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A Pox on Neither of Their Houses

CAP to-do shows signs of simmering … down

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The Washington Post has a long write-up of the controversy over certain bloggers and staffers at the Center for American Progress and whether certain things they published were anti-Semitic or prohibitively anti-Israel. But actually, the article’s worried lead paragaphs contradict its own reporting, which shows that CAP has responded to its critics and that the timing of this controversy could have been far worse for it.

What the article usefully shows is how the debate has evolved, from when Ben Smith kicked it off with a much-discussed article last month, from one over what is and isn’t anti-Semitic to a much more specifically political battle within the Democratic Party (“intramural,” Smith called it in a subsequent post) over how far to the left a think tank closely associated with the Obama administration should go in criticizing Israel, particularly during an election year, as weighed against the alleged declining sympathies of younger liberal American Jews for Israel. It’s telling, for example, that while Smith’s article went after CAP and the think tank Media Matters more or less equally, Media Matters has essentially disappeared from the discussion. Why? Because, while liberal, Media Matters is seen as independent, while CAP, founded by Democratic power broker John Podesta, has served, alternately, as the Democratic government-in-waiting and as the administration’s farm club, preparing analysts ready to be called up to the big leagues (although it’s worth noting that the bloggers under fire, who write for CAP’s media outlet ThinkProgress, are not among these analysts, and that actually those analysts have more centrist positions). If it has taken right-wing authors, such as Alana Goodman yesterday, to argue that the administration is too cozy with critics of Israel, well, that’s CAP’s critics’ point: people who otherwise disagree on policy should nonetheless be able to agree that harsh anti-Israel statements, even if not beyond the outer boundaries of responsible discourse, make President Obama vulnerable in an election year. Indeed, the Post reports that “the CAP controversy began simmering in early 2011, when Jewish allies first began bringing quiet complaints to center officials.” Allies.

Personally, I have long noticed that CAP used to—more on that past tense in a second—go farther to the left on, say, the Middle East than it ever would on, say, economic issues, where it hews to a fairly standard left-center position in part because of its association with elected Democratic officials and the administration. Josh Block, maybe CAP’s most prominent critic, is a Democrat—a strongly pro-Israel one (he used to work for AIPAC)—ostensibly attacking CAP not in order to defeat Obama but to bolster him by shoring up his left flank. Block of course also wants to shape the Democratic Party into a robust supporter of Israel in a way with which some of the CAP bloggers may reasonably disagree. He did reportedly send a mass email around the time of Smith’s article detailing some of the more offensive comments, and he did send it to, among other places, what appears to be a right-wing listserv. But the content of the email shows that his agenda is to reform rather than to attack the Democratic Party: “These are the words of anti-Semites,” he wrote, “not Democratic political players.” He isn’t arguing that Democratic political players are now saying such things; he’s arguing that Democratic political players wouldn’t say such things.

Nearly everyone agrees that the term “Israel-firster,” used by one CAP blogger who is no longer with the organization, is anti-Semitic. (The only prominent dissenter here is J Street—I can’t imagine what they are thinking.) The Truman National Security Project kicked Block out of its fellowship program, presumably in solidarity with CAP. But the Truman Project (helmed by Rachel Kleinfeld, whom Allison Hoffman profiled last year) seems already out-of-date. Between CAP’s apologies and Block’s clarifications, the two sides have actually started to form, if not a consensus, at least a working truce: CAP’s editor-in-chief acknowledged that the term “Israel-firster” is anti-Semitic; and Block clarified his initial accusations, asserting that he may believe broader criticism of Israel is wrong and damaging to the party, but it is not “anti-Semitic” (“his retreat from his initial charges against ThinkProgress and CAP is welcome,” Ali Gharib, a CAP blogger, noted; Gharib himself came under fire for referring to one senator as “[R-AIPAC],” and he has since … apologized and retracted that remark).

Meantime, CAP has notably toned down since Smith’s article. And anyway it was always Media Matters, not CAP, that is the worst offender: as even Goodman noted in a scrupulous Commentary blog post, “[CAP bloggers] Gharib, Eli Clifton, Matt Duss have views on Israel that are far to the left of mainstream Democrats, and that’s not a surprise—they work at a left-wing think tank. Block, a Democrat, is obviously disturbed that these ideas are being promoted by institutions that influence his party. But that’s not the same as spreading wild conspiracy theories about the ‘Jewish Lobby,’ as [Media Matters’] MJ Rosenberg does, or accusing pro-Israel Jews of not being sufficiently American.”

