Washington — A month-long war of words within Democratic circles has exposed vulnerabilities and sensitivities on all sides when it comes to criticizing and defending Israel.
The conflict, reflecting a broader split that shows up in opinion polls of the Democratic party’s rank and file, shows that advocates confront politically fraught boundaries when they discuss their divisions over Israel. Yet these boundaries, even after weeks of mudslinging, remain foggy and unpredictable and, to some extent, merely dependent on the political exposure of those who dare tiptoe near them.
The Center for American Progress, a leading progressive policy think tank closely aligned with the Democratic Party, was forced to distance itself from terms such as “apartheid,” referring to Israel, and from claims that the pro-Israeli lobby was pushing for war with Iran, due to a barrage of criticism hurled at the group from Jewish and pro-Israel activists.
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But another group, Media Matters, which came under fire for similar statements, has stuck to its guns and is continuing to use the term “Israel firsters,” a reference to hawkish defenders of Israel that is seen as offensive by many in the pro-Israel community.
Meanwhile, Josh Block, the pro-Israel activist who set off this recent tussle, has suffered some consequences for criticizing opponents from the progressive camp for engaging in “borderline anti-Semitism.”
CAP was founded and is chaired by John Podesta, who served as chief of staff to President Clinton. The center is generally perceived as having close links to the Democratic Party. These ties brought it under the most pressure when Block launched accusations that some of CAP’s staffers were engaging in anti-Israel rhetoric. The group quickly moved to stress its support for Israel and to delete statements seen as controversial.
“We’ve tried to reiterate what our positions are,” said Ken Gude, CAP’s managing director of national security. These views, Gude told the Forward, include “robust support” for the State of Israel. “We have no intention to break with the mainstream,” he added.
Block, a Clinton administration appointee who was, until 2010, the official spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has made a point over the past year of taking on critics of Israel from the left. He made his views about CAP and Media Matters known in a December 7 Politico article.
“Either the inmates are running the asylum or the Center for American Progress has made a decision to be anti-Israel,” he told Ben Smith, a widely read columnist for Politico.
Block cited several comments made by staffers writing for ThinkProgress, a blog run by CAP. ThinkProgress blogger Eli Clifton accused the pro-Israel lobby of pushing for war against Iran, saying, “It would appear that AIPAC is now using the same escalating measures against Iran that were used before the invasion of Iraq.”