"The Israeli 'Art Student' Mystery"

By Christopher Ketcham

Published May 10, 2002 7:28PM (EDT)

Read the story.

The Israeli art student article and a previous article in Salon entitled "Bring out the Clowns" should be awarded some type of online journalist award.

-- Doug Dupin

Salon -- once again showing its anti-Israeli bias by circulating an urban myth. What's next -- Protocols of the Elders of Zion?

-- Lazar Keitelman

Christopher Ketcham is too quick to dismiss the mundane theory that these people are just part of an art-selling racket. Let me try to resolve some of the "many problems with this theory":

1. Who are these "students"? Well, they are no art students, but rather young Israeli men and women out to make a buck after their military service. Many young Israelis go for a long trip abroad after they finish their compulsory military service. In fact it has become almost a universal right of passage. Working illegally in the U.S. (in this case as art sellers) is a well-known way to finance these kind of trips.

2. Who are the organizers? They are Israeli criminal gangs operating here in the U.S. Like any other immigrant community the Israeli community in the U.S. has its share of ethnically based criminal gangs. Selling art illegally is probably the most innocuous of their criminal activities. These gangs have strong ties to Israel and are able to recruit the sellers quite easily.

3. Why use foreign nationals for your moneymaking scheme? That actually makes a lot of sense. The "art students" stay in the country a few months at most and are therefore less likely to compromise the organizers. While here, the sellers are completely dependent on the organizers and are therefore less likely to cause any trouble. The risk to all parties involved is minimal; if caught the sellers will be at most fined and deported. Under current immigration rules this will probably not prevent them from entering the U.S. say in 10 years, this time as legitimate businessmen, lawyers, doctors or engineers.

4. Why run this racket at all? It seems to me that if you can make or import those paintings for let's say a dollar, and then go on and sell them for 10 to 15 dollars, you have a pretty lucrative business. The seller gets half, the organizer gets half and everybody's happy (including the people who bought the paintings).

5. Why do they use the bogus Bezalel cover story? Bezalel is the leading art school in Israel and maybe these "students" in a somewhat provincial way think it's well known.

6. Why in the world would people try to sell cheap art market to DEA officials and how come they have "black information" about federal facilities? Well, they don't. If you sell paintings from office building to office building in any city in the U.S., you are bound to hit on a few federal buildings, some of them unlisted. If you sell paintings from house to house you are bound to come upon the homes of federal employees. Most office buildings have some sort of security and if you are selling paintings illegally it makes sense to try and bypass it. As for these art students specifically going to DEA agents' homes, all we know is that they did not continue to the neighbors' houses. If I was such a seller and encountered a suspicious homeowner I might decide to call it a day on the chance that he would call the police. I suspect that the DEA is the only agency to alert its people to this phenomenon, and was therefore the only one to compile such a report. Maybe if the FDA or the CDC put their people on notice you might get similar reports.

Finally, as any young Israeli can tell you, this racket is not new. It was actually run in Japan from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s until the Japanese authorities (and some say Japanese organized crime) put an end to it. In Japan they used to sell paintings on the street. This practice is obviously impossible in the U.S., so they sell them door-to-door.

On the other hand I seem to remember a friend telling me that the Mossad does send its recruits on similar training missions, so maybe there are darker mysteries to uncover. One can never tell.

-- Shmulik Ravid

What a compelling and disturbing story Mr. Ketcham tells about the "Israeli art student" saga. It is almost impossible to believe that no high-profile news media outlet has seen fit to investigate this tale.

This story is another example of why I'm happy to support Salon with my subscription. If only other prominent journalists demonstrated the courage and diligence that your staff shows on a regular basis.

-- Schuyler Colfax

On the one hand, it was good to read Salon's report on the Israeli art students affair by freelancer Christopher Ketcham. On the other, it was unpleasant to read this passage:

"One or two minor media players did some braying -- Israel had been caught spying, etc. and the bonko conspiracy fringe had a field day, but the rest of the media, taking a cue from the big boys, decided it was a nonstarter: the Post's debunking and the Times' silence had effectively killed the story."