I don’t think this fight is over—there are real differences among people within the Democratic Party over what the party’s and the administration’s policies on Israel should be. But I do think it’s likely the fight will be postponed until after November. Meanwhile, those who find the allegations against CAP outrageous—and not the initial allegations, which were indeed overheated, but the allegations as they have subsequently been clarified and refined—should consider the following question: what if Democrats like Josh Block and the others whom the Post alludes to hadn’t brought this up throughout last year, such that Smith’s article was published in December 2011? What if they had held their tongues, and instead Republicans had unleashed the exact same charges in October 2012? Which would they prefer?

Center for American Progress, Group Tied to Obama, Under Fire From Israel Advocates [WP]
Israel Rift Roils Democratic Ranks [Politico]
The White House’s Israel-Bashing Pals [NY Post]
Josh Block’s Not-So-Secret War on Israel’s Enemies [Commentary Contentions]
Right-Wing Listserv Targets Israel’s Critics [Salon]
Josh Block Backs Down From False Accusation That ThinkProgress and CAP Are Anti-Semitic [TP]
Related: Truman Doctrine [Tablet Magazine]

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shavit says:

excellent write up.

So far the reactions I’ve seen to the controversy have been of Glenn Greenwald and the like … All seem to revolve around the tired claim that Israel’s supporters use antisemitism to attack legitimate debate. Of course, Glenn and the like accuse most Jews in this county of not being sufficiently American which does nothing other than to delegitimize their opinions – in an attempt to attack legitimate debate.

It’s amazing but revealing that Jeremy Ben Ami defends use of the term ‘Israel Firster’, and gives the lie to his claim that his exclusive concern is the democratic character of Israel’s government and the just resolution of its conflict with Palestine. The only purpose the phrase serves is to paint any kind of support for Israel as ipso facto evidence of treason against the United States. But frankly it seems characteristic of J Street’s passive aggressive hostility toward Israel and moderate American Jewry, an attitude Ben Ami took pains to conceal when I saw him speak in New York. Talk about reminiscent of McCarthyism; Ben Ami is happily deploying rhetoric that is historically the preserve of the far right.

You’ve got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend, Jeremy Ben Ami.

Bill Pearlman says:

Roy you right. I saw Ben Ami speak. Smooth guy but full of shit.

Jacques says:

As an initial supporter of JStreet, I am horrified that Ben-Ami would defend language that I had previously associated with the Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul paleoconservative right.

It does not even make sense – if one donates to JStreet or, shall we say its ally the New Israel Fund, then one is by definition, caring and investing in the future of the State of Israel and its people. Could the case be made by those defending the Israel-firster term, that such American money should stay within Americ and help the poor and vulnerable in America rather than Israel? Is this the slippery slope that Ben-Ami and his ilk want to take us on? Should Ben Ami and Israelis such as Didi Remez make common cause with nativist Americans who are suspicious of foreigners?

This accusation will quickly migrate from right wing American Zionists to any Jew who has any connection to Israel. After all, if one is to accuse AIPAC members of being Israel firsters, what are we to make of JStreet and New Israel Fund activists such as Ben Ami who claim to love Israel and thus devote their lives to Israeli-left causes. If someone right-wing questioned their loyalty to America they would be profoundly offended. But why are they any more loyal to America and any less loyal to Israel? That is why Buchanan using this term is understandable as he makes no differentiation. But coming from the left, the term clearly is a smear reserved for the right wing for daring to disagree.

Will Americans who opposed Iraq war be labeled Iraq firsters? We were told at the time that dissent is the highest form of patriotism and that a sitting President should be tried for war crimes. Now those same people are “Rah Rah USA USA, how dare them traitorous Jews disagree with ARE (OUR) President’s Israel policy. USA USA!”

Such is the nature and slippery slope of accusations of disloyalty and fealty to a foreign country. The fact that Ben-Ami can not understand this is quite frankly, shocking.

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A Pox on Neither of Their Houses

CAP to-do shows signs of simmering … down

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