a film that for two years has troubled American Muslims," wrote Tim Townsend, a reporter at Missouri's most influential newspaper earlier this month after it rejected the ad.
While the initial press reports about the mass distribution focused on the Clarion Fund's financing role, it was EMET that organised and oversaw the distribution, EMET's spokesman, Ari Morgenstern, told IPS. Morgenstern, a former press officer for the Israeli embassy here, said he contacted IPS at the Clarion Fund's request.
EMET, according to a recent press release, is "a non-partisan, non-profit organisation dedicated to policy research and analysis on democracy and the Middle East."
According to filings made in compliance with the organisation's tax-exempt 501(c)3 status, "the organisation hosts seminars, debates and educational films featuring Middle East experts in order to educate policymakers and the public at large on the common threats facing Israel and the United States."
Morgenstern told IPS that EMET was "partnered with the Clarion Fund" on what he called the "Obsession Project" which he identified as "an initiative of EMET". He declined to name the Project's donors. A spokesman for the Clarion Fund, Gregory Ross, has also refused to name the Fund's donors, whose identity remains a mystery.
Morgenstern also declined to specify the cost of the DVD distribution, but did say, "it costs a great deal – it's a multi-million-dollar effort." Outside experts have estimated the cost of the operation, including reproduction and distribution, at between 15 million dollars and 50 million dollars.
Like hard-line neo-conservatives, EMET opposes any land concessions to Palestinians and takes other hard-line positions identified with Israel's right-wing Likud Party and the ''Settler Lobby'' there. EMET's website says, "We regard ourselves as 'intellectual revolutionaries'".
The group's acronym, EMET, mirrors the name of a predecessor to the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, which was called Emet. The word means "truth" in Hebrew.
Two weeks ago, EMET sponsored a seminar series on Capitol Hill named for the controversial multi-billionaire casino and hotel magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major donor to right-wing Zionist organisations in the U.S.; the far-right lobby group, Freedom's Watch; and the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), whose efforts to persuade Jewish voters that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is aligned with radical anti-Israel forces in the Islamic world have drawn strong criticism from the mainstream Jewish press here.
EMET's board of advisers includes a list of familiar neo-conservative figures, as well as three former Israeli diplomats, including a former deputy chief of mission in Israel's Washington embassy.
The group is headed by Sarah Stern, who began her activism on Israeli issues in opposition to the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestinians. She made a career out of her activism in the far-right Zionist Organisation of America (ZOA) as its national policy coordinator from 1998 through 2004.
Notable members of the advisory board include prominent hard-line neo-conservatives, including former U.S. U.N. Amb. the late Jeane Kirkpatrick; Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum; and the Hudson Institute's Meyrav Wurmser, the Israeli-born spouse of Vice President Dick Cheney's former top Middle East adviser, David Wurmser.
Other prominent neo-conservative members of the board include Centre for Security Policy (CSP) president Frank Gaffney; former CIA chief James Woolsey; and Heritage Foundation fellows Ariel Cohen and Nina Shea, who has also served for years on the quasi-governmental U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom.
The U.S.-born and -educated hard-line deputy managing editor of the Jerusalem Post and senior fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at Gaffney's CSP, Caroline Glick, is also an adviser.
Glick, Pipes, and Walid Shoebat, a "reformed" terrorist and EMET adviser, are all featured as experts in "Obsession".
Also among the top names of listed advisers to EMET are three Israeli diplomats. Two of them, Ambassadors Yossi Ben Aharon and Yoram Ettinger, were among the three Israeli ambassadors whom then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin referred to as "the Three Musketeers" when they lobbied Washington in opposition to the Oslo accords. Indeed, Stern began her career at the behest of three unnamed Israeli diplomats who were based in Washington under Rabin's predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir, according to EMET's website.
Ettinger was at one time the chairman of special projects and is still listed as a contributing expert at the Ariel Centre for Policy Research, a hard-line Likudist Israeli think tank that opposes the peace process.
Ben Aharon was the director general – effectively the chief of staff – of Shamir's office.
The third Israeli ambassador, Lenny Ben-David, was appointed by Likud prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to serve as the deputy chief of mission – second in command – at the Israeli embassy in Washington from 1997 until 2000. Ben-David had also held senior positions at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for 25 years and is now a consultant and lobbyist.
But EMET is not the only group involved in the "Obsession" controversy to have direct ties to Israel.
The Clarion Fund has also been criticised for initially denying its ties to the Israel's Aish Hatorah, which were first disclosed publicly by an IPS investigation last year.
Honestreporting.com, an organisation set up by Aish Hatorah and also a client of Ben-David, admitted to IPS that it had aided the production of the film.
The Clarion Fund and Aish Hatorah are headed by twin Israeli-Canadian brothers Raphael and Ephraim Shore, respectively. The two groups appear to be connected as Clarion is incorporated in Delaware to the New York offices of Aish Hatorah.
"It seems that the Clarion Fund, from what we can tell, is just a virtual organisation that is a front for Aish Hatorah," Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told IPS. "They don't have staff, they don't have a physical address. Nothing."
Little is known about the shadowy Clarion Fund, which is listed with the New York Secretary of State's office as a "foreign not-for-profit foundation." The group has rejected requests for information about its donors.
IPS has, however, uncovered one donor to the Clarion Fund, the Mamiye Foundation, which gave it 25,000 dollars in August of 2007, according to tax filings. Four Mamiyes, Charles M., Charles D., Hyman and Abraham, are listed as trustees on the forms.
According to filings with the New York Secretary of State, a contact listed for a Mamiye company is also the same man listed as a contact and counsel for the Clarion Fund – Eli D. Greenberg of the law firm Wolf, Haldenstein, Adler, Freeman and Herz.
Foreign nationals and companies, and domestic tax-exempt 501(c)3 non-profits are prohibited by federal election law from attempting to sway U.S. elections at any level through either contributions to campaigns or advocacy.
Morgenstern, EMET's spokesman, said that the DVD distribution only went to "swing states" because media attention is focused there, and EMET is hoping to spark a public debate about the threats posed by" radical Islam".
But CAIR has filed a complaint asking the Federal Election Commission to review the actions of the Clarion Fund both as a foreign entity and as a non-profit.
The complaint by Nadhira Al-Khalili, CAIR's legal counsel, asked that both charges be investigated.
*Jim Lobe contributed to this story.