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Has the Israel Lobby Gone Too Far?

Will a recent attack on progressive journalists help spark a sea-change in the debate over Middle East policy?
 
 
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When Josh Block, a former communications director for the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), sent an “oppo dump” about a group of progressive journalists and bloggers at the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Media Matters to a list-serv of conservative journalists and asked them to push the narrative that the writers were echoing “the words of anti-Semites,” he probably didn't think much of it. 

After all, this is how self-identified “pro-Israel” activists have long policed the discourse surrounding the Middle East conflict and the “special relationship” that exists between the United States and Israel.

In 2009, an influential Israeli think-tank carefully cherry-picked posts from the Huffington Post, Daily Kos and Salon, quoted them out of context and concluded that “progressive blogs and news sites in the United States are a new field where Jew-hatred, in both its classic and anti-Israeli forms, manifests itself.” Avocates of maintaining the destructive status quo in the Middle East have long attempted to define a “new anti-Semitism” to include criticism of the Israeli government that goes beyond the pale, as they define it. (So-called pro-Israel groups have managed to get the EU to adopt a "working definition" of anti-Semitism that includes harsh criticism of the Israeli government -- a definition Block sent to journalists to ostensibly prove his case.) 

But Block appears to have made a crucial miscalculation. He wasn't smearing Middle East studies professors, Palestinian rights activists or liberal bloggers; he went after two very mainstream Washington DC think-tanks that are closely connected with the Democratic establishment. And he did so at a time when the debate over U.S. policy towards Israel is becoming more partisan than ever before (the GOP has worked hard to paint Obama as “anti-Israel”) and tensions between the White House and the Netanyahu government are running high.

The backlash was swift. Just as Joe McCarthy, having terrified Hollywood screenwriters with his red-baiting over-reached when he peddled conspiracy theories about the military high command being infested with Communists, Block appears to have picked the wrong target. In doing so, he exposed the inner workings of what scholars Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer called the “Israel lobby,” and proved that reckless charges of anti-Semitism are used to narrow the discourse.

The incident appears at first blush to be just one more small brushfire in the ongoing war of words over the Israel-Palestine conflict. But the immediate backlash against Block may have far-reaching consequences, opening up more space for a broader range of views and making it harder to silence critics with accusations of malign intent.

The Smear 

On December 7, an article by Ben Smith titled, “Israel rift roils Democratic ranks” appeared in Politico. The gist of it was that a handful of bloggers with the Center for American Progress and Media Matters were not only “challenging a bipartisan consensus on Israel and Palestine that has dominated American foreign policy for more than a decade,” but employing “borderline anti-Semitic” rhetoric to do so.

The piece named CAP bloggers Matt Duss, Eli Clifton and Ali Gharib, and Media Matters' MJ Rosenberg – a former AIPAC staffer turned apostate – and also took a swing at a column Eric Alterman wrote for CAP. (Disclosure: Gharib is a personal friend.)

Smith quoted Block in the piece:

“There’s two explanations here – either the inmates are running the asylum or the Center for American Progress has made a decision to be anti-Israel,” said Josh Block, a former spokesman for AIPAC who is now a fellow at the center-left Progressive Policy Institute. “Either they can allow people to say borderline anti-Semitic stuff” – a reference to what he described as conspiracy theorizing in the Alterman column – “and to say things that are antithetical to the fundamental values of the Democratic party, or they can fire them and stop it.” (Alterman called the charge "ludicrous" and "character assassination," noted that he is a columnist for Jewish publications, and described himself as a "proud, pro-Zionist Jew.")

The story took a dramatic turn the following day, when Salon's Justin Elliot reported on “an email sent by Josh Block to a private listserv called the Freedom Community, in which he throws around accusations of anti-Semitism against liberal bloggers and calls on other list members to 'echo' and 'amplify' his assault and 'use the below [research] to attack the bad guys.'” The email incuded Smith's Politico story, and “thousands of words of opposition research” on the writers, whom Block called “the bad guys.” “These are the words of anti-Semites, not Democratic political players,” wrote Block.

Smith later acknowledged that he'd received Block's opposition research prior to writing his story.

The Response

On its blog, Think Progress, CAP's Ken Gude and Faiz Shakir responded to Smith's Politico article and Matt Duss took on the cherry-picked quotations Block had disseminated. Alterman penned a post for the Nation calling Block's charges “ludicrous.” 

But what was different about this episode was the reaction from Block's own allies. After leaving AIPAC, he had become a fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute and a member of the Truman National Security project – two “centrist” Democratic think-tanks.

