Fuel for Truth
To some young professionals, a routine night of drinking and dancing can be harnessed in the service of fighting the War on Terror. Fuel For Truth, a New York-based “pro-Israel” advocacy group, hosts events at Manhattan nightclubs, drawing crowds of upwards of 1,000. At Arm Yourself, an evening of what promoters termed “edutainment,” attendees were invited to “go clubbing for a cause—solidarity against terrorism and extremism.” Produced by Kiera Feldman and co-written with Josh Nathan-Kazis, this report first aired on WBAI’s Beyond the Pale.
Download (14:50, 14.2 MB)
It’s a Thursday evening and we’re standing outside Mansion, a Manhattan nightclub. A line of about a hundred well-dressed young Jews stretches down the block.
Ron Wasserman: Looks like there’s a lot of beautiful babies here tonight.
That’s Ron Wasserman. Ron says he goes to lots of events on New York’s Jewish party circuit sponsored by groups like Havalight and Birthright’s alumni program. Tonight’s event, however, aspires to be more than just a Jewish mixer.
Lance Laytner: Hi, my name is Lance Laytner Laytner, I’m the communications director at Fuel For Truth. … And we are here at Arm Yourself, it’s our next hottest event in New York City.
The evening is hosted by Fuel For Truth, an Israel advocacy group founded in 2001. Fuel for Truth hosts parties in New York that cross a night at the club with a booze-filled political rally. During these parties, Fuel for Truth pushes a hawkish pro-Israel agenda. The group is controversial for its strident, and arguably anti-Islamic, political rhetoric.
As the name might suggest, Fuel for Truth’s rhetoric is characterized by claims of truth. The nature of this “truth,” however, is often unspecific. Outside the party, we ask a woman in line to explain it to us.
Kiera Feldman: What do you think “the truth” is?
Woman: That we should all live in peace. That’s the truth.
We follow Lance Laytner Laytner inside, hoping to better understand the nexus of alcohol, dancing, and world peace.
Lance Laytner: I am now opening the velvet rope … Come on in. …
To enter, partyers pay $45 each.
Jewish security theater is in full effect. We pass through a metal detector operated by former IDF soldiers—hulking men wearing suits and tiny earpieces.
Lance Laytner: This is a step and repeat. We’ve got some very good looking people and we’re getting a picture of them in front of the FFT sign. Just like any red carpet. This helps because people see the kind of people who are involved and they want to be involved too.
These photos will go on the Fuel for Truth Flickr site. Pages upon pages of clean cut partyers comprise an impressive feat of documentation.
Announcer: Fuel for Truth welcomes you to help stop of Error of Terror. From all corners of the globe, fighting for peace in Israel and freedom around the wooooorld, Fuel For Truth.
700 people pack the dance floor, talking over drinks and swaying to the beat. A few partiers dance on tables and couches, but they are the exception. The overall energy level is fairly subdued for a club. It’s hard to guess how old anyone is—they all share that special agelessness of young white professionals.
Lance Laytner: All the founders of Fuel for Truth were nightclub promoters originally. When 9/11 happened, the day after they got together and said, what can we do with the skills that we have to make a difference? They said, “We know how to throw incredible parties, get the hottest people in New York City to attend them. So that’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to throw parties and we’re going to throw a little truth in there.”
We ask Lance Laytner what he meant by “the truth.”
Lance Laytner: The truth is that 9/11 was just the beginning and just kind of one stage of a struggle that’s happening between two ideologies. The ideology we’re familiar with which promotes freedom of speech and democracy. And another ideology that is fueled by hatred and radicalism…
Announcer: Ladies and gentleman, welcome. … Tonight we’re going to teach YOU how to arm yourself. Ladies and gentleman, the light, heavyweight, undefeated champion from Belarus via Israel, let’s hear it for Yuuuuuuuuuri Foreman.
A Jewish boxer named Yuri Foreman takes the stage, lightly sparring with Kat Guttman, Fuel for Truth’s director of operations. Kat Guttman is a woman with tight jeans, a sparkly black tube top, and a commitment to spelling out metaphor like it’s her j-o-b.
Kat Guttman: Most of us can’t arm ourselves with those kind of techniques and skills. Yuri’s got coaches for punching, conditioning, and endurance training. In FFT we have coaches too. They’re scholars and experts for learning and teaching and advocating. Yuri fights his fight in the ring. FFT, we fight our fight on the streets, in the club, in the bars, online, and in college campuses all across the US.
