Intramural War of Words Raises Question of Who Loves Israel More

A dispute between liberal bloggers and pro-Israel constituencies raises the question of how far criticism of Israel can go, reports Linda Killian.

Gali Tibbon, AFP / Getty Images

A growing controversy in Democratic and pro-Israel circles over U.S. policy toward Israel, the security threat posed by Iran and what some journalists and bloggers are writing about these issues has unleashed a bitter feud involving the Center for American Progress (CAP) and charges and counter-charges about who actually has Israel’s best interests at heart.

Terms like “Israel Firster” are being thrown around, along with claims that many members of Congress take their cues on Middle East policy from the Israel lobby. Pro-Israel activists have countered with accusations that those writing such things, many of whom are Jewish, are “anti-Israel”, “anti-Zionist” and “anti-Semitic.”

It seems like almost everyone who writes about Israel and the Middle East has been dragged into the maelstrom.

To most people, this may seem a little like a dog whistle that only the small circle of people whose work focuses on Israel and U.S. Middle East policy can hear. It would be easy to dismiss the fuss as a tempest in a teapot or so much inside baseball. But the fight actually centers on vital issues about what should be the future of U.S. policy toward Israel, and it could affect U.S. relations with the Arab world and our allies.

The timing of the controversy also is linked to increasing discussion about potential U.S. military action against Iran because of its suspected nuclear weapons program. Iran recently announced it successfully test-fired several missiles during naval exercises near the Strait of Hormuz, and also that it has created the country’s first nuclear fuel rod, a key component in a nuclear reactor that also can be used to produce weapons-grade uranium. Iran also has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes, if tougher economic sanctions are imposed because of its nuclear program.

The International Atomic Energy Agency published a report (PDF) in November that found “credible” the idea that Iran has carried out work toward developing nuclear weapons and may be secretly working to design a nuclear warhead, something Iran has repeatedly denied.

New economic sanctions against Iran were passed by the Senate in a 100-0 vote in December, but it’s not at all clear whether it will be possible to reduce Iran’s oil revenue by limiting its exports without driving up the world price of oil, which Barack Obama would not want to do in an election year.

With the exception of Ron Paul, Republican presidential candidates have said air strikes or other military action may be needed to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Rick Santorum said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press that he would be in favor of launching airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.

But the suggestion that military action may be inevitable is being disputed by the left, including some bloggers from CAP, a Washington think tank and perhaps the Democratic Party’s most important idea factory. CAP was formed by former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta and staffed by many former Clinton and Obama officials. It works with members of Congress and the Obama administration to formulate center-left progressive policies.

Recent stories challenging those who have criticized Israeli policies or the push for war have been featured on Politico and in Washington Jewish Week and the Jerusalem Post.

Also in the crosshairs are prominent national political writers from the New York Times and Time magazine, as well as a blogger from Media Matters.

Many of the posts that have stirred controversy appeared on the CAP websites, Middle East Progress and ThinkProgress. Critics charge that recent blog posts and Tweets reflect an anti-Israel stance and even anti-Semitism, which Ken Gude, managing director of the National Security and International Policy Program at CAP, flatly rejects as “wildly unfair” and “flatly untrue.” In an interview, Gude told The Daily Beast that CAP’s critics have cherry-picked an “incredibly small handful of pieces and ignored the hundreds of other articles that we’ve put out on these issues.”

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One CAP blogger used the term “Israel Firster” in several tweets from his private Twitter account. It’s a loaded term for those who study Jewish history and anti-Semitism, and Zaid Jilani said he was unaware how fraught it was, and has deleted the tweets and apologized.

Another ThinkProgress blogger also apologized and deleted a tweet in which he referred to Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, who is not Jewish, as the Republican senator for AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Ali Gharib said after the fact that he realized the comments were flippant and irresponsible.

One recent column written by Eric Alterman, a CAP senior fellow and also a writer for The Daily Beast, discussed the influence of money and lobbyists on members of Congress mentioning both anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and AIPAC. “Allegedly concerned exclusively with issues related to Israel, AIPAC’s lobbying reaches far and wide.”

“Of course the big prize for AIPAC would be an attack on Iran,” asserted Alterman, who also claimed that neo-conservatives like Bill Kristol and other proponents of the Iraq war are behind the push for military action against Iran. “We are only beginning the process of recovery from the last catastrophic, unnecessary war led by these folks,” wrote Alterman.

Other journalists including New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman also have been critical of AIPAC and Israeli policy. In a column that appeared on Dec. 14, Friedman criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud government. “I’d never claim to speak for American Jews but I’m certain there are many out there like me,” Friedman wrote, “who are deeply worried about where Israel is going today… 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.”

Friedman was swiftly and roundly chastised for that column by pro-Israel forces, including David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who wrote on the Huffington Post that Friedman “crossed a line” with the Israel lobby statement, which he called “inaccurate and shockingly insidious.” Harris said the language conjured up “the ugliest anti-Semitic stereotypes.”