As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent reported, the two organizations were “mulling whether to sever ties with a controversial former AIPAC spokesman after it emerged that he was encouraging conservative writers to echo charges that critics of Israel are guilty of anti-Semitism.”

The fate of the former AIPAC spokesman, Josh Block, will be a big deal to people in left-leaning foreign policy circles in Washington. For them, 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.

Sargent wrote that Will Marshall, the head of PPI, “privately told Block that the think-tank would sever ties with Block if he didn’t retract the charges detailed in Salon.” Block later offered a statement to Smith denying that he had accused CAP or Media Matters of anti-Semitism, but otherwise standing by his claims.

Block Proves Critics Right

Critics of Israeli policy -- and the U.S.-Israeli relationship -- have long charged that the “Israel lobby” squelches dissenting views by accusing them of holding “anti-Israel,” and anti-Semitic views. Block and his cohorts have responded by claiming that such an analysis itself “echoes” anti-Semitic tropes, notably in attacking Measheimer and Walt, authors ofThe Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. 

The claim goes like this: the portrayal of Jews as a minority who hold no loyalty to the countries in which they live was long a traditional anti-Semitic narrative in Europe and elsewhere. Today, people like MJ Rosenberg call so-called pro-Israel politicians and groups like AIPAC “Israel firsters,” and accuse them of holding dual loyalties to the United States and Israel. The narratives are vaguely similar, ostensibly proving that the critics hold malign views of American Jews.

The problem with this is that the image of Jews as a disloyal minority preceded the existence of a modern “Jewish” state – subject to criticism like any other -- to which many American Jews openly profess some degree of loyalty. Acknowledging this is not even the slightest bit controversial in other contexts. Just this week, for example, Jonathan Tobin wrote a column in the neoconservative Commentary magazine lamenting the fact that liberal American Jews would put environmental concerns about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline over “promoting American energy independence, which would thereby reduce our dependence on the Arab oil that finances both terrorism and regimes that support the war on Israel.”

The other problem is that “Israel firsters” – a term used often by MJ Rosenberg that Block condemns as “fringe” and “borderline anti-Semitic,” aren't necessarily Jewish. The Israel lobby today rests as much on the activism of evangelical Christians as it does Jews. Support for Israel – often uncritical support – has become an ideological touchstone on the right, and politicians like Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich fall all over themselves to genuflect to the Israeli government. At a recent GOP debate, Mitt Romney said that he wouldn't dare try to influence the Israeli government. “If I was president,” he said, “I’d get on the phone to Bibi [Netanyahu] and say ‘Would it help if I said this?’” Israel-first, indeed.

MJ Rosenberg writes that he doesn't accuse anyone of putting the state of Israel first; rather, they “are putting the interests of Binyamin Netanyahu and his hardliners first.”

After all, if they were putting Israel first, they would not be promoting policies (such as war with Iran or the perpetuation of the occupation) that could very easily lead to Israel's destruction or, at least, to the loss of its Jewish majority. The people I call "Israel firsters" are, in fact, Netanyahu firsters.

Policing the Discourse

In the non-retraction to Ben Smith, Block also illustrated quite clearly that these smears are used to narrow the range of acceptable debate to that which is approved by people like Block. He told Smith, “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.” 

It's a remakable revelation; Block is saying that suggesting that Iran is not seeking a nuclear weapon “has no place in the mainstream” discourse, despite the fact that this is a crucially important question and one subject to intense debate within intelligence circles. As Patrick Pexton, the onbudsman for the very-mainstream Washington Post wrote recently, the International Atomic Enegry Agency “does not say Iran has a bomb, nor does it say it is building one, only that its multiyear effort pursuing nuclear technology is sophisticated and broad enough that it could be consistent with building a bomb.”

Iran steadfastly denies it is aiming for a nuclear bomb and says its program is aimed at civilian nuclear energy and research. Of course, Tehran could be lying. But no one knows for sure.

This is what the U.S. director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March: “We continue to assess [that] Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

Far-Reaching Effect?

This is more than an inside-baseball story about feuding Washington institutions. It may prove to be a sea-change in the debate over Middle East policy. While Block probably didn't think twice about accusing those with whom he disagrees of harboring some sort of “fringe” ideology, it backfired in a very public, very noisy way.

For years, casual accusations of anti-Semitism against journalists, scholars and politicians resulted in damaged reputations, career problems and exile from the public sphere. Perhaps supporters of the Israeli government's policies will look at this incident and think twice about employing such smears in the future. And if that happens, it may well open up new space for a broader debate within the mainstream discourse.

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.
 
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