Will dueling op-eds turn into dueling lawsuits?

A war of words between one of the country’s leading Israel-related organizations.
August 31, 2015

A war of words between one of the country’s leading Israel-related organizations, the New Israel Fund (NIF), and Ronn Torossian, a scrappy public relations man who has been campaigning against the organization for the better part of a year, is now on the cusp of becoming a legal battle that will drag in the Jerusalem Post, as well.

Since last November, Torossian has penned — sometimes alone, other times with co-authors — a steady stream of opinion articles alleging that the NIF is “an enemy of the State of Israel,” “systematically encourages boycotts of Israel” and “a partner of Fatah and Hamas,” publishing them in Orthodox and right-wing publications including the Algemeiner Journal, The Jewish Press and Arutz Sheva. In some, Torossian has named top NIF donors, among whom are leaders of prominent mainstream Jewish organizations, including UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Communal Fund.

The NIF says that his articles are “outrageously false” and “defamatory.”

Now the battle that had been going on for months in a variety of online and print venues has escalated into threats of lawsuits. The latest chapter began on Aug.18 when Torossian, with two co-authors, published an opinion piece attacking the NIF in the Jerusalem Post. 

“NIF raises $30 million annually from American Jews – to pursue an agenda which involves advocating and working on a boycott against Israel, weakening the Israel Defense Forces, both on the ground and via ‘lawfare,’ and through various other mechanisms, including advocating for terrorists’ families and collaborating with the United Nations to attack Israel. If it harms Israel, count on the NIF to be part of it,” Torossian wrote in August, in the op-ed co-authored with Hank Sheinkopf, another New York public relations professional, and George Birnbaum, a political consultant who was previously Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff and has since helped Israeli politicians Nir Barkat and Avigdor Lieberman get elected. 

The New Israel Fund objected, pointing out in emails with Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde and Opinions Editor Seth Frantzman that they had promised not to publish another article by Torossian about the organization after running one in April. NIF VP for Public Affairs Naomi Paiss asked the editors to pull Torossian’s new piece. The editors refused, but offered to let the NIF respond with an op-ed of its own.

“Will you help me when they sue us?” Linde wrote in an email to Paiss. “Which they’re going to do, because they’re nuts.”

NIF’s response article, written by Paiss and published on Aug. 20, was titled “Scraping the bottom of the barrel.” 

“Frequently teamed up with Pamela Geller, an Islamophobe so extreme that she has been described as something of a one woman hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, Torossian and his cronies purvey outright falsehoods on extremist websites and blogs. Now, although the editors assure us they will not run such screeds again, we must respond to the recent attack.

“The motives of those who attack us aren’t hard to discern. The NIF opposes the occupation and West Bank settlements and favors the two­state solution. The human rights groups we support hold a mirror up to that occupation, and the results are not positive PR for the settlement enterprise.”

Torossian’s lawyer immediately sent a letter to the Jerusalem Post demanding that it delete Paiss’ article and warning it to “cease and desist all defamation of Ronn Torossian’s character and reputation.” 

Torossian wrote in one email that the claim that he had “teamed up” with Pamela Geller was false, and damaging to his reputation.

Linde then wrote to Torossian and his lawyer, “Ronn, you are so quick to threaten legal action. Please stop bullying and threatening us.
You bashed the NIF, so I gave them the right of response. That’s called freedom of speech in a democratic country.

If you sue us, we’ll never use your op-eds again. Why spoil a good friendship?”

A few minutes later, in an apparent shift, Linde wrote in another email to Torossian regarding the NIF’s op-ed, “I only deleted it out of deference to you. Don’t expect me to be so polite in the future.”

The Jerusalem Post published an “apology” to Torossian, under duress of the threatened lawsuit, as the emails shared by the NIF with the Jewish Journal show. 

It said: “On Friday, August 21, The Jerusalem Post published an op-ed by the New Israel Fund which was factually inaccurate and slanderous. The said article has been removed from our archives. We apologize to Ronn Torossian for the factual errors, as well as for the hurtful tone. Mr. Torossian has asked to clarify that he stands behind his claim that the New Israel Fund remains a proponent of a boycott of Israel. The Jerusalem Post apologizes to our readers.”

