Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Qatari Investment in Massachusetts Nonprofit — Primary Source — Paying Off Years Later

NewsQatari Investment in Massachusetts Nonprofit — Primary Source — Paying Off Years Later

There is no external influence to what we are doing and we have no agenda attached to any of this.

Jennifer Boyle-Nigro, Primary Source executive director

A charity with ties to the Qatari royal family sure got its money’s worth from a grant it gave to an educational non-profit in 2017. Headquartered in Watertown, Mass., Primary Source (PS) continues to promote a distorted narrative about the Middle East seven years after receiving a grant from Qatar Foundation International (QFI), a charity founded by Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in 1995, and which is regarded part of the kingdom’s influence operations in the West.

Qatar’s support for Primary Source offers an example of Doha’s efforts to build influence and set the terms of debate on the Middle East in the US, at grassroots level. For this reason, it’s worth looking in detail at what the Emir is getting for his money.

Primary Source Executive Director Jennifer Boyle-Nigro presiding over an online fundraiser that took place in 2020. (YouTube screenshot)

Neither Primary Source nor QFI have responded to email queries from Focus on Western Islamism (FWI) regarding how much money changed hands between the two organizations, but the organization’s Executive Director, Jennifer Boyle-Nigro, told FWI over the phone that “There is no external influence to what we are doing and we have no agenda attached to any of this,” she said.

The notion that there is no “agenda” attached to Primary Source’s operations is tough to believe. The organization openly proclaims an activist agenda innumerable ways on its website. For example, it hosted an annual fundraiser in 2020 during which attendees explored “the meaning of American radicalism and how the history of activism can inspire Courageous Citizenship.” This and other expressions of its activist mission on its website prompt Karen Hurvitz, a Massachusetts lawyer, to declare that for Primary Source, “activism is more important than academics.”

Considering the upheaval in the region, wouldn’t it make sense to update your curricular materials to reflect the importance of the regional transformation currently underway?  

Steve Stotsky, senior research analyst at CAMERA to Primary Source in 2021

The notion that there is no external influence on Primary Source’s materials related to the Middle East — which haven’t been updated in years — is also tough to believe. Qatar is well-known for using its untold wealth to buy influence in Western institutions. A hugely wealthy and autocratic nation with a population of 350,000, Qatar currently serves as a sanctuary for Hamas leaders, even after the October 7 massacre. Moreover, the country stands accused of conducting espionage against US lawmakers under “Project ENDGAME,” in an apparent strategy to thwart legislation and policies unfavorable to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qatar also bribed FIFA officials to secure the 2022 World Cup for its capital, Doha, as part of an ongoing campaign to divert attention from its long history of human rights abuses. Then there are the “Qatargate” allegations that Qatari officials attempted to influence the European Union through illicit financial incentives. And to top it all off, Qatar owns Al Jazeera, a notorious propaganda outfit which according to Michael Rubin, regularly “violates the norms and ethics of journalism in pursuit of terrorism, violence, or espionage.”

Steve Stotsky, senior research analyst at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (Photo by Billie Weiss/CAMERA)

Of course, none of these scandals have made their way into Primary Source’s curriculum about the Middle East which has come under fire from another Massachusetts-based non-profit, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA). In a 2021 letter to Primary Source regarding its Middle East curriculum, Steve Stotsky, senior research analyst at CAMERA, declared that the organization’s material “leaves students with the mistaken impression that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most pressing matter in the region.” (An extensive excerpt of Stotsky’s letter is appended below.)

It was to no avail. Primary Source’s Middle East curriculum has remained unchanged since 2020. It makes no reference to the Abraham Accords, the 2020 peace agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and between Israel and a number of other Arab states. Nor does it mention the murder of Mahsa Amini by Iranian security forces in 2022 and the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement established in the aftermath of her death. Moreover, there is no reference to Hamas’s October 7, 2023, massacre which resulted in the murder, sexual torture, and mutilation of more than 1,200 Israelis.

Qatari fingerprints are all over Primary Source podcasts produced in 2017 that purport to inform teachers and students about events in the Middle East. The page where these podcasts are located acknowledges the receipt of QFI funds for their production. Predictably enough, the podcasts feature commentators skilled at placing the blame for the problems facing Muslims in the modern world on Westerners, which is exactly what Qatari officials would likely expect from one of its grantees. Similar bias is evident in the constellation of webpages devoted to the Middle East on the organization’s website. (A brief discussion of this bias is appended below.)

Apparently, the organization, which boasts of “partnering” with more than 50 Massachusetts school districts, hasn’t paid much attention to its Middle East materials over the years. Boyle-Nigro, the organization’s executive director, expressed disbelief that the Middle East curriculum was even available on its website when asked about it by this reporter. “Tell me what the page is, I’d love to know what you’re talking about,” she said. “Send me the link,” she said in early January when this reporter started researching this story. “I literally have no idea of what you’re talking about.”

After receiving an email with links to the pages in question, Boyle-Nigro acknowledged that the material is still available for use and noted that the material has not been updated in the past few years. When asked if Primary Source has any plans to update its Middle East related materials in light of the October 7 massacre in Israel and anti-regime protests in Iran, Boyle-Nigro said no. When asked about QFI’s influence on Primary Source’s Middle East curriculum, Boyle-Nigro said the organization has not received any funding or had any dealings with the QFI in six or seven years.