Rep. Steve Rothman, D-N.J., said Friedman was “not only wrong, but he’s aiding and abetting a dangerous narrative about the U.S.-Israel relationship and its American supporters.”

Friedman, who served as Israel bureau chief for the Times in the 1980s and twice won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting from the Middle East, subsequently told New York Jewish Week: “In retrospect I probably should have used a more precise term like ‘engineered’ by the Israel lobby—a term that does not suggest grand conspiracy theories that I don’t subscribe to. It would have helped people focus on my argument, which I stand by 100 percent.”

Time Magazine’s Joe Klein also had to clarify something he wrote about Israel and his opposition to military action against Iran. In a column several weeks ago Klein wrote, “It’s another thing entirely to send American kids off to war, yet again, to fight for Israel’s national security.”

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who writes extensively about the Middle East and U.S.-Israel relations, felt Klein was being inaccurate, wrote to him privately about it and later posted Klein’s response. “I was concerned about sending American kids off to war yet again,” Klein wrote. “I separated the phrase with commas in order to emphasize the too-many-times we’ve sent our troops overseas in the past decade. It might have been more accurate if I’d written ‘to send American kids off to war yet again-this time, to fight for Israel’s national security.’ Which I believe is what the warmongering against Iran is all about.”

“Is Joe Klein an anti-Semite—no—but the phraseology is loaded. If you’re writing on these subjects you have to have some sensitivity,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told me in an interview.

Cooper also was critical of Friedman’s phraseology. “The fact that you are Jewish does not give you a blank check to throw this stuff around. If you’re talking about something you don’t use the shorthand that is the shorthand of many anti-Semites,” Cooper said. “You should take another 30 seconds and find another way to say it.”

Several CAP blog posts from last May came under fire from Cooper and the Wiesenthal Center, which issued a statement to Washington Jewish Week about them.

The day before Netanyahu’s arrival in Washington, Barack Obama gave a speech in which he said the borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war should be the starting point for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, a statement that many, including the Wiesenthal Center, attacked.

In response, CAP blogger Ben Armbruster wrote, “The far-right Simon Wiesenthal Center, which purports to promote tolerance, basically called Obama a Nazi, saying that “Israel should reject a return to 1967 ‘Auschwitz’ borders.”

The Wiesenthal Center’s recent statement said “these sponsored bloggers are guilty of dangerous political libels resonating with historic and toxic anti-Jewish prejudices” and the Nazi charge was “a low blow that should disqualify Armbruster from participating in future civil discourse.”

However, that statement was not posted on the Wiesenthal center’s website. When I asked Cooper why, he said this furor is not exactly one of the top priorities of the organization, which monitors anti-Semitism around the world.

Some of CAP’s critics say CAP is an important Democratic policy operation and they want to know if these writings reflect just the opinions of their authors or a CAP policy shift.

Gude, speaking on behalf of Armbuster and other CAP bloggers, said it is wrong to suggest the group is anti-Israel.

“There’s been no decision at CAP to take policy in a new direction on the Middle East peace process or on Iran policy… We flatly disagree with the contention that CAP has ever been anti-Israel—it’s a mischaracterization of our views,” Gude said. “We feel we’re strong supporters of Israel, the two-state solution, and the president, and we’re going to maintain those positions.”

University of Maryland historian Jeffrey Herf, who writes about anti-Semitism and is a historian of Nazi Germany, thinks too many American journalists are quick to criticize Israel and the Netanyahu government but do not talk enough about hatred of Israel and anti-Semitism in the Arab world.

Herf says the term “Israel firster” is “incendiary” and implies supporters of Israel have more loyalty to the Jewish state than to their home country. Herf also says the claims about AIPAC’s influence play into the stereotype that Jews have a disproportionate amount of power in American public life.

M.J. Rosenberg, a foreign policy fellow at Media Matters Action Network and an AIPAC staffer in the 1980s, has unabashedly used the term “Israel-firsters” in recent columns on the Huffington Post.

Rosenberg asserts that it is liberals like him and not the hardliners that actually have Israel’s best interests at heart. “For the right, Israel is all about maintaining occupation, ensuring Israel’s regional hegemony, and fighting a civilizational war with Muslims. For us, Israel is about... Israel… to be a sanctuary where Jewish children are safe… But that will not continue if Palestinians continue to suffer under occupation or if Israel and Iran go to war.”

Rosenberg called the attack on him and others who criticize the pro-Israel lobby “an effort to suppress the views of those of us it considers Israel haters, self-hating Jews or—in a most ridiculous twist given that most of us are Jews—“anti-Semites.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former domestic policy adviser to Bill Clinton, has formed a group called J-Street “to shift the dynamics around Israel so that the most hawkish voices aren’t the only voices heard. To be pro-Israel doesn’t mean being for Israel right or wrong.”

Ben-Ami says many liberals who are concerned about the welfare of Israel feel “the policies of the government of Israel are wrong, bad for the long-term interests of Israel and at times bad for the United States. Rather than argue about the merits of that policy the defenders of the policy look to delegitimize the critics.”