There is dissent at the Center for American Progress. Late last month, the Democratic Party–aligned think tank announced that it would, with encouragement from the influential pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, accept an offer from Benjamin Netanyahu’s office to host the right-wing Israeli prime minister for an event. The invite stirred controversy: Many liberals who normally fall within the Democratic Party milieu were miffed that Netanyahu, a figure who has been widely seen over the past several years as openly siding with Republicans and neoconservative ideologues, would be given an opportunity to rehabilitate his image as a bipartisan figure. “He’s looking for that progressive validation,” a former Center for American Progress (CAP) staffer told the Huffington Post, “and they’re basically validating a guy who race-baited during his election and has disavowed the two-state solution, which is CAP’s own prior work.”
The discomfort felt by many former CAP employees—including us, who, by way of disclosure, both worked at CAP in 2011 and 2012 (more on which in a bit)—turns out to also be felt inside the think tank. According to a report in Foreign Policy, around a dozen CAP employees rose at a tense all-staff meeting to deliver a statement of dissent over Netanyahu’s talk. The statement, which was obtained by The Nation from a person who was at the meeting, elucidates the staffers’ objections to hosting Netanyahu as well as the process by which the prime minister’s offer to appear came to be accepted. (The full statement follows below this post.)
“During one of our regular all-staff meetings,” a CAP spokesperson told The Nation in a statement, “we discussed the November 10th event with the Prime Minister. We discussed why CAP was holding the event and why holding the event is consistent with our progressive values. Staff expressed their thoughts and concerns about the event and had an open and engaged conversation with senior CAP leadership.” Two sources with knowledge of the all-staff meeting said CAP president Neera Tanden, who has publicly defended the Netanyahu invite and will moderate the Q&A with Netanyahu, did not attend the meeting. “Neera was traveling out of town for a few ” the CAP spokesperson said in response to a question on Tanden’s attendance, “and rather than wait to hold the meeting, we held it with senior CAP leadership.” According to Foreign Policy, the meeting was presided over by Winnie Stachelberg, a senior vice president, and Brian Katulis, a senior fellow.
The staffers who rose to deliver the statement of dissent said they were left out of the process and now face difficulty returning to the communities from which they come and work with. “It becomes difficult to step outside of our building and say to our allies why this visit is happening, for some of us here we ourselves feel that we were not considered in that decision,” the statement reads. The authors cited, for example, the strong relationships built between Palestinian protesters, who face routine tear-gassing at their demonstrations, and Black Lives Matter activists in places like Ferguson, Missouri. “[I]t’s hard to separate American progress from world progress when young people in Palestine are advising young people in Ferguson on how to deal with tear gas and flash grenades,” they wrote.
In one of three sections of the statement asking tough questions of their senior colleagues, the dissenting CAP staffers questioned Netanyahu’s unapologetic justification of Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014, citing the more than 2,000 Palestinian deaths, “many of them children,” in that flare-up of violence. A UN commission said both Israel and Hamas may have been responsible for war crimes in the fighting. The commission found that over 1,400 Palestinian civilians, more than 500 of them children, died in the fighting (six Israeli civilians died in the conflict). “What do we call a disagreement of that magnitude?” the CAP staffers wrote of Netanyahu’s defense of the war. “A thing that terrible? Would we bring other leaders to this institution who had committed similar crimes?”
The internal dissent at CAP comes after a report by Glenn Greenwald at the Intercept that exposed CAP’s conduct following a smear campaign against several of its staffers in 2011 and 2012, including us (Gharib was quoted in Greenwald’s report). After being attacked by Israel lobby groups and neoconservatives for critical writing about Israel, Tanden implemented a protocol to monitor our writing, including setting certain subjects—such as criticism of AIPAC—off limits and, in one instance, censoring our work after publication. According to the Intercept, CAP imposed the measures as a means of currying favor with right-leaning pro-Israel groups and figures.
