A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Pro-Israel Group Misleads Wisconsin Voters


A Senate candidate says a pro-Israel group is airing a “false” TV ad about her record and urges stations not to run it. The ad does mislead voters in some — but not all — of its claims:

  • The ad says Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin called “terrorists who attacked Israel ‘innocent victims’ ” — a claim it illustrates with photos of masked men carrying weapons. That’s nonsense. Baldwin said those killed and injured while attempting to deliver aid to the Gaza Strip were “innocent victims.” In that instance, the U.N. found the Israeli military used “unreasonable” force on unarmed victims and recommended compensation. As for terrorists, Baldwin has condemned the “abhorrent rocket and mortar attacks” against Israel and the “continued terrorist action by Hamas and other militant groups.”
  • The ad also claims she “attacked the NYPD for monitoring Islamic extremists.” This is also not true. The ad is referring to Baldwin’s vote to deny federal aid to law enforcement agencies that engage in racial, religious or ethnic profiling. The measure was drafted in response to a surveillance program in New York that targeted Muslims, but it would have applied to any agency that engages in illegal profiling. That’s not necessarily evidence that she “attacked” the NYPD.

The ad’s most contentious claim is that Baldwin “accused Israel of war crimes.” The Baldwin campaign says that’s false. It’s not that simple. Both sides have a point.

In making its accusation against Baldwin, the ad displays the phrase “collective punishment” — which comes from a letter Baldwin signed to President Obama about Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The letter calls the blockade a “de facto collective punishment of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip.” The phrase “collective punishment” carries significant meaning. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits “collective penalties,” or collective punishment, against civilians in a time of war.

A law professor we contacted said “certain forms of collective punishment” are war crimes. But he said Baldwin “may have provided herself an out by inserting ‘de facto’ prior to the phrase ‘collective punishment,’ ” because it implies that Israel did not intend to cause collective punishment and intent is required to prove a war crime.

Only one of the claims in the ad is indisputably accurate. The ad says Baldwin “voted against sanctions on Iran, calling them heavy-handed and misguided.” She was one of only 12 House members who voted against the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act of 2009, saying “such a heavy-handed approach is misguided” and will “hurt the Iranian people.”

Baldwin did not challenge this claim in her letter to TV stations. In all, we side with Baldwin on two of the three claims that she challenges as false.

Israel Blockade of Gaza

The Wisconsin Senate campaign is one of several hotly contested races that could determine control of the U.S. Senate, which is now held by Democrats 53-47 — including two independents who caucus with the Democrats. Baldwin and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican, are running to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl. The race is deemed a “pure toss up” by the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

The Emergency Committee for Israel, a conservative group that has been critical of President Obama’s policies, has run print and TV ads attacking Obama. But this is the group’s first TV ad in a Senate race.

The most explosive charge in the ad is that Baldwin “accused Israel of war crimes, but called terrorists who attacked Israel ‘innocent victims.’ ” Both of these claims involve Baldwin’s opposition to the Israeli blockade in the Mediterranean Sea of ships headed to the Gaza Strip. The Israelis imposed a blockade after Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, which has long been the staging ground for attacks on Israel. The Israelis were seeking to prevent weapons, terrorists and money from entering and exiting Gaza.

Baldwin and 53 other members of Congress signed a letter dated Jan. 21, 2010, opposing the Israeli blockade. Two Jewish members of Congress, Reps. Bob Filner of California and John Yarmuth of Kentucky, signed it. The letter expressed sympathy for “the people of southern Israel who have suffered from abhorrent rocket and mortar attacks,” and recognized Israel’s right to address the “continued terrorist action by Hamas and other militant groups.”

But the blockade went too far, they wrote. They said the blockade has “severely impeded the ability of aid agencies to do their work to relieve suffering” and has “led to the marked decline of the accessibility of essential services.”

“This concern must be addressed without resulting in the de facto collective punishment of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip.” The term “collective punishment” is displayed in the ad, as the announcer says Baldwin accused Israel of “war crimes.”

Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, told us in an email: “The Geneva conventions say collective punishment is a war crime. This is well known.” The congresswoman says the claim is false. In a memo to TV stations that urges them to reject the ad, the Baldwin campaign says the letter Baldwin signed “contains no accusation of ‘war crimes,’ either explicitly or implicitly.”

The term “collective punishment” carries significant meaning. In a 2009 opinion article for the New York Times, George Bisharat of the University of California Hastings College of the Law wrote about possible war crimes being committed by both sides in the Gaza Strip dispute, and at that time he said “the evidence suggests that Israel committed the following six offenses.” His list of offenses included: “Imposing collective punishment in the form of a blockade, in violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”

Article 33 states, in part: “No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.”

But does the use of the phrase in the letter signed by Baldwin amount to an implicit — if not explicit — accusation of a war crime?

We asked Bisharat. In an email to us, he said there’s no simple answer: “The congresswoman may have provided herself an out by inserting ‘de facto’ prior to the phrase ‘collective punishment.’ What this qualifier might imply is that Israeli actions had the effect of collectively punishing, but may have been lacking the intent to do so. Intent, however, would be a required element of proving the war crime of collective punishment.”

We are not mind readers, so we do not know the intent of the congresswoman and others who signed the letter. But we can say that the ad’s claim is not entirely without merit.

