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.”
Block also singled out CAP blogger Zaid Jilani’s repeated use of the term “Israel firster” on his Twitter feed.
Critics, combing through comments and articles written by staffers from CAP and from Media Matters, also raised concerns over CAP staffer Ali Gharib’s reference to Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, who is known for his support for Israel and tough stance on Iran, as “Mark Kirk (R-AIPAC).” The term “apartheid” was also used by staff members when describing Israel’s policy.
Following the Politico story, CAP launched an effort to purge its website and asked staffers to delete offensive remarks from their Twitter feeds. Gharib posted a message: “I do apologize for the crudeness of the flippant Tweet in question,” referring to his reference to Kirk.
In contrast, Media Matters, a much smaller organization also seen as close to the Democratic Party, fought back against Block’s accusations. M.J. Rosenberg, the group’s senior writer on foreign policy — and once an AIPAC official himself — defended his use of the term “Israel firster.” The term, he said, was a legitimate one for criticizing those who see the policies of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu as always being right while viewing those of America’s president, Obama, as always wrong.
Writer Eric Alterman, whose column appeared on CAP’s website, also pushed back against Block’s charge that he had written “borderline anti-Semitic stuff.” The article in question, published last November, includes a sentence saying, “Of course the big prize for AIPAC would be an attack on Iran.” Alterman, who is also a columnist for the Forward, called Block’s accusation of anti-Semitism “ludicrous.”
This accusation, and a subsequent report in Salon regarding a mass email sent out by Block that called on writers to “amplify” his message, brought the former AIPAC press agent under fire, as well.
The Truman National Security Project, another foreign policy group advising the Democratic Party, decided to cut its ties with Block, one of its fellows, over his attacks on CAP. “Your actions outside the community have caused too many to fear conversation within the community,” the program’s co-founder and CEO, Rachel Kleinfeld, wrote to Block.
The Truman group’s action has little practical impact, however, since Block received no compensation from the organization.
In a statement to the Forward, Block did not take back his attacks. He cited the support he had received from three Jewish groups — the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League — in support of his case, which he said had “even gone beyond my careful and measured comments about ‘anti-Israel’ and ‘borderline anti-Semitic’ rhetoric at CAP.”
Block said that CAP “owes me a debt of gratitude for setting in motion a process that will allow them to clean house and move on, since if they don’t do exactly that, they will continue to be subject to this same criticism and will have no credibility on Capitol Hill or in the broader policy debate.”
Meanwhile, a separate example of sensitivity toward certain terms in describing Israel was provided by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. The applause and numerous standing ovations that lawmakers gave to a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before Congress last September were “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby,” Friedman wrote on December 13.
“Bought and paid for” is a phrase heard frequently in the capital’s sharp political discourse to describe the influence that lobbies and interest groups have on members of Congress. But Friedman’s use of it in reference to the pro-Israel lobby provoked a wave of anger from Jewish groups.
“If he’d say that Congress is very influenced by Jews, that is one thing, but to say they are ‘bought and paid for’, that veers off to not just criticism,” said Ken Jacobson, the ADL’s deputy national director. Friedman later said he “probably should have used a more precise term.”
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University who has written extensively about the escalation of rhetoric in American culture, said that “people tend to be a-historic” when talking about Israel and Jews in politics. The term “bought and paid for,” she said, “has so many dangerous connotations” stemming from “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and suggesting that Jews, in some way, are a fifth column. “That is what makes it so dangerous,” Tannen said.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com