(updated below - Update II)
"I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby" -- Tom Friedman, New York Times, today.
"[T]he U.S. government fed up with Israel’s leadership [is] a hostage to its ineptitude, because the powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s" - Tom Friedman, New York Times, September 18, 2011.
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A significant and potentially consequential controversy erupted last week when Politico's Ben Smith -- seemingly out of nowhere -- wrote about what he described as deviations from "the bipartisan consensus on Israel" from several writers and bloggers at two of Washington's most well-connected Democratic political organizations: Center for American Progress and Media Matters. Naming Matt Duss, Eli Clifton, Eric Alterman and Ali Ghraib at CAP, along with former AIPAC employee MJ Rosenberg at Media Matters, Smith wrote that they regularly offer "a heretical and often critical stance on Israel heretofore confined to the political margins" and added: "warm words for Israel can be hard to find on [CAP's] blogs." The article included a quote from a former AIPAC official accusing the two groups of publishing "anti-Israel" and "borderline anti-Semitic stuff."
I have long been surprised -- and impressed -- by the high-quality, independent roster of commentators which an establishment entity like CAP employs to write about Middle East issues on its ThinkProgress blog. Even though most of it is under the guise of defending Obama on Israel from neocon attacks, those writers (and others at CAP, such as Zaid Jilani), are willing to question U.S. support for Israel and the actions of the Israeli government, as well as to use their critical faculties, to a far greater extent than is normally permitted in establishment D.C. discourse (that's why I was so disappointed in that recent unsigned, officious, war-mongering, White-House-talking-points propaganda put on the CAP blog under the name of the organization: it was atypical of their national security writing). But there is nothing fringe, anti-Israel, or remotely anti-Semitic about anything these commentators write. This Politico article simply features the standard, tired smears from those who ironically do more than anyone to trivialize "anti-Semitism" by cynically exploiting the accusation as a club to suppress dissent over Israel. Perhaps the most surprising thing of all is that it took this long for these exploiters of anti-Semitism accusations to launch this attack at CAP and Media Matters writers.
As it turns out -- and this was rather predictable -- Smith's article did not appear out of nowhere. It was engineered by one of Washington's most odious smear merchants, former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block. He has made a career out of working in the shadows, surreptitiously encouraging reporters to depict Israel critics as anti-Semites. For instance, during the controversy over the alleged anti-Semitism of Obama appointee Chas Freeman (accused of the crime of questioning U.S. support for Israel), Block publicly stated that AIPAC had no position on Freeman, but The Washington Post's Walter Pincus revealed that Block "provided critical material about Freeman [to journalists], albeit always on background, meaning his comments could not be attributed to him." That's what Block does: he scurries around in the dark feeding dossiers to reporters about people who are insufficiently supportive of Israel so that they will be publicly accused of anti-Semitism (at the time of the Freeman controversy, Politico's Smith similarly noted that "Jewish and pro-Israel organizations largely decided not to make the fight against Freeman a public crusade, though they were the first, and fiercest, Freeman opponents and made their views known privately").
Predictably, Block is now the leading force behind the McCarthyite campaign to have CAP writers labeled as fringe Israel-haters and even anti-Semites for the same crime Freeman committed. After publication of the Politico article, Smith acknowledged he was fed a file by Block listing the offending passages from the CAP writers. Block, in turn, was quoted in the Politico article as accusing CAP of publishing "borderline anti-Semitic stuff," specifically from the Jewish writer, Eric Alterman. And then late last week, my Salon colleague Justin Elliott broke the story of how Block, on a private email list filled with neocon writers and journalists, was "shopping a 3,000-word trove of opposition research against bloggers critical of Israel" and urging those journalists to "echo" and "amplify" the attack on those writers as anti-Semitic. Using classic guilt by association tactics -- CAP's posts have been "applauded by revolting allies like the pro-HAMAS and anti-Zionist/One State Solution advocate Ali Abunumiah," he announced -- Block issued his marching orders: "These are the words of anti-Semites, not Democratic political players."
Except a funny thing happened on the well-traveled road of Block's smear campaign. 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 writers. But Block also created an even larger backlash against himself, from the Democratic Party players whom his accusations were intended to rile up and who are normally supportive -- or at least perfectly tolerant -- of these types of smear campaigns.
