(updated below - Update II [Responses])
Last month, my Salon colleague Justin Elliott revealed that AIPAC's former spokesman, Josh Block, had been encouraging neoconservative journalists and pundits on a private email list to attack as "anti-Semites" various Middle East commentators employed by two of the most influential Democratic-Party-aligned organizations: the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Media Matters (MM). Block distributed a dossier containing posts by these CAP and MM writers about Israel and Iran that he claimed evince anti-Semitism, and then issued these marching orders (emphasis in original): "YOU SHOULD AMPLIFY this. And use the below [research] to attack the bad guys." The predictable roster of neoconservative, hatemongering extremists on that email list -- led by The Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin, who recruited the Simon Wiesenthal Center to the cause — dutifully spewed out articles echoing Block’s attacks against these mostly young, liberal writers: Matt Duss, Ali Gharib, Eli Clifton and Zaid Jilani at CAP's ThinkProgress blog and Media Matters' MJ Rosenberg (a former AIPAC employee).
Block's once-secret email campaign followed a Politico article by Ben Smith which accused (or, rather, credited) these CAP and MM writers with deviations from "the bipartisan consensus on Israel" and voicing "a heretical and often critical stance on Israel heretofore confined to the political margins”; moreover, Smith wrote, "warm words for Israel can be hard to find on [CAP's] blogs." Block was quoted in that article accusing the two progressive groups of publishing "anti-Israel" and "borderline anti-Semitic stuff"; Smith subsequently acknowledged that it was Block who had fed him files containing the supposedly anti-Semitic posts in order to enable the article to be written. As I wrote about on December 14, this seemed to be one of those very rare instances where this sort of smear campaign backfired and only the smear merchant (Block) would suffer any consequences, as Block's own business partner, Lanny Davis, publicly repudiated Block's smears, and the Democratic-aligned Truman National Security Project then expelled Block for using "mischaracterization or character attacks" in order to impede "the ability to debate difficult topics freely."
But despite Block's public humiliation, the disgusting smear campaign against these CAP and MM analysts rolls on undeterred, and the form it is taking reveals some very important points. In late December, The Jerusalem Post published an article about what it called "the anti-Israel writings of the ThinkProgress bloggers." It quoted the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor accusing the CAP writers of "classical anti-Semitism," and the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center accused them of "dangerous political libels resonating with historic and toxic anti-Jewish prejudices." A cowardly "Democratic congressional staffer" anonymously called on "both parties" to repudiate the targeted writers and then added: "So long as CAP puts forth this kind of rhetoric, it will be difficult for them to be taken seriously" (because the hallmark of Seriousness is hiding behind anonymity to smear writers as anti-Semites).
Since then, the standard army of low-level smear merchants has continued attacking these CAP and MM writers as anti-Semites. Last week in Haaretz, Marty Peretz' long-time assistant, Jamie Kirchick, ironically claimed that it was Block and other neocons who are the victims of "McCarthyism" even as Kirchick, in the same column, advanced the witch hunt to expose hidden anti-Semites in America's think tanks and media outlets (an even greater irony is found in Kirchick's self-anointed status as anti-bigotry crusader despite his long-term work for Peretz, probably the single most flagrant bigot and unapologetic spewer of hate speech in mainstream American discourse: but since it's aimed at Arabs and Muslims, it's all permissible). Earlier this week, Front Page Magazine singled out two of the targeted CAP writers with Arab-sounding names -- Ali Gharib and Zaid Jilani -- and accused them of being anti-American and driven by allegiance to Iran and Pakistan (that article also referred to them as "Muslim bloggers" even though Gharib, an Iranian-American, is an atheist). Yesterday, The New York Post published an Op-Ed by Commentary's Alana Goodman (under the headline "The White House’s Israel-bashing pals") reporting that "three leading Jewish groups — the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center — have accused CAP and its staff of publishing 'anti-Israel,' 'hateful' and 'toxic anti-Jewish' material."
Though Block has now been erased from the picture, this is clearly his smear campaign being aggressively carried out. The goal here is the same as it always is for efforts to smear critics of Israel (or those who question the AIPAC line on U.S. policy toward the region) as anti-Semites: namely, to gather scalps, even low-level ones, in order to intimidate others from questioning or challenging the Israel Lobby's agenda and enforce orthodoxy in the mainstream of both parties. This cause has become more urgent than ever as a result of two factors: (1) increasing tensions with Iran, which many of these accusers desperately want to see devolve into war and (2) increasing freedom among mainstream pundits and even establishment Democrats to criticize the Israeli government and the domestic Israel Lobby (the 2012 election is a third factor for some, as they hope to link anti-Semitism to the White House in order to scare Jewish voters out of voting for the Democrats). Being able to display the heads of these offending writers on a pike will, it is hoped, serve to deter further dissent on these Israel-related questions in mainstream circles. But those pushing this particular smear campaign have over-played their hand in several important ways and, in doing so, have revealed more starkly than ever the true purpose and the real premises underlying their attacks.