The ad, however, goes on to make a false claim in the second part of this sentence: “She accused Israel of war crimes, but called terrorists who attacked Israel ‘innocent victims.’ ” As the narrator speaks these words, the ad displays an image of a masked man — perhaps a terrorist — carrying a missile on his shoulder that viewers could assume is headed to Israel. It also shows another masked man in Middle Eastern garb carrying an assault weapon.

But Baldwin never defended such weapon-toting terrorists as “innocent victims.” In fact, as we mentioned earlier, the letter she signed condemned the “abhorrent rocket and mortar attacks” against Israel and the “continued terrorist action by Hamas and other militant groups.”

So, what’s the ad talking about?

Pollak says it refers to a June 4, 2010, statement that Baldwin issued in response to the Israeli navy’s May 31, 2010, attack on a flotilla carrying aid to the Gaza Strip in defiance of the blockade. As the New York Times reported, Israel was the subject of “international condemnation” for the incident, which left nine dead and scores injured, so Baldwin was not alone in her outrage.

Israeli officials at the time told the Times that their soldiers were attacked as they boarded the ship in an attempt to prevent weapons and terrorists from being shipped to Gaza. However, a July 2010 U.N. report on the incident found the Israeli military used “excessive and unreasonable” force — calling the deaths and injuries “unacceptable” and the treatment of passengers abusive.

“The evidence confirms that at least some of the victims had been killed deliberately,” the report said. Nine passengers were killed and approximately 55 were wounded.

“Israel has a duty to make reparations for the wrongs committed, including through the provision of compensation to the families of the victims,” the report said.

The U.N. also found that the ship contained no firearms and few of the victims could be labeled “terrorists” — contradicting the ad’s claim that Baldwin was siding with “terrorists who attacked Israel.”

The incident occurred aboard the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish passenger vessel that was carrying about 600 passengers. A lead organizer of the flotilla was IHH, which an Israeli commission investigating the incident described as a “humanitarian organization with a radical-Islamic orientation” and terrorist ties. However, the U.N. report, which reviewed the Israeli commission’s report, found that “the majority on board were ‘peace activists’ ” and only “about 40 IHH activists” were on board the ship.

Even the Israeli commission said that only four of the nine who were killed could be described as “IHH activists or volunteers,” according to the U.N. report.

Clearly some if not most of the victims killed and injured were not “terrorists” and none of them “attacked Israel” in this instance.

The U.N. wasn’t the only one critical of Israel’s raid of the Turkish ship.

Israel’s official watchdog — the state comptroller — issued a report this year that found “the decision-making process before the raid … was flawed and had ‘substantive and significant shortcomings,’ ” according to the New York Times. The paper said the report, for example, found that “warnings that the commandos could meet violent resistance on the ship went largely unheeded.”

Baldwin ‘Attacked NYPD’?

The ad goes on to say that Baldwin “even attacked the NYPD for monitoring Islamic extremists.” This is false.

The claim refers to a secret intelligence operation set up by the NYPD after 9/11 to infiltrate Muslim communities in the New York region. The Associated Press won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing the existence and scope of the operation, which went beyond New York and monitored more than just “extremists.”

Some critics accused the NYPD of racial profiling, but we found no instance in which Baldwin ever did. Pollak could not provide us with any evidence that Baldwin ever made any statement critical of the NYPD program.

Instead, Pollak insisted the ad is correct because Baldwin voted for an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have denied federal money to state and local agencies that engage in ethnic, religious or racial profiling.

Baldwin voted for that amendment, sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey. It failed 193-232.

It is true that Holt, a Democrat, drafted his amendment in response to the NYPD’s surveillance program. In a floor speech on the day of the vote, Holt said the AP published a series of “disturbing stories” that accused the NYPD of “systematic racial, ethnic, and religious profiling.”

But Holt also said: “Now, let me be clear. This amendment is not aimed solely at one particular law enforcement organization.” That’s an important point. The vote was not a condemnation of the NYPD, so it’s not necessarily evidence that she “attacked the NYPD for monitoring Islamic extremists.”

In fact, if you believe as Pollak obviously does, that the NYPD did not engage in illegal ethnic profiling, then the NYPD would not even be affected by the amendment.

Iran Sanctions

The ad starts out with the one accurate and indisputable claim: “She voted against sanctions on Iran, calling them heavy-handed and misguided.”

Baldwin did vote against the Iran sanctions, and she did call them “heavy-handed” and “misguided.” Baldwin was one of only a few House members who voted against the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act of 2009, which was overwhelmingly approved 412-12 in a Dec. 15, 2009, vote.

In a statement explaining her vote, she said she feared it would backfire against the U.S., and “hurt the Iranian people.”

Baldwin, Dec. 15, 2009: I believe such a heavy-handed approach is misguided and will impair the United States’ ability to work with our allies in pursuit of a diplomatic solution in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. I have serious concerns that cutting off the gasoline supply to Iran will not have any effect on changing the Iranian government’s behavior. Rather, it will hurt the Iranian people, and I fear it will engender a backlash by Iranians against the U.S. — not the Iranian regime.

However, Baldwin voted to expand the sanctions on Dec. 14, 2011, when she supported the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012. Our friends at Politifact Wisconsin noted that her change of heart came three months after she entered the Senate race, calling it a “major reversal.”

On balance, though, the ad contains claims and images that are misleading in a strained attempt to portray Baldwin as an “extremist.”

— Eugene Kiely