On Aug. 23, Linde wrote in an email to Paiss, “I issued the apology in response to the threat of a lawsuit.”

That action prompted a threat of a lawsuit from NIF.

“We certainly could accept an ‘apology’ that would short-circuit the crowing going on in right-wing circles,” NIF’s Paiss e-mailed to Linde on Aug. 23, “but it would mean that you would have to say that our op-ed was NOT slanderous or factually inaccurate and that, in fact, the NIF does NOT support boycott of Israel. That would be fine by us.”

On August 24, the Jerusalem Post published and tweeted a “clarification,” this to assuage the NIF. 

“The Jerusalem Post wishes to clarify to its readers that it is not taking sides in the ongoing dispute between Ron [sic] Torossian and the New Israel Fund. 

As a newspaper, we are open to publishing both points of view, whether we agree or not. Our apology on Sunday, August 23, regarding the publication of “Scraping the bottom of the barrel” (Observations, August 21) by Naomi Paiss, vice president of public affairs for the NIF, was issued in response to an immediate legal threat over the weekend. We have no evidence that the op-ed was slanderous or inaccurate, and the NIF has clarified to us that its policy is to oppose a boycott of Israel. The Jerusalem Post apologizes to the NIF for any offense caused.”

Not long after publishing this, Linde wrote to Paiss, along with Torossian’s lawyer, that he had been advised by higher-ups that he needed to take down the clarification. 

“I cannot tell you how sorry I am,” Linde wrote Paiss. “I really tried to do this by myself, but my attorney says I did the wrong thing. Don’t think this hasn’t stopped Torossian from suing us. So now you can both sue us.”

Indeed, Torossian fired an email off to Linde in response to the clarification. “Am tempted to sue you folks with [NIF].”

On Aug. 28, NIF’s attorney sent the Jerusalem Post a letter by both email and Federal Express, saying that the paper has published “outrageously false and defamatory statements” about the organization and its spokesperson, Naomi Paiss, demanding that the apologies and links to the relevant Torossian article be removed from its website and Twitter feed.

If they are not, then the NIF may pursue lawsuits against the Jerusalem Post, in the United States, Israel and elsewhere, the lawyer’s letter says.

“The behavior of the Jerusalem Post in this matter has been both bizarre and outrageous from the get-go,” NIF CEO Daniel Sokatch said in an interview with the Jewish Journal. “For a newspaper to publish what it knew to be wrong because of threatened legal pressure crosses the line, and we felt we had no choice but to respond in this manner.”

Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Linde responded to a request for an interview with an email saying, “no comment.”

Torossian asked that questions be sent to him by email. Over the next three days, the 50 emails he sent to this reporter started out with a professional tone, but turned threatening. On Sunday, he said he was writing articles about the reporter for the Algemeiner and Jewish Press, in which he said he had been seeking comments about her from members of her synagogue. “Will mention your progressive synagogue and quote two members from there,” Torossian wrote.

Torossian initially ignored a question, which was asked three times, about who his client on the anti-NIF campaign is, though he later wrote that he “is not being paid.”

When asked again if he was working on behalf of a client against NIF, he responded, “My client is Israel’s High Court of Justice, who denied NIF petition to allow them to boycott Israel a few months ago. My client is the ruling Likud Party, who refused to stand with NIF at an event, calling them an Anti-Zionist organization. We stand with Republican Sheldon Adelson and Democrat Haim Saban, who said that all must stand united against boycotts of Israel. We stand with Birthright, who will not work with the NIF. This is not a personal issue, and NIF attacks on me will not stop the fact that a boycott of Israel, and slandering of the IDF must be stopped.”

Torossian, who has a reputation as aggressive, runs a $20 million public relations agency, 5WPR, with 120 employees and offices in multiple cities. Its roster of clients has included leading consumer brands ranging from Anheuser-Busch to U-Haul to L’Oreal and Lifestyle Condoms, according to his website. He has represented hip-hop artists Lil’ Kim and P-Diddy’s Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group, as well as the Christian Coalition, Trinity Broadcasting Network and ardently pro-Israel, conservative Evangelical pastors Benny Hinn and John Hagee. His Israeli clients, past and present, tend to be on the right end of the political spectrum. He has represented Israel’s newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon, though Torossian refused to confirm whether he still represents Danon, or to characterize their relationship.