Block's business partner -- the long-time Israel fanatic, Joe Lieberman fan and go-to lobbyist for despots around the world, Lanny Davis -- publicly and forcefully repudiated Block's outburst. Even more surprising, The Washington Post's Greg Sargent reported that -- as a result of the Salon story -- "two top think tanks in Washington [the "centrist" Progressive Policy Institute (contact here) and the Truman National Security Project (contact here)] are mulling whether to sever ties with" Block as a result of his smear campaign. Specifically, "PPI head Will Marshall [the "New Democrat" Iraq War supporter] privately told Block that the think tank would sever ties with Block if he didn’t retract the charges," while "at Truman, top officials privately debated via email whether to cut ties with Block after the Salon story broke."
Now, let's be clear about one thing: the only reason this has become such a problem for Block is because he made the over-reaching mistake of targeting an organization that is extremely well-connected in D.C.: CAP is the closest think tank ally to the Obama White House and filled with major Democratic players and Clinton veterans, such as its long-time chief, John Podesta. Does anyone think Lanny Davis or Will Marshall would have piped up in opposition had this been the typical neocon/AIPAC-type smear campaign: directed at those with far less institutional weight than CAP (note the last line of Davis' statement: "I respect John Podesta and the Center greatly")? "Anti-semitism" is still a radioactive accusation in our political discourse (though it's getting less so thanks to this sort of politically opportunistic game-playing with it); ordinarily, the same type of baseless smears can destroy the reputations and careers of people who don't have the institutional protection of a group like CAP.
That said, it could be very significant if Block ends up losing his affiliation with one or both of those think tanks. It's been a very long time in Washington -- if it has ever happened -- when someone suffered any consequences for launching a baseless McCarthyite campaign of "anti-Semitism" to punish critics of Israel. As Sargent astutely put it: "the question of whether the think tanks will remain affiliated with Block will be seen as a referendum on the larger issue of whether demeaning Israel critics as anti-Semitic will be considered acceptable discourse among foreign policy experts." Block has backed off some of his most incendiary accusations, but has apologized for nothing and continues to insist that the views he targeted should not be tolerated in any mainstream institution (including questioning whether Iran has a nuclear weapons program (what the last NIE did) or "policy or political rhetoric that is hostile to Israel": those views, insists Block, are strictly off-limits).
This episode reveals yet again just how pernicious is this manipulative use of "anti-Semitism" to intimidate people out of questioning U.S. policy toward Israel. Block targeted CAP because he knows full well that its two most important organizational resources -- its White-House/Party access and its donor base -- can be harmed even from the innuendo that it is committing heresy on Israel. Unsurprisingly, while the targeted writers have not been expressly admonished, CAP has engaged in blatant, public efforts to distance itself from their own writers' commentary and to assure everyone that they are not heretics when it comes to Israel.
Smith's original article reported that "CAP officials have told angry allies that the bloggers don’t speak for the organization." One senior CAP official told Smith: "what one blogger or analyst may write isn’t necessarily indicative of what our policy recommendations are for the administration or Congress when I’m doing meetings with our friends in government."
Two other senior CAP officials, in the wake of the Politico article, ran to the ThinkProgress blog to write an incredibly defensive apologia assuring everyone that they do not deviate on Israel, clicking their heels and affirming several oaths as though they're reading from some mandated D.C. script: "Iran’s nuclear program is a strong point of concern for us, the U.S., and its allies"; CAP's goal is "ensuring Israel’s long term security by securing its neighborhood"; "the multilateral sanctions framework engineered by the Obama administration is an important tool in pressuring Iran"; "It is a widely accepted fact that Iran has a nuclear program"; "while we take nothing off the table, we do not believe there is any evidence that a military strike would achieve those goals, a view shared by America’s top military officials." Yet another CAP official, in response to the criticisms from the Wiesenthal Center, ran to affirm that we "take the threat of Iran’s nuclear program seriously," that "the Iranian issue is a strong point of concern for us," and that "we support the Obama administration’s position of 'no options off the table'" (while not supporting a military strike).
Given all this, is there any question -- no matter what the outcome is -- that this will have an effect on how CAP commentators write about Israel? Here you have their institutional employer under widespread attack for being anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic because of what they've written. You have a Washington Post columnist fueling those accusations repeatedly. You have your own organization's officials publicly, expressly and repeatedly distancing themselves from what you've said by making clear that it's not the organization's views, all while specifying what the acceptable boundaries are for your commentary on these matters (namely: nothing to the left of the Obama administration's official position). You now know that your writings on this topic are being monitored by the Josh Blocks of the world.