Massachusetts lawyer Karen Hurvitz opposed providing public funding to Primary Source because of its ties to Qatar.

Boyle-Nigro has every incentive to distance Primary Source from its erstwhile funder. In 2021, Karen Hurvitz, the Massachusetts lawyer, unsuccessfully tried to stop the organization from receiving state funds while serving on the Governing Council of the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC), which provides grants to cultural non-profits in the state. Minutes from the August 10, 2021, meeting of the MCC’s grants committee indicate that Hurvitz “strongly opposed any funding of Primary Source” by the MCC because its “ahistorical, and horribly biased perspective […] paid for by Qatar, and which stokes the fires of the already alarming rise in Jew-hatred and hatred of Israel.”

Again, it was to no avail. Hurvitz was not reappointed to a second term on the MCC’s Board of Governors and Primary Source received the $18,700 from the MCC in 2023 and $18,200 in 2024.

“If one of our very important goals is to eradicate racism and hatred, our continued funding of Primary Source will do just the opposite,” Hurvitz wrote to the MCC in 2021.

Dexter Van Zile, the Middle East Forum’s Violin Family Research Fellow, serves as Managing Editor of Focus on Western Islamism.

Appendix One – Excerpt of Stotsky/CAMERA Letter to Primary Source

Below is an excerpt of a letter sent by Steve Stotsky, senior research analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) to Primary Source in 2021.

Our review of the recommended reading and multi-media sources in your Middle East curriculum reveals serious deficiencies that you may want to address. Your recommended resources are outdated and disproportionately focus on the Palestinians, limiting student exposure to vital regional developments and fail to provide essential viewpoint diversity. Remediating these flaws would provide students with an improved understanding of the Middle East.   

The Middle East/North Africa region contains close to 500 million people, who reside in over two dozen recognized states and several autonomous ethnic enclaves. Of this total population, less than 2 percent are Palestinians. Yet, the bulk of your literature and film recommendations focus on the Palestinians and does so exclusively through a partisan narrative that casts Israel, the region’s only functioning democracy, as harsh and repressive. Not only is this portrayal mendacious, it also leaves students with the mistaken impression that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most pressing matter in the region. 

While such a view may have been arguable prior to 2011, since then, societal upheaval has swept the region, resulting in widespread destruction in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and the fragmentation of existing states into ethno-religious enclaves.  Along with these tragic events, there has been the displacement of millions of people in Syria, as well as coalescing popular resistance to repressive regimes in Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Considering the upheaval in the region, wouldn’t it make sense to update your curricular materials to reflect the importance of the regional transformation currently underway?  

And wouldn’t it be more beneficial and open-minded to provide some positive views of Israel, which remains the only state in the Middle East that respects individual rights such as sexual preference and religious diversity?  

 I raise these questions because of what we found in your recommended readings and film suggestions:  

  • 7 out of 11 reading recommendations in your Children & Young Adults section were stories written by Palestinian authors and/or dealt with Palestinian experiences. There was not a single Israeli account, none that dealt with the historic ordeal of Jews of Arab lands. Only two selections dealt with the remainder of the Middle East and North Africa, comprising 98% of the region’s population, despite the enormous societal upheaval that has occurred from one end of the region to the other. Surely, there are important stories to be told here.  
  • 3 out of 5 Films & Video recommendations dealt with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. All three of these promoted the Palestinian perspective and lacked balance and factual context.   
  • 4 out of 14 selections in the History & Culture section dealt with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. All were positioned as critical of Israel and supportive of the Palestinian account. 

Appendix Two — Podcast and Website Bias — Brief Discussion

Bias is particularly evident in two podcasts funded by QFI. Hussein Rashid, who speaks about media coverage of the Middle East in one of the podcasts, responded to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in 2015 by offering an equal measure of criticism for the magazine, which published images of Muhammad and the terrorists who killed the journalists who work there. He accused the journalist who were murdered of racism and working to reinforce “racial and religious hierarchies.”

And Rachel Otty, a Massachusetts teacher who appeared in a podcast about the “diversity of Islam,” suggested in an essay for PBS that the biggest challenge Muslims face in the modern world is not how they practice and interpret their scriptures and doctrine, but how Westerners view them post 9/11. Moreover, a podcast about the Islamic practice of veiling offers a largely pro-hijab narrative without offering testimony from a growing number of women’s rights activists such as Sarah Haider and Masih Alinejad, who based much of their activism in opposition to Islamic veiling.

Similar bias is evident in the constellation of webpages devoted to the Middle East on the organization’s website. One is devoted to “A Century of Conflict & Resolution” and another is devoted exclusively to the “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict. Predictably enough, these pages encourage teachers to educate themselves about the Arab-Israeli conflict by reading A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples, by Ilan Pappé. Pappé is a notoriously biased author who once misquoted Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in a manner that made him look like a genocidal monster intent on ethnic cleansing the Holy Land of Arabs.

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