There is evidence that Torossian also, as the NIF asserts, works in some capacity with Geller. Geller, head of the American Freedom Defense Initiative and creator of anti-Islam campaigns on public transit systems around the U.S., in March embarked on a campaign designed to get the NIF thrown out of New York’s Celebrate Israel Parade. It included posters on New York City Transit buses naming individual NIF donors, including Alisa Doctoroff, the president of UJA-Federation of New York. The NIF marched in the parade as planned.

Torossian’s firm sent out a statement on Geller’s behalf on March 1, announcing Geller’s “new campaign to expose leaders who fund BDS.”

Now, however, Torossian ardently denies he has any relationship with Geller. He wrote, in an email to the Jerusalem Post’s Linde on Aug. 20 referring to Paiss’ article, “to link me to Ms. Geller is damaging to my business and reputation — and I demand said references be immediately removed or will take legal action both in the United States and Israel. As you are aware, I own 1 of the 20 largest PR firms in the United States.”

Asked why he has chosen to focus on the NIF, Torossian wrote in an email to the Journal, “An organization which boycotts israel, such as the new israel fund is a danger to the jewish people. An organization which funds breaking the silence, which works all over the world to harm the israel defense forces is an extremist organization. Its simple, as the right and left in israel agree. To boycott israel is to stand against israel. To harm the idf is to stand against israel.” 

NIF CEO Sokatch called Torossian’s attacks part of a disturbing tone in the Jewish community today.

“We see a ratcheting up of vituperativeness from the extreme nationalist hard right wing,” he told the Journal. “All kinds of really hate-filled, un-factual rhetoric has taken the place of any actual critique. That’s because these people feel threatened. Torossian’s vision of Israel is not shared by most American Jews, and probably not by most Israelis. They try to attack and smear the people who stand for the vision of Israel as an open, liberal democratic society,” Sokatch said.

Steven M. Cohen, a leading sociologist of American Jewish life, said Torossian’s attacks on NIF funders “come in the context of mounting and sharpening polarization of pro-Israel conservatives and pro-Israel liberals. Not too many years ago, the Zionist right would take issue with the positions of the Zionist left. But they never question the loyalty of left-wing Zionists or their right to participate in Israel-related discourse. All that has changed as Mr. Torossian — and some others — question the Israel credentials of some of the most committed and effective pro-Israel philanthropists, leaders, and practitioners,” Cohen wrote in an email from Jerusalem.

In fact, the NIF, which does advocacy work, as well as grant making, has had a policy for the last several years of opposing boycotts of Israel, while permitting a targeted boycott of products from the settlements.

Its policy states: “The NIF does oppose the global (or general) BDS movement, views the use of these tactics as counterproductive, and is concerned that segments of this movement seek to undermine the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish homeland. NIF will not fund global BDS activities against Israel nor support organizations that have global BDS programs. However, NIF opposes the occupation and settlement activities. NIF will thus not exclude support for organizations that lawfully discourage the purchase of goods or use of services from settlements.”

“We will theoretically fund an organization that theoretically advocates boycotting settlement products,” Paiss told the Journal. Many Israelis, too, “won’t buy wine from the territories,” she noted.

The view that boycotting settlement products is the same as boycotting those made in Israel proper ironically aligns Torossian with proponents of the global Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] movement, Paiss said.

“We think this erasure of the Green Line, saying that boycotting an orange from Ariel is the same as saying the State of Israel has no right to exist puts Torossian on the same page as the Global BDS people, because they also see no difference between Tel Aviv and Ariel, and we do.”

But Torossian counters that Israel Supreme Court’s agrees with him. In April it upheld the country’s 2011 “Anti-Boycott Law,” making it a civil offense for people or groups to advocate boycotting Israeli institutions or individuals when the advocacy has a reasonable chance of succeeding. By a 5-4 vote, the justices deemed that the law also applied to the West Bank territories, a decision critics blasted as suppressing political dissent. 

Meanwhile, the Aug. 28 letter from Beverly Hills attorney Douglas Mirell to the Jerusalem Post  demanding remedy in the ongoing dispute between NIF and Torossian has yet to be answered.

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