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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?

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.")

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