Joe Richards: You’re gonna hear from three volunteers tonight. They’re going to tell about the threat of radical Islam and how we face it here. They’re going to tell you what you can do about it. … And they’re going to tell you why you need to do it now.
That’s Joe Richards, Fuel For Truth’s executive director. A former Division 1 wrestler, Joe sports a blazer–no tie. He introduces Kevin Lithwack, an Iraq veteran.
Kevin Lithwack: There are people in this world who stone to death a 13 year old because she shamed her family by being raped. … It’s a world that promotes the idea that they’re property, first to their fathers, and then to their husbands. It’s a world view that motivates its citizens to hate, and to murder, and to transform themselves into human bombs. And the scary realization for me is that we are losing. We are losing a war of propaganda. And we’re not losing because we lack courage. We’re losing because we lack knowledge.
Lithwack offers some knowledge of his own.
Kevin Lithwack: Foreign countries are buying the minds of some of our best students. These countries have donated $88 million since 1995 to American universities and this money comes with strings attached. Donor countries have hand-picked professors that agree with its ideology. At Columbia University here in New York, professor Joseph Massad said that Israel is a racist state and shouldn’t exist. Massad also shouted down an Israeli student because he asked how many Palestinians that he had killed. … You should be pissed off!
You can’t quite hear it on the tape, but this is where audience members boo enthusiastically. Someone near the stage shouts, “He’s a monkey.” It’s unclear if Lithwack heard. When asked later about the slur, Joe Richards said, “I think it’s difficult for people to hear the truth.” He added that he didn’t see anything racist about calling Professor Massad a monkey.
Greg Aguele: My name is Greg Aguele. My mother’s Jewish, my dad’s Italian, and I’m in therapy. I’m kidding, I’m not in therapy but maybe I should be. But I AM 100 percent New York city. Give it up because I ain’t the only one. Represent!
Greg is a thick-necked, faux-hawk sporting 24-year-old from Queens. He wears a RUN DMC tshirt under a blazer. A shield is carefully pinned to his lapel; dog tags hang around his neck. They read, “Fuel for Truth, established 9/12/2001, special forces of Israeli advocacy.”
Greg Aguele: That’s the big lie theory. You know who came up with that theory? A man by the name of Joseph Goebbels. It worked pretty well the first time. Do not let it happen again.
Greg is about to join Fuel for Truth’s “Old School” program, which means he’ll be visiting university campuses as a Fuel for Truth representative. According to their website, Fuel for Truth has had contact with 2,300 college students to date with this program.
After Greg, a Fuel for Truth member named Fidel takes the stage. Fidel introduces himself as member #112—Fuel for Truth’s newest member. Fuel For Truth’s membership system mixes military metaphor with a fraternity structure. Prospective members, called cadets, enroll in Fuel For Truth’s Membership Boot Camp, a 10-week training course in Israel advocacy. Cadets participate in workshops led by the likes of Republican pollster Frank Luntz. According to the group’s website, “It’s kind of like a cross between Survivor and The Apprentice, but for a good cause.”
Fidel: I made a little video because I really did not know what was going on in Israel. I’m the most naïve person when it comes to countries that do not concern me. But I was approached by some people by Fuel For Truth, and this is basically my personal journey about how I was no one in FFT, I learned about FFT and the situation overseas, and I became a member. Member 112. Check it out.
The video is a narrative of redemption in three stages. Stage one: “Learn the Truth.” In this stage, good fights evil; Israel fights terrorism. We see a sequence of photos: first, an Israeli flag streams majestically over a tank of smiling soldiers; next, we see angry Arab men with machine guns, grinning as they watch an Israeli flag go up in flames. Pictures of Hamas militants are juxtaposed with pictures of IDF soldiers. Stage two is “Spread the Truth.” We see a sequence of diverse and happy people at Fuel For Truth events. In stage 3, Cadet 112—Fidel—becomes Member 112.
It’s a neat summation of the group’s ideology. In Fidel’s formulation, truth is a straightforward, simple constant, revealed and propagated by FFT. In an interview later that night, Joe Richards underlined this point.
