Last October, Hooman Bakhtiar, a producer with the U.S. government-funded Voice of America, sent an email to Josh Block, former national spokesperson for AIPAC and now head of “The Israel Project.” Bakhtiar told Block he had “been tasked to put together a debate between a Palestinian advocate and one from the Israeli side,” and explained that the representative for the Palestinian side — the Israeli-born Palestinian journalist and author Rula Jebreal — had already been booked. He pleaded with Block to find him an Israeli opponent because, as he put it, “I cannot have this lady Rula all by herself.”
What followed is a demeaning and sexist email exchange between the two (printed below) about Jebreal’s physical appearance, ethnicity, intellect, mental health, and alleged anti-Semitism. The emails, obtained by The Intercept as part of a FOIA request submitted by the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy, show Block repeatedly instructing the VOA producer that Jebreal — a “crazy person” and “anti-Semite” — should not be booked or even acknowledged as someone worthy of hearing from. While Block blithely argued that her political perspectives and intellect should be ignored, the duo took time to have a spirited debate over her “looks.” (Bakhtiar says his “editor was keen on having her on because of her looks (although she is hardly my type),” while Block excitedly exclaims: “Now that make sense!”)
The mocking dismissal of Jebreal’s seriousness is striking given her career accomplishments and credentials: Fluent in four languages, she was the first foreign journalist to anchor an evening news program in Italy, writes frequently for political outlets around the world, and has authored three books, including two novels (one of which, Miral, the story of “the founding of a Palestinian orphanage in 1948 and three generations of women caught in the crossfire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” was turned into a film by the director Julian Schnabel, for which Jebreal wrote the screenplay).
A critic of Israel, she is an articulate, substantive, sophisticated, and highly knowledgeable commentator on Middle Eastern debates. In 2014, she made news, and demonstrated great courage, when, as an MSNBC contributor, she went on MSNBC to denounce the outlet’s relentlessly pro-Israel coverage that systematically excludes Palestinians. She then suggested she had been blackballed from the network. She did the same when she went on Bill Maher’s HBO program and confronted the host about his increasing animosity toward Muslims.
Instead of Jebreal, Block urged the booking of “someone like Ghaith al-Omari, who is a former PLO official and peace process negotiator.” Al-Omari is a fellow at the D.C.-based Washington Institute for Near East Policy — alongside pro-Israel stalwarts such as longtime pro-Israel U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross and former Bush Treasury official Matthew Levitt — and, as such, remains faithfully within the D.C. consensus for how Israel and Palestine are discussed. The institute previously boasted as one of its fellows Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. On news of al-Omari’s joining, Haaretz described the group this way: “Established in 1985, the Washington Institute is known for its ties in the U.S. and Israeli governments.”
Block’s suggested replacement for Jebreal, al-Omari, also previously served as a director of the American Task Force on Palestine, which some critics scorn as a “sham” group which has received “funding from one of the most aggressive funders of anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic initiatives in the United States,” Seth Klarman (who also happens to be a principal funder of Block’s The Israel Project). It’s certainly not hard to see why someone like Block would be strongly urging VOA to book the pleasing, pliant al-Omari instead of the type of independent-minded advocate of Palestinian rights such as Jebreal.
Still, the demeaning, obviously sexist rhetoric freely flying between Block and this VOA producer is notable and disturbing. The exchange ends when Bakhtiar tells Block he found someone who has “accepted the challenge of taking on Lady Rula.” Even more disturbing is the extent to which this U.S. government-funded outlet is seeking direction in its programming from a such a hardened pro-Israel ideologue and operative like Josh Block, often at the center of some of the most toxic Israel Lobby campaigns. And it highlights how Israel advocates like to compile and maintain lists of Officially Approved Spokespeople whom they deem are sufficiently pliant and thus can be heard when someone needs to hear from a Palestinian perspective.
“When I read things like this, I know I am doing my job,” Jebreal told The Intercept. “What they are doing is bullying, harassing, and attempting to silence any voice that challenges the dominant narrative. The emails are deeply revealing because they show that even outlets like Voice of America are so married to these institutional relationships that they are willing to bend over backwards to please them. It’s shameful.” Both Block and Bakhtiar failed to respond to requests for comment.
UPDATE: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, whose think tank “fellows” Block wants to represent the Palestinian position, was created in the 1990s with AIPAC funding. Last year, Block’s own organization created a controversy by launching a pro-Israel media campaign featuring photos of what it called “hotties” in the IDF: female members of the Israeli military whom Block and associates apparently found physically attractive and thus helpful to glorify Israeli militarism.