Let's be clear. The first print publications in the United States to have and publish (portions and then the entirety of) the 60-page DEA report were newspapers in our group. We are a large group of alternative papers. On the weeks the story ran in our Atlanta, Charlotte and Tampa papers, the circulation exceeded 350,000 and the readership was close to a million. Our Atlanta paper, where I am based, is one of the 10 largest alternatives in the nation, ranking in the same AAN category as the Village Voice, LA Weekly, etc. The tone of our reports is little different than Salon's; it was hardly "braying." Our reporting was sourced, and included items that Ketcham was not able to obtain: named DEA agents confirming their portions of the report, for example.

It wouldn't be so bad being called a minor media player or to have our well-researched articles described as "braying" except that your freelance reporter, Ketcham, repeatedly sought information from me and relied on us for some of his source material, including key documents referenced in his story. Although during the reporting of the story, he had told me he had the 60-page DEA report, I also furnished that to him. There was nothing in his report today indicating another source, other than possibly the mysterious Mr. Stability, and I am pretty sure that prior to my publishing of the entire report, its availability was pretty restricted. My sources were two people, one Israeli, one American, with long intelligence histories. Their access and reasons are a whole lot less Ludlum-esque than Ketcham's Mr. Stability and, thus, I'd conclude they know a whole lot more.

Further, the fact that the DEA report was, as Ketcham states, floating around on Web sites was because we published it and furnished it to other media outlets. Ketcham mentions Cryptome.com; that site obtained that report from antiwar.com, which had obtained it from me. The facts are very clear, since both antiwar and cryptome originally had versions of the report in which DEA agents names were redacted. I was, at the time, negotiating with DEA spokesmen to get a confirmation about the nature of the document. The redacting was clearly mine.

I don't mind not being credited in Ketcham's story except for the slap at our group and our reporting, and the fact that I spent a great deal of time assisting Ketcham. As Eric Boehlert can attest, I have been helpful to Salon on other articles. We're not national and not in New York or Washington. The fact that we could obtain this report at about the same time as the French Intelligence Online and before any other media in the U.S. says something about our enterprise.

-- John Sugg, senior editor, Creative Loafing, Atlanta

This is the most insane article I have ever read in Salon. Legions of bogus art students pitching their wares to DEA agents working in offices near the homes of al-Qaida terrorists. Politicians and administration officials cowed into silence by the insidious and powerful Jewish lobby (or is that cabal). Mysterious sources on the phone possessing information on the journalist's past which could only have been discovered by espionage. New reports disappearing from the Fox News Web site -- "It never existed."

How about this. Israelis who come to the U.S. illegally hope to make some money. They do so by selling crappy art in office buildings. In order to lend some credibility (and jack the price) they claim to be art students from Israel. Since the local American Express offices don't collect information on solicitors trying to sell crap and then summarize that info looking for patterns, they don't report it to the FBI, but the DEA, which collects the information, does.

And the disappearing Fox News story. Perhaps Fox was embarrassed to have such a ridiculous story on its Web site. Even Steven Seagal wouldn't touch a story like that one. It wouldn't fly in a direct-to-video release.

Yes, Israel spies on the U.S. And the U.S. spies on Israel, and the world goes round and round.

By the way, while I am no fan of Jonathan Pollard, who did pass info to Israel, the U.S. did break its own plea deal and jailed his wife as punishment. And where is the proof that the info was passed to the Soviets?

-- A. Marcus

For the last three years I worked at a minuscule and pathetic Silicon Valley start-up. During that time, we were visited at least six times by Israeli art students pandering the most godawful, unframed artwork imaginable. With the exception of one stunningly beautiful woman, they were all young men. If these people are spies, they certainly aren't much of a threat: The only secret to be uncovered at that loser company was how they managed to keep the doors open, and you could map the entire facility on one side of a folded cocktail napkin.

-- Darrell Gorr

Ohhh! This is a good one!

I think they were just testing to see how the FBI would react to some probing, and how much the media would find out (and how good the knee-jerk hands-off Israel spin would be).

-- Richard C. Haven

Ketcham states: "Then of course there's Theory No. 4: that they really were art students."

For what it's worth, I have the impression that the entire affair was an example of "performance art" that was effected by a well-funded group, one that consisted of actual students and/or of artists. If so, then the one member who seemed to have access to and/or to control relatively "large sums of cash" would probably be the principal artist/creator of the operation.

But if this were so, then it would be reasonable to expect that some public revelation of the project would have occurred by now. As to why such a disclosure has not occurred yet, there are probably as many speculations as there are about the matter in its entirety.

-- Ocie Hudson

By Salon Staff

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