New York Times readers found an unpleasant surprise on page A11 on Thursday. A full page advertisement by the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) attacked the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Media Matters as “anti-Israel” and listed the names and numbers of donor foundations whom they want readers to pressure into de-funding these groups. “The Center for American Progress and Media Matters claim to be in the liberal mainstream. But is being anti-Israel a liberal value?” blares the ad. Having worked at CAP for two years, I was surprised to see it characterized as “anti-Israel.”
But to understand the accusation you must first understand the players. ECI is not a group like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that was founded by American Jews to marshal support for Israel across the American. ECI is a conservative group with a conservative agenda. Its founders are William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and a former speechwriter for Dan Quayle; Gary Bauer, a Christian social conservative activist; and Rachel Abrams, a writer married to former Bush administration official Elliot Abrams. They are conservatives first and Zionists second. The ad turned out to be just their opening shot in a barrage of partisan attacks, mostly directed at President Obama, in the run up to his speech to AIPAC on Sunday. (To be fair, ECI presumably thinks that its agenda of driving a wedge between pro-Israel Americans versus President Obama and CAP is also ultimately in Israel’s best interest.)
CAP’s Think Progress blog and ECI have been attacking each other for months. Think Progress has noted Abrams’s penchant for using bigoted language when criticizing bisexuals and Palestinians, and that ECI executive director Noah Pollak initially praised President Obama for calling for Israel to make peace along the 1967 borders with land swaps before ECI joined the rest of the right in attacking Obama for it. (Pollak tells The Nation that he did not immediately appreciate some of the subtleties of how Obama was shifting US policy away from Israel and that he changed his views after reading an analysis of the speech.)
The strange thing about the ad is that it does not cite any actual statements or actions by either of its targets. Rather, it collects quotes from various Jewish organizations that appear to be critical of CAP and Media Matters. Several of those quoted, though, including journalist Spencer Ackerman, the American Jewish Committee and Alan Dershowitz, said they were displeased to be included in the ad and they should not be presumed to support its content.
I asked Pollak why ECI chose to use quotes criticizing CAP and Media Matters rather than objective evidence of any bias against Israel in their work. He offered to send me such evidence, but the articles he passed along simply cited the same accusatory quotes used in the ad and reported on the controversy.
“[CAP and Media Matters] are two very far-left organizations that have advanced very poisonous slanders against Israel,” said Pollak. Those are strong words, and they aren’t proven merely by pointing to quotes from Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Much of the furor revolves around use of the ugly phrase “Israel firster” by Media Matters’ foreign policy fellow M.J. Rosenberg and a few intemperate tweets from the personal accounts of junior Think Progress bloggers. (Rosenberg responded to the first complaint by demanding, “Can anyone argue with the assertion that for neocons Obama is always wrong and Bibi is always right?” I certainly can’t.) Whether you agree with Rosenberg that justifies using the term “Israel firster” or you agree with Ackerman that it does not, it hardly seems fair to tag Rosenberg’s entire organization as anti-Israel on that basis. Think tanks, after all, are supposed to be like academia: places where scholars debate ideas. If one professor at Harvard—where Kristol received his BA and PhD—used the phrase, would ECI call the whole university “anti-Israel” and call on donors to boycott it?
The work that CAP has done on the Middle East contains multitudes. But their overarching position would fall well within the parameters of what has long been the accepted “pro-Israel” American mainstream. As CAP has noted, “Our view in favor of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the consensus view of administrations of both parties dating back to President Clinton.”
In the last few years, conservatives have shifted away from this stance. Believing that Israel “does not have a partner” with which to make peace, they argue that West Bank expansionism is Israel’s right. Through that prism, criticizing Israel for actions such as illegally tossing Palestinians off their land to build new settlements is “anti-Israel.” But to progressives—and to President George W. Bush, who as part of his “Road Map” to peace called on Israel to stop building settlements—this is simply advising a friend not to engage in self-destructive behavior. You can come down on either side of that debate without being anti-Israel.
But ECI defines “anti-Israel” much more broadly than just those who think it shouldn’t exist. Here’s the definition Pollak offered me: “People who traffic in untruths, in false accusations such as Israel is a routine violator of human rights and international law; people who apologize for Israel’s enemies; people who minimize the threats Israel faces; people who take an obsessively critical approach, along with people who say Israel shouldn’t exist.” I can understand Pollak’s reasons for defining anti-Israel so broadly. There certainly are Americans who take an obsessively critical approach toward Israel. But who defines obsessive? By most definitions, ECI has not presented sufficient evidence that CAP and Media Matters meet that threshold.
