How to Smear a Washington Think Tank

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Suddenly lots of people are asking whether calling someone an "Israel-firster" is anti-Semitic. The occasion for these reflections is a controversy--the subject of a Washington Post piece yesterday--surrounding the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress. The Post piece noted a "dispute with several Jewish organizations over charges that some center staffers have publicly used language that could be construed as anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic."

Don't be misled by the attention being given to the term "Israel-firster" into thinking that it's the real issue here. That term was used by a single, very junior CAP staffer on his personal twitter account, and he apologized weeks ago. So if people ostensibly complaining about the 'Israel-firster' thing are still after CAP scalps, we know that the issue must go deeper.

Here is the real issue: Some people at CAP who haven't used the term Israel-firster have committed a different sin--criticizing, sometimes harshly, the policies of Israel. And some defenders of those policies find it easier to stigmatize critics than to answer them.

This agenda was made surprisingly clear in an indictment of CAP that appeared this week on the New York Post op-ed page. The author, Commentary staffer Alana Goodman, reported that "three leading Jewish groups--the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center--have accused CAP and its staff of publishing 'anti-Israel,' 'hateful' and 'toxic anti-Jewish' material." Yet when she got around to particulars, the complaints were mainly about the position of CAP staffers on substantive policy issues.

Goodman's only quote from the ADL is this one about things that have appeared on CAP-affiliated blogs: "Most of their blogs come from a perspective of blaming Israel for the lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian affairs and minimizing or rationalizing the Iranian threat." I doubt that's the way these bloggers would characterize their opinions, but in any event we're here clearly in the realm of the kind of policy analysis that is, I had always thought, what think tanks do. Or is Abe Foxman, head of the ADL, saying that you're anti-Semitic, or anti-Israel, if you judge that a nuclear-armed Iran wouldn't launch a suicidal strike against Israel? Or if you judge that Israel has missed as many (or more) peacemaking opportunities as the Palestinians have? Sign me up, Abe.

As for the indictments of CAP by the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center: I scanned Goodman's piece for substantive elaboration, but pretty much all I found was more name calling. There did at first seem to be one new issue raised in this quote from the AJC's Jason Isaacson: "References to Israeli 'apartheid' or 'Israel-firsters' are so false and hateful they reveal an ugly bias no serious policy center can countenance." Apartheid? Who said anything about apartheid? It turns out the 'apartheid' line comes from the same personal twitter account of that same young CAP staffer (who no longer works for CAP, by the way). Again, we're not talking about anything that was published or said under CAP's auspices.

The only actual quotation in Goodman's indictment that fits that description is a blog post written by Matt Duss immediately after the Turkish flotilla raid. It called the Gaza blockade, and the occupation of the West Bank, a "moral abomination." It's true that this is a moral judgment, not policy analysis. But people at think tanks that I suspect Goodman and Foxman and Isaacson feel more fondly toward--such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies--routinely spew out condemnatory moral judgments. And not just toward people in countries they want to attack, but also toward people who disagree with them about whether to attack those countries. (In fact, if you disagree too fiercely, people may start insinuating that you're anti-Semitic!)

Is it anti-Semitic, or even anti-Israel, to call the Israeli occupation a moral abomination? I'm not Jewish, so I always feel awkward weighing in on the question of what constitutes anti-Semitism. Instead I turned to someone who is not only Jewish, but is also an Israeli who served in the occupied territory as a lieutenant and is still in the Israeli army reserve. His name is Mikhael Manekin, and he's co-director of a group of Israeli veterans called Breaking the Silence, which tries to convey to Israelis the human costs of the occupation. When I asked him about the "moral abomination" line, he rendered a crisp opinion and then went on to discuss the parallels he sees between the attacks on CAP in America and attacks on Breaking the Silence in Israel:

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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