by Ali Gharib
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is touring Washington this week. Yesterday morning, he met Barack Obama at the White House. Last night, he was be fêted by his comrades at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. But none of his stops is getting the attention of his forthcoming event at the Center for American Progress (CAP) this afternoon. If you’ve been keeping up with the flap over Netanyahu’s invite, you probably know already that I have something of a personal history here: I worked for CAP a few years back. The episode that defined my tenure at CAP was attacks against me and some my colleagues by a bunch of neoconservatives, with a former AIPAC spokesperson named Josh Block leading the charge. They speciously labeled us anti-Semites and demanded our heads. But the most remarkable part was how CAP responded.
Last week, Glenn Greenwald penned an article at The Intercept documenting that response in all its ineptitude. Just to briefly recap—and I would encourage everyone to check out Glenn’s piece in full for the details—several of us at CAP were criticizing Israel and Israel lobby groups for both their stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran. Our criticisms were more than justified and borne out by time. But the Israel lobby groups naturally didn’t like that and launched their attacks. Any good progressive group worth its salt would have said to these attacks: “These writers are engaged in journalism, and if you find any errors in their copy, we’ll happily correct it.” Instead, CAP decided to appease our assailants and began censoring criticisms of Israel and pro-Israel groups. The order from up top—CAP president Neera Tanden’s office—was explicit.
It made me sick to my stomach. The organization was not just bowing down before the right but doing so in a way that clearly smacked of its own bigotries. We literally couldn’t criticize Jewish groups—or, it turned out, Jews. In the case of my article about the Clarion Fund, CAP, after the initial publication, scrubbed almost all mentions of Israel and even the word “Jewish” from the text. Of course, the reason our post was so good in identifying the individuals behind an blatantly Islamophobic movie was that Eli Clifton and I had for years been delving into Clarion’s background. We knew more about the group than just about anyone else but weren’t allowed to share relevant facts because they involved Israel.
I bring this up in such detail because it’s important for the basic outline to really sink in. While at CAP, our writing was censored by the think tank’s executives not because our journalism was full of errors but because they perceived a political problem and wanted to curry favor with right-leaning Israel lobby groups.
As we consider how CAP handles Netanyahu’s speech this afternoon, we should remember this context because these issues are, of course, deeply intertwined.
CAP’s invitation frankly came as no surprise to me. Precisely because of my history at CAP, I viewed it as a fait accompli. Nonetheless, I do consider it something of a mistake, if an understandable one. As I wrote in a piece it for The Nation today, the Democratic Party-aligned think tank is clearly transitioning from being a blocking back for Obama’s policies to one for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. It’s no coincidence that Clinton is herself—if an op-ed last week is to be believed—lending a hand in Netanyahu’s rehabilitation by glossing over or eliding entirely his many transgressions against not only the Obama administration but American policy more broadly. The same history that informs my lack of surprise makes me deeply skeptical about what CAP—and particularly, CAP’s president and today’s event moderator, Tanden herself—has in mind for Netanyahu.
My piece was not, of course, the end of the story. The venerable Jewish Daily Forward covered the flap over the invite last week, and The Washington Post wrote about it today, focusing on a letter opposing the invitation organized by Jewish Voice for Peace and the Arab American Institute. Tanden didn’t respond to Glenn’s queries, but she did talk to the Forward and the Post. Here are those statements, respectively, and the context they appeared in:
Tanden rejected the notion that CAP should have turned Netanyahu away, saying that the institute “is a think tank that is dedicated to free exchange of ideas.”
CAP President Neera Tanden said, “There is a progressive value to have an open discourse on important topics of the day.”
When I read that first statement as it appeared in The Forward, I was at a bar and almost spit out my beer. It wasn’t out of surprise, but rather because of the pure shamelessness of it all. Here was the head of a liberal think tank, whom I had personally known to be censorious of criticisms of Israel, insisting that what we really needed was a “free exchange of ideas” and “open discourse on important topics of the day.”
Which brings me to Michael Koplow’s post on Ottomans and Zionists on his personal blog. Koplow, the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, offers perhaps the most cogent answer to those of us who have either suggested or said outright that CAP should have rebuffed Netanyahu’s entreaty to speak there. You should read the whole thing: Koplow has a well-founded reputation for level-headed analysis, and it’s on full display here.