Some of the other categories Pollak offers are even more problematic. For example, conservatives are insistent that Iran’s suspected nuclear ambitions pose a grave threat to Israel’s security. Presumably they would then characterize someone who says that we can live with a nuclear Iran, because the United States and Israel have their own nuclear deterrent, is minimizing the threat Israel faces and is thus “anti-Israel.” I think that’s a specious politicization. Reasonable people who support Israel’s existence as a Jewish state can differ over the severity of the threat from Iran, and how best to respond.
Sure enough, ECI released another ad, this one in bus stations in Washington, DC, depicting Obama as insufficiently committed to combating Iran. The ad shows Obama in shadow and reads, “He says a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Do you believe him?” Below Obama it shows Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, and asks, “Do they?” The suggestion that Obama should be assumed not to really believe the pro-Israel things he says and does courses through ECI’s work. The reasons conservatives give for this suspicion focuses on his professional biography. They think Obama, a professor and community organizer, must be secretly sympathetic to the left’s anti-colonial worldview. As Pollak says, “progressives have a long history of siding with enemies of Western civilization.” Someone who views ECI’s ads or hears their statements might suspect Obama’s loyalty to Israel for other biographical reasons, such as his name or skin color, even though ECI doesn’t cite those factors. But the clear intention is to appeal to the notion—whatever its source—that Obama just seems viscerally untrustworthy on the Middle East.
Even using the most generous interpretation of ECI’s argument, they are making a category error. They are labeling Obama as part of the academic left, where anti-Israel sentiment is often strong. In fact, Obama is part of the mainstream of the Democratic Party, where anti-Israel sentiment is nonexistent. Obama’s first chief of staff was Rahm Emmanuel, a former Israeli soldier. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has always been a strong supporter of Israel (as well as an advocate for Palestinian human rights and the peace process; contra ECI, these attributes are not mutually exclusive.)
Most importantly, looking into Obama’s heart on Israel is pointless. While suspicions that Obama secretly dislikes Israel are less well founded than, say, suspicions that he really has no problem with gay marriage, they are equally irrelevant. If you want to know how a president will govern, look at his record and his employees, not what you imagine is in his heart. This is a mistake conservatives make across a wide array of professions. For example, they constantly harp on the fact that journalists and professors tend to vote Democratic, as if it were impossible for mainstream newspaper reporters to write as nonpartisans, or for professors to teach physics without a liberal bias.
On Sunday ECI released a thirty-minute Web video intended to build a case that Obama has not been a loyal friend to Israel. Its documentation takes the same approach as the ads. They quote partisans leveling criticisms against Obama rather than offering strong independent evidence. They ask what Obama’s real approach to Israel has been and then answer with a long quote from Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the very conservative Hoover Institution.
When ECI starts giving actual facts, they are not evidence of anything about Israel, but rather that Obama has sought some rapprochement with Arabs and Muslims. For example, they complain that Obama gave his first Oval Office interview to Al Arabiya, “an Arab language channel,” without noting that Al Arabiya is the more pro-American alternative to Al Jazeera in the Arab world. They also complain that he visited Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Apparently, ECI thinks anything other than belligerence to everyone else in the Middle East constitutes some sort of betrayal or Israel.
The video contains some outright falsehoods, such as characterizing a settlement freeze as “a complete cessation of any building by Jews on lands claimed by the Palestinians.” Actually, settlements refer to building outside the Green Line, Israel’s border before 1967. Many Palestinians may want to lay claim to land inside the Green Line, but that’s not what Obama is talking about when he says settlement construction needs to stop. Nor is he kowtowing to Palestinian land claims as such. Rather, like anyone who wants to see a secure, democratic Israel, he is conceding to the demographic reality that the West Bank has far more Palestinians than Israelis living in it, so Israel cannot annex that land without surrendering its Jewish identity or its democratic values.
Obama has gotten the strongest-ever sanctions against Iran through the United Nations. As Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz noted in a Washington Jewish Week op-ed:
Even as he directs an economic recovery that has required difficult spending decisions, President Obama sent Israel the largest security assistance packages in U.S. history…. President Obama’s commitment to Israel continues in his recently released 2013 Budget, raising his request to $3.1 billion, an increase of $25 million from last year’s aid to Israel. Last year, President Obama supplemented our security assistance to Israel with $205 million in emergency funds for the deployment of the Iron Dome rocket-defense system which is currently protecting Israeli communities on the Gaza and Lebanese borders.
When Palestinians launched their unilateral bid for statehood at the United Nations, President Obama pledged to veto it….
He also used his first Security Council veto to block efforts to condemn Israel.
None of that is good enough for ECI and other conservatives. They insist that the Obama administration and left-of-center groups that have similar views, are endangering Israel. It’s nonsense, but this is an election year, and we’ll be hearing a lot more of it.