I have respect for the specific CAP and Media Matters writers targeted by this smear campaign. They have real integrity, and I doubt that any of them will consciously curb what they write. But I also have little doubt that this episode will be in their heads every time they go to write about Israel. They'll be wondering if they are crossing an organizational line, if they are going to prompt renewed smears against them and their bosses, if they should just refrain on the ground that the cost is not worth it. And that, of course, is precisely the goal of these smear campaigns: to make the cost of criticizing Israel and/or questioning blind U.S. support for Israel so high -- personally and professionally -- that most people are unwilling to do it.
And still -- even now that the Israel debate has been opened up more than ever before (as those above quotes from Tom Friedman reflect -- these smear tactics still work. Part of the problem is that most liberal writers, bloggers and pundits -- especially the non-Jewish ones -- are petrified of getting anywhere near the word "Israel," and that's been true for quite some time. One CAP writer noted to me the conspicuous silence among liberal bloggers and writers over this coordinated smear campaign against two of the most important progressive D.C. groups, and that's par for the course. By contrast, the entire Right jumps on every one of these smear campaigns and magnifies and amplifies it as loudly as possibly; note how the right-wing Breitbart site immediately lavished praise on Smith for "Exposing Media Matters, CAP as Anti-Israel Democrat Orgs." The smears of "anti-Israel" and especially "anti-Semitism" still pack a potent punch -- especially (though by no means only) for non-Jewish political commentators -- and most progressives will therefore avoid it at all costs. Indeed, the Politico article included this passage:
Podesta, who recently stepped down from his longtime position as CAP’s president, “always wanted to stay out of Israel stuff from the beginning, because it’s a no-win issue for them,” a liberal Israel policy thinker and CAP ally said. “They’re obviously a progressive place, but if you want to attract a mainstream Clinton, New Democrat milieu, you can’t really do real progressive Israel stuff.”
Those who are targeted with these smears for heresy on Israel know that -- no matter how baseless the smears are -- few will step forward to defend them. They'll be left alone, hung out to dry, in the face of a very aggressive neocon assault. When Walt and Mearsheimer were under vicious attack for The Israel Lobby, even many tenured academicians who had privately expressed support for their work ran away and refused to defend them. One CAP blogger, Zaid Jilani, has now apologized for and deleted tweets where he used the term "Israel-firster" even though (a) everyone knows there are American political activists -- both evangelical Christians and Jewish -- whose political worldview is dominated by allegiance to Israel and (b) even long-time stalwart Israel supporters like Tom Friedman now describe how U.S. officials are "hostage" to the "powerful pro-Israel lobby" that can force them to place Israel's interests over their own country's.
Every few months, one of these controversies erupts: some writer or official stands publicly accused of being insufficiently supportive of Israel; all kinds of innuendo about motives is smeared over the person; and demands are made that they be repudiated, fired or denied a position. No matter the outcome of the specific controversy, the effect is to re-bolster orthodoxies on Israel, fortify the restrictions on debate, and to send a warning to future would-be heretics about the cost of such behavior. It would be sweet justice indeed (as well as beneficial) if in this case the smear artist, rather than his targets, is the one who suffers consequences. But one should not doubt that the intended effect has been nonetheless achieved.
UPDATE: New Jersey Democratic Rep. Steve Rothman called on Tom Friedman to apologize for the comments in his column today about the Israel Lobby. Declared Rothman: Friedman's remarks are "scurrilous, destructive and harmful to Israel" and constitute "aiding and abetting a dangerous narrative about the US-Israel relationship and its American supporters." That's just hilarious: if Tom Friedman of all people is now so anti-Israel and borderline anti-Semitic that he needs to publicly apologize, then you've reduced the accusation -- and the movement that routinely spews it -- to pure caricature.
I should also have noted here that while CAP has distanced itself from the comments of its bloggers, Media Matters, to its credit, has made clear it stands fully behind Rosenberg.
Finally, I'll be on Cenk Uygur's new Current TV show tonight at 7:00 pm EST talking about the detention bill.
UPDATE II: On a different topic, I have an Op-Ed in tomorrow's print edition of The Guardian on Bradley Manning and the hearing being held in his case this week; it can be read here.