But not all his arguments are convincing, not to me at least. Koplow seems certain that Netanyahu will get a solid grilling at CAP. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve seen firsthand how CAP’s leadership has reacted to Israel-related issues, and it doesn’t inspire confidence. I hope I’m wrong about this and that CAP’s better angels—of which there are many—come through and hold Netanyahu to account. If that happens, it may be in spite of Tanden.
Koplow pooh-poohs the notion that CAP bears any special responsibility as a progressive think tank. On this point, we just disagree. CAP does have a responsibility to promote open debate, but that debate should ultimately be held only when it furthers CAP’s progressive agenda. It seems obvious in so many other facets of CAP’s work that it wouldn’t host avowed opponents of progressivism—and, make no mistake, Netanyahu is one—without some angle that moves its agenda forward. In this case, as I wrote in my Nation piece (to which Koplow kindly linked and praised as “thorough”), it’s hard to see what that angle would be for CAP.
Like Tanden, Koplow holds up the think tank’s imperative to air different perspectives:
CAP is first and foremost a think tank, even if it occupies a position given its lobbying arm and Democratic Party ties that creates complications that a place like Brookings does not have, and this type of event is precisely one of the primary reasons that think tanks exist. To suggest otherwise is to miss the point.
There are two points worth addressing here. The first is that Koplow dismisses CAP’s imperatives as a Democratic Party-aligned think tank. (I have never been a registered Democrat and found myself uncomfortable with CAP’s obvious partisan leanings during my time there.) The “complications” Koplow mentions seem rather important to me. One of the main beefs with Netanyahu has been the partisanship of his own attacks against the Obama administration—Ryan Cooper at The Week had an excellent column on just this subject today. Koplow also writes that “it is disingenuous to one minute complain that Republicans are turning Israel into a partisan issue and using it as a cudgel to beat Democrats over the head, and the next minute complain that Netanyahu is being given a podium at a prominent Democratic-allied institution.” But that misses the point: the problem with Netanyahu’s partisanship isn’t what Republicans have done, but what Netanyahu has done. The Republicans can be forgiven for their partisanship, but Netanyahu cannot for his collusion with them—at least not without some explicit acknowledgement of his failures in this regard, none of which have been forthcoming to date.
Then there’s CAP’s responsibility as a think tank and its history on Israel-related issues. Where were all these defenders of free debate when a group of Israel lobbyists and their neoconservative allies spent months bashing my colleagues and me as anti-Semites with the obvious intent of sidelining us? I can tell you exactly where Neera Tanden was, and it wasn’t staking out a high-minded line that think tanks ought to foster “open discourse on important topics of the day.” As for Koplow, I think he was probably working on his PhD; I didn’t follow his blog closely back then. But the point isn’t what Koplow wrote or didn’t; it’s that one cannot use as an argument the notion that a think tank ought to foster free debate when said think tank has been engaged precisely in squelching free debate.
If you can’t reconcile the glaring contradiction here, it seems to me a bit unfair to shout “free debate!” only when one side’s message is at risk of being shut down (to be clear, I don’t think this is the view that Koplow holds, but his failure to address this perspective is an omission). This is particularly true where the politics of Israel are concerned. Do pro-Israel think tanks have a responsibility to invite intellectual proponents of a one-state democracy in Israel/Palestine or activists from the campaign to Boycott, Divest from, and Sanction (BDS) Israel? No, of course not. In fact they do quite the opposite: they explicitly bar those groups from ever speaking. (Frankly, I’m not a fan of BDS, which I’ve never endorsed, but that their view is shut out entirely is a failure of this notion of “free debate.”)
Lastly, Koplow writes that Netanyahu is the head of a “flawed democracy.” But the problem with Netanyahu is not so much that he is the head of a “flawed democracy,” but that he has a key player in making that democracy more flawed. Netanyahu’s policies are not those of a man who is acting to preserve Israel democratic credentials. Rather, he is a central actor in the diminishment of Israel’s democracy. To not recognize this also elides the points of many opponents of Netanyahu’s appearance at CAP.
CAP is under no obligation to host anyone on its premises, be they right or left, friend or foe, liberal or conservative. But CAP is under an obligation to stay true to its mission. Koplow is of course entitled to his views, but I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss CAP’s specific role in the think tank world. I, for one, am very much looking forward to seeing what happens this afternoon.
Photo: Neera Tanden (courtesy of Ralph Alswang)