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When the FBI Wiretapped American Jewish Citizens – U.S. News – Haaretz.com

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When Israeli President Isaac Herzog ascends the rostrum Wednesday to address a joint congressional session in the House of Representatives, most people in Washington will already know the broad outlines of what he will say. America and Israel are two countries united by common values and governing traditions, the script goes; they share common enemies and challenges, and so on. What he’s not likely to talk about is the uncomfortable truths about America’s actions towards Jews in the previous century.

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Many already know that when Jewish refugees needed America the most – as Nazis were ramping up operations to exterminate them – the U.S. government refused to take in Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany. After World War II ended and the magnitude of the Holocaust became apparent, attitudes in the U.S. shifted, and support for the establishment of a Jewish state in the area where ancient Israel once stood grew among American political elites.

But, it turns out, even as the fledgling state of Israel was fighting for its existence in 1947 and 1948, the FBI targeted American Jewish civil society organizations and activists for surveillance. This happened even as U.S. Jews sought to provide non-lethal aid to their coreligionists fighting multiple Arab armies.

Previously classified FBI wiretap records obtained by the Cato Institute via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that between at least September 1947 and May 1948, the FBI monitored the communications of Sol Rotenberg, a Jewish political activist and organizer associated with the International Workers Order, which the FBI falsely believed was a front organization for the Communist Party of the United States. The Bureau’s wiretap captured conversations between Rotenberg and multiple other American Jewish leaders and activists.

All of the activities the FBI monitored were clearly protected by the First Amendment, and revealed no violations of federal law on the part of the groups they surveilled, but that didn’t stop the FBI from maintaining an investigative focus on one organization in particular: the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA).

Founded in 1897 to help promote the creation of a modern Jewish homeland in the ancestral territory of the ancient Jews, ZOA had, by the mid-1940s, become a significant political force in the United States. But the Bureau believed, according to records obtained by Cato via FOIA, that it had been infiltrated – or at least influenced – by communists.

A May 1945 FBI characterization of ZOA noted that a confidential informant had claimed in March 1937 that “the Zionist Organization of America was very friendly with the Communist Party in contrast with other purely Jewish organizations.” The FBI maintained informant coverage and other forms of intelligence-gathering targeting ZOA throughout the 1930s and 1940s, with a clear emphasis on looking for evidence of collusion with the U.S. Communist Party and monitoring the financial and other support flowing from ZOA to Jews in British Mandatory Palestine.

Romanian orphans of World War II work in a chicken coop at a farm in Petah Tikvah, in Mandate Palestine, in 1946.Credit: Zoltan Kluger / Government Press Office

Other FBI records previously released on ZOA show a clear record of FBI investigations from the 1940s through at least the mid-1970s which sought to establish whether ZOA was acting as an agent of a foreign power – the government of Israel – in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. That law was passed in 1938 in response to the propaganda efforts mounted by Germany (as well as Soviet Russia) in the United States. No evidence was ever presented to indicate that ZOA had violated this act.

Despite legitimate concerns about potential foreign government efforts to influence domestic American politics, there’s a clear difference between engaging in propaganda, lobbying, or other “influence operations” at the behest of a foreign power and aiding refugee coreligionists abroad who are trying to recover from a literal attempted genocide.

This is a distinction that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI clearly failed to make during much of the prior century, a failure that clearly violated the constitutional rights of an earlier generation of American Jews. The United States government should apologize for treating a religious minority and its organizations as a threat lying in wait, and forever renounce the use of covert surveillance for such purposes.

Patrick G. Eddington is a former CIA analyst and ex-House senior policy advisor. He is currently a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

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