Joe Richards: The ideology is to just—we believe that more people who have truthful information about things that are portrayed in the media as very gray areas, they’ll have more power to influence their social circles, their friends, and create it as a movement, which will then influence public opinion.
So, what is the truth? At first glance, it appears to be the group’s analysis of the threat that radical Islam poses to Israel and the West. But this doesn’t really hold up. For one, that analysis is rather non-specific. Take an exchange we had with Jon Loew, the group’s chairman and a founding member. Loew and other speakers had focused throughout the presentations on the threat posed by Middle East studies programs at American universities funded by Arab nations in the Persian Gulf. It’s not a new concern, but the group was hitting it pretty hard. So, we decide to ask Loew for some more details.
Jon Loew: Money from gulf countries is going to fund Middle East studies programs. And they are hand selecting chairpersons of these departments. And the chairpersons are in charge of hiring additional professors.
Kiera: Can you name some chairpersons?
Jon Loew: I’m not going to name any chairpeople personally.
Kiera: Does your organization name them… ever?
Jon Loew: Uh we make uh the public aware of any chairperson that we feel is working as a mouthpiece of a foreign country.
Loew then encourages us to go to the Fuel For Truth website and read around. No chairpeople are named there.
Kiera: So you’re not going to name any names.
Jon Loew: No I’m not!
Kiera: Any universities?
Jon Loew: We’ve specifically found problems with Columbia University, as have many other organizations.
It seems that Loew is referring to the 2005 case in which Jewish students claimed to have been harassed by professors in the Middle Eastern studies department at Columbia. The faculty committee that investigated the incident found “no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic.”
It seems unlikely that Loew is just being diplomatic, given the overall tenor of the evening’s proceedings. This leaves the possibility that Loew doesn’t know the names of any other schools or department chairs. If the Truth is, among other things, that Arabs are buying control over academic departments, and if Jon Loew, the group’s founder, member number one, doesn’t know which departments are being bought, does Jon Loew not know the Truth?
Not necessarily. After an evening with Fuel For Truth, it becomes apparent that the Truth isn’t a set of facts. Rather, it’s an attitude and an image. The Truth is that Jews are not meek or scrawny or nerdy. They’re tough, they’re sexy, and they like to party.
Jon Loew: So on any given night, the people in here are out at a night club. They’re working during the day. If they’re single they’re going out at night. So instead of trying to get them to a library or some brightly lit environment they’re not going to be comfortable in, we create an environment that they’re very familiar with.”
For Loew, the people of the book have been usurped. This is the generation of the nightclub.
Jon Loew: And as you saw, we give them an authentic night club experience, we feed them information, we let them have more fun, and then we feed them more information.
On a broader level, Fuel For Truth represents a counterpoint to the hipster Jew phenomenon at the beginning of this decade. Hipsterdom offered a fashionable identity expression for the well-educated Jew in Williamsburg. By comparison, Fuel For Truth offers a Jewish identity designed and tailored in response to the War on Terror. It owes something to Jabotinsky and Meir Kahane and all of the post-Holocaust Jewish ideologues who tried to make sense of Jewish submission. At the same time, it’s tapped deeply into a contemporary New York social scene—a different scene from the one that spawned the hipster Jew, to be sure, but one that’s just as valid.
What’s new is that while the hipster Jews were never explicitly political, Fuel for Truth clearly is. The Truth may be cultural, but it’s a culture with political goals. The flashes of racism and general undercurrent of anti-Arab sentiment throughout Arm Yourself left few questions about what it means to be a tough Jew.
Fuel For Truth has been hosting events like Arm Yourself for the last seven years. Yet, surveying the cultural front, the group doesn’t seem to have been successful in bringing its brand of hip militarism to the Jewish mainstream. Still, as Israeli missiles fall on Gaza and calls continue for an attack on Iran, the overall Jewish political atmosphere looks more like a Fuel For Truth rally than ever.
Kiera Feldman works as a producer on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show and WBAI's Beyond the Pale. She also does research for a PBS documentary film. She has written for n+1 and The Huffington Post about fundamentalism and food, respectively.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is the politics editor of The Faster Times. He was the editor of New Voices magazine from 2007-2009. He reports for the Forward and is a contributor to WBAI’s Beyond the Pale. He has written on Israel/Palestine and the decline of the American fraternal order, among other issues.