The statement at Friday’s meeting hinted that some of pressure on staffers still exists. “Some are standing; many, many more don’t feel empowered to do so,” the statement said, suggesting that the handful of staffers who rose to read the statement were supported by colleagues who were not comfortable doing do. Nonetheless, according to Foreign Policy, the statement earned a round of applause during the meeting. “There weren’t just isolated pockets of disapproval, among the staff—it was practically the whole room clapping for 10-15 seconds,” one staffer told Foreign Policy.
The dissent among CAP staffers over the invitation to Netanyahu shows that staffers at the progressive think tank remain uncomfortable with the Israeli prime minister and his right-wing agenda—even as CAP’s leadership shows deference to Netanyahu and helps reestablish his bipartisan credentials.
Here’s the full statement read aloud by the CAP staffers:
We all came to work at this institution with a passion and belief for the CAP mission, being an organization dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans, through bold, progressive ideas and to change the conversation and to change the country.
Coming to work at CAP gives many of us the opportunity to make this country safe and accepting of all. While we watch the hate crimes, discrimination and biases faced by some of our communities, we come to work every day proud that this institution is a space where our voices will be respected and where our leadership assures we feel safe, respected and heard. In that sense this place isn’t so much a job or a profession or a nine-to-six. It’s a survival tactic. But it’s not just about our individual struggles because, in the words of MLK, we’re not free until we’re all free.
And at CAP we are a family. We spend more hours with one another at this institution than we do with our own families and friends outside the office. It is imperative that we feel confident in this building to improve the lives of all Americans, and essentially to work on getting us all free. It becomes difficult to step outside of our building and say to our allies why this visit is happening, for some of us here we ourselves feel that we were not considered in that decision.
We come with questions and thoughts on how things have been developing and where we go from here:
1) Our approach is to think creatively at the cross section of traditional boundaries. It’s hard to talk about poverty without talking about the economy or women’s issues or education. Similarly, it’s hard to separate American progress from world progress when young people in Palestine are advising young people in Ferguson on how to deal with tear gas and flash grenades. So, while the decision occurred in the policy portfolio of [CAP’s national security team], the ramifications of that decision lives outside of that team.
2) Some of our teams have a concern that there’s something distinctly not bold or progressive about referring to the Prime Minister as “someone with whom we disagree” or “someone who said some terrible things.” We disagree with Mitch McConnell; Don Lemon has said some terrible things. So this is not just a “policy difference,” this is a person who continues to defend the deaths of over 2000 people—many of them children—last summer alone. What do we call a disagreement of that magnitude? A thing that terrible? Would we bring other leaders to this institution who had committed similar crimes?
3) Finally, on the free exchange of ideas and progressivity. How do we engage in progressive discourse, while continuing to fight for basic human rights of all people, across the globe and in our own country, if we fail to emphasize this respect for human rights in whom we choose to engage in conversation with? How do we engage in conversation with world leaders whose views and actions undermine our core principles, while maintaining the integrity of those principles?
And so we know Prime Minister Netanyahu is set to come. But that decision was made in our collective name, without enough consideration of the diverse backgrounds and experiences dedicated employees bring to the table.
Bringing in another head of state on “the other side” is not the solution. Our goal is to promote humanity and shut down oppression and genocide and terrorism. Bringing in another head of state with a record of oppression would further push our mission away.
So what comes next? What happens when we come back to work on Thursday Nov. 12? What is the Center for Americans Progress to the people whose lived experiences Netanyahu’s policies directly impact? How do we face our communities with answers?
These are all questions that we, as passionate and committed employees of the Center for American Progress have been asking ourselves this past week and hope for answers to. As you look around the room, people of faith and all backgrounds are asking these questions. Some are standing; many, many more don’t feel empowered to do so. This is a humanity and human rights issue universally felt. Some of us think this event shouldn’t be happening at all and others think a broader discussion of this with CAP family should have happened before this major decision.
Again, we are appreciative of this institution, and the opportunity to speak out because this is a family and right now as members of the CAP family we are in a place of confusion and hurt.
Thank you for taking the time to listen to us collectively.