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There are many points to make about how this campaign has manifested, but I want to focus on one amazing aspect of it. Because these "leading Jewish groups" have whittled away their credibility by continuously exploiting charges of "anti-Semitism" for political gain and debate-suppressing ends, it is no longer sufficient for them simply to spout the accusation and be taken seriously. They are now required to specify what exactly is out of bounds and what makes someone "anti-Semitic" as opposed to a mere critic of Israeli actions. And in their answers here one finds extremely revealing -- and damning -- facts.
Look at what Josh Block told Politico about what makes someone an anti-Semite:
As a progressive Democrat, I am convinced that on issues as important as the US-Israel alliance and the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program, there is no room for uncivil discourse or name calling, like 'Israel Firster or 'Likudnik', and policy or political rhetoric that is hostile to Israel, or suggests that Iran has no nuclear weapons program, has no place in the mainstream Democratic party discourse. I also believe that when it occurs, progressive institutions, have a responsibility not to tolerate such speech or arguments.
So according to Block, you are not allowed (unless you want to be found guilty of anti-Semitism) to use "policy rhetoric that is hostile to Israel" or -- more amazingly -- even to "suggest that Iran has no nuclear weapons program." Those ideas are strictly off limits, declares the former AIPAC spokesman. Apparently, then, America's National Intelligence Estimates of 2007 and 2010 are both anti-Semitic, since they both concluded that Iran ceased work on developing a nuclear weapon back in 2003 and that there is no conclusive evidence demonstrating it resumed; to cite those reports and to embrace their conclusions makes you an anti-Semite, since you're not allowed to "suggest that Iran has no nuclear weapons program." Israel's government is also evidently suffused with anti-Semites, given that Haaretz reported this week that "the Israeli view is that while Iran continues to improve its nuclear capabilities, it has not yet decided whether to translate these capabilities into a nuclear weapon." Make certain, though, not to mention that because, according to Block, that expression of anti-semitism "has no place in the mainstream Democratic party discourse." To avoid being an anti-Semite, you must quietly and gratefully accept the most extreme claims about the state of Iran's nuclear weapons program: it is not permissible to debate it.
Then there's Jason Issacson of the American Jewish Congress, who told The Jerusalem Post that "references to Israeli ‘apartheid’ . . . are so false and hateful they reveal an ugly bias no serious policy center can countenance." Make sure to write that down: unless you want to stand revealed as an anti-Semite, you're not allowed to point out the stark and tragic similarities between South African bantustans and the way in which residents of the West Bank are walled off into tiny enclaves and Gazans are forcibly confined to ghettos. Those guilty of anti-Semitism on this ground not only include the President of Turkey, the Foreign Minister of Finland, and a former American President -- all of whom have made that comparison -- but also the publisher of Haaretz, who last year repeatedly compared Israeli treatment of the Palestinians to South African apartheid; the Israeli writer Yitzhak Loar, who has argued that the situation in the occupied territories is actually worse than South African apartheid in material ways; and also, once again, Israel's own Defense Minister (and former Prime Minister), who last year warned that the only alternative to peace is apartheid: "If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state."
But the most revealing decree comes from Abe Foxman's Anti-Defamation League, which said this when arguing that these anti-Semitism smears against CAP and MM are warranted:
Most of their blogs come from a perspective of blaming Israel for the lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian affairs and minimizing or rationalizing the Iranian threat.
So Israel has been brutally occupying Palestinian land for 45 years, and continues to aggressively expand settlements that all but foreclose any possibility of a two-state resolution. But as an American taxpayer -- contributing to the billions of dollars of annual aid sent to Israel and affected in all sorts of ways by this conflict -- you are not allowed to opine that Israel is primarily at fault for the lack of a peace agreement. If you do so opine, you're not merely wrong, but you've exposed yourself as an anti-Semite. That opinion regarding the assignment of fault in the Israel-Palestinian conflict is strictly off limits.
