Commentary Magazine


J Street’s Ben-Ami: Dual-Loyalty is a “Legitimate Question”

This morning, the Washington Post’s Peter Wallsten followed up on never-ending controversy about the Center for American Progress’s anti-Israel bloggers, and what it means for the Obama administration’s close ties to the think tank. (Incidentally, I wrote about this topic yesterday for the New York Post as well.)