Also strictly prohibited, according to the ADL, is "minimizing or rationalizing the Iranian threat." This means that not only are the American intelligence agencies which produced the 2007 and 2010 NIEs guilty of anti-Semitism, as are Israeli officials who believe Iran "has not yet decided whether to translate these capabilities into a nuclear weapon," but so too is Tamir Pardo, the current chief of the Israeli Mossad, who recently rejected the claim that Iranian nuclear weapons would pose an existential threat to Israel; ex-Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy (“[Iran is] far from posing an existential threat to Israel"; instead, domestic radicalization in Israel "poses a bigger risk than Ahmadinejad" because "ultra-Orthodox extremism has darkened our lives"; he added: "The State of Israel cannot be destroyed. An attack on Iran could affect not only Israel, but the entire region for 100 years"); ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan ("a future Israel Air Force attack on Iranian nuclear facilities was 'the stupidest thing I have ever heard"); and Israeli Defense Minister Barak ("Iran does not constitute an existential threat against Israel").
But remember: as an American citizen whose country may be involved directly or indirectly in a war with Iran, you are not allowed to express any opinions that constitute "minimizing or rationalizing the Iranian threat." You're presumably also not allowed to question the wisdom and justness of sanctions against Iran even though their principal Congressional sponsor has acknowledged, proudly, that they will "take the food out of the mouths of the citizens." If you do question any of that, then you are an anti-Semite, pronounces the ADL.
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Is this not the most blatant evidence yet that these organizations and their adherents are manipulating and exploiting charges of anti-Semitism in order to stifle and punish perfectly legitimate political and policy debates about Israel? They are effectively admitting that "anti-Semitism" does not mean irrational hatred or animosity toward Jews -- its actual definition -- but rather now means: challenging or even questioning the policy assumptions and preferences of certain Jewish groups and the Israeli government. They are literally decreeing that you are barred from challenging the dubious premises of those who crave war with Iran, are further barred from questioning their fear-mongering about the Iranian nuclear program, are also barred from assigning blame to the settlement-expanding Israelis for the lack of a peace agreement, and are even barred from condemning the increasingly unsustainable and anti-democratic treatment of the Palestinians -- all upon pain of being formally condemned as anti-Semitic.
What we find yet again is this common-- and quite dangerous -- paradox: the very groups that are charged with fighting anti-Semitism have done more than anyone else to trivialize the accusation and thus render it impotent and meaningless. They have done this by continuously exploiting the term for completely illegitimate aims: to smear those who deviate from their policy preferences regarding Israel. As Sarah Wildman recently wrote in an Op-Ed in the Jewish newspaper, The Forward, entitled "When 'Anti-Semitism' is Abused":
[W]hen anti-Semitism is falsely applied, we must also stand up and decry it as defamation, as character assault, as unjust. That is why when we debase the term by using it as a rhetorical conceit against those with whom we disagree on policy matters, we have sullied our own promises to our grandparents. For if we dilute the term, if we render the label meaningless, defanged, we have failed ourselves, our legacy, our ancestors, our children.
I am speaking of the recent rise of the bogeyman of anti-Semitism wielded to criticize everyone, from the American ambassador to Belgium (himself the Jewish son of a Holocaust survivor), who was trying to negotiate the uncomfortable lines of Muslim-Jewish conflict in modern Europe, to foreign policy bloggers at Media Matters for America and ThinkProgress, the online magazine housed at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post, responding to a story about divisions on Israel policy in the Democratic Party, freely called these blogs anti-Semitic. Commentary took up her lead, and The Jerusalem Post than found a historian to ruminate over word choices on the blogs, likening their use to classic anti-Semitism. In the meantime, Elliott Abrams of The Weekly Standard took on Thomas Friedman, beginning his piece, “If you were an anti-Semite dedicated to spreading your hatred of Jews….”
There comes a time when we must insist on common sense. We must reject the absurd. There comes a time when we must say, “Enough.” Real anti-Semitism exists. Real, ugly, hatred of the Jewish people is all too easy to find.
But when we are forced to sift through the thousands of posts of an organization affiliated with the Democratic Party in order to come up with six or seven sentences that may, taken out of context, feel uncomfortable to the community with regard to Israel, that should not lead to pointing fingers, libeling writers and screaming about hate speech. We cannot jump up and shout that these think tanks are harboring anti-Semites or brewing hatred because we disagree with something they have written. We cannot call that anti-Semitism. We can call it policy disagreement.
But smearing those with policy disagreements as anti-Semites has become a leading tactic in these precincts. And the prime purveyors are those who have anointed themselves as the guardians and arbiters of the term, and have thus done more to dilute and trivialize it than any actual anti-Semites could ever dream of achieving. It's the classic Boy Who Cried Wolf syndrome: if you scream "anti-Semite" in order to prohibit perfectly valid ideas from being expressed, then nobody will listen or care when you scream it in order to highlight its genuine manifestations.
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What's really going on here is as obvious as it is odious. The primary factor in AIPAC's astonishing success has been ensuring that its mandated policies are fully bipartisan, that there are zero differences on Israel between the two parties, so that election outcomes change nothing. They are most petrified that some actual dissent may seep into the mainstream of the two parties; that's why Bill Kristol has demanded that Ron Paul be expelled from the GOP, and it's why these CAP and MM writers are being attacked so savagely. Especially with a possible war with Iran on the horizon, the last thing they want -- especially in the mainstream of either party -- is a permissive environment where one can freely debate the accuracy of their fear-mongering premises about Iran and challenge the wisdom of that aggression.
They are particularly panicked by their eroding power to monopolize the discourse. When Time Magazine's Joe Klein is warning of "Israel-Firsters" and pointing out the role they played in bringing about the Iraq War and now trying to repeat that feat with Iran, and when The New York Times' Tom Friedman is warning that U.S. policy is "held hostage" by the Israel Lobby and the U.S. Congress is "bought and paid for by the Israel Lobby," it's clear that things have changed. Being able to display a new scalp on their wall will enable them to exhibit that they can still dictate debate limits and punish heretics. The problem, though, is that Joe Klein and Tom Friedman are too protected (to say nothing of being too Jewish and too devoted to Israel) to bring down with anti-Semitism smears (though they certainly have tried).
So what they do instead is target young, relatively obscure writers -- especially ones with names like "Zaid Jilani" and "Ali Gahrib" -- in order to make an example of them. This is a truly disgusting spectacle: these commentators -- all of whom are writing well within the range of mainstream opinion on Israel -- are being publicly smeared early in their careers as anti-Semites as part of a coordinated, ongoing campaign planned by Josh Block and carried out by numerous journalists with large media platforms, and aided and abetted by Jewish groups trading on their credibility to suppress debate.
These accusers know that their institutional employer (CAP) -- dependent both upon White House access and funding by Jewish donors -- can ill-afford to be smeared as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic regardless of whether those allegations are valid or not. And that's exactly why they're doing it: because they sense that these young CAP writers in particular (who, revealingly, have not been heard from in their own defense since the accusations against them were first voiced) are vulnerable to character assassination and career destruction. Unsurprisingly, CAP has alternated between distancing itself from and even repudiating their writings to desperately assuring everyone that they are fully on board with standard "pro-Israel" orthodoxies.
So this smear campaign not only threatens to suppress legitimate debate about crucial policy matters in the U.S., but it also is aimed at the reputations and careers of numerous young liberal writers who have done absolutely nothing wrong. As Wildman put it about those who "debase the term by using it as a rhetorical conceit against those with whom we disagree on policy matters": "When anti-Semitism is falsely applied, we must also stand up and decry it as defamation, as character assault, as unjust. . . .There comes a time when we must insist on common sense. We must reject the absurd. There comes a time when we must say, 'Enough'." We are way past that point now: both with the general smearing of Israel critics as anti-Semites and the specific, baseless attacks on these writers.
UPDATE: Part of why I decided to write about this today -- beyond the proliferating smears -- was that I had learned that The Washington Post's Peter Wallsten was working on a long article about this controversy; that article was just published this morning, and is being promoted this way on its website's front page:
It basically rehashes all the accusations I just chronicled. It does, though, say that Jilani -- one of the best commentators at CAP -- "left CAP’s staff in recent days to take another job." It also includes this pitiful (and entirely unsurprising) quote from a White House official:
“The language is corrosive and unacceptable,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He added that the blog posts and tweets from CAP staffers “are the responsibility of the adults who run the place, not only the kids who play.”
Cooper conveyed his concerns about CAP during a private White House meeting last week with Obama’s newly hired Jewish community liaison.
The White House official, Jarrod Bernstein, told Cooper that the situation at CAP was “troubling,” adding “that is not this administration.
The "situation" at CAP is "troubling," said the White House official -- way to stand by your most loyal institutional ally in Washington. Kudos to J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami, who "said he had no problem with 'Israel-firster'" and then identified the real menace here:
“If the charge is that you’re putting the interests of another country before the interests of the United States in the way you would advocate that, it’s a legitimate question,” Ben-Ami said.
Ben-Ami added that Jewish groups “should tread lightly” when they make accusations of anti-Semitism. “Because when they do need to use that word, people won’t take you seriously,” he said.
Regardless of what the ultimate CAP disposition is of these writers, just think about the effect it has not only on them, but all commentators working in D.C., who see these toxic smears being spread far and wide. To say that they will not feel free to comment on matters relating to Israel is a huge understatement. That, of course, is precisely the aim of this campaign.
UPDATE II: My response to David Bernstein and Jeffrey Goldberg is set forth in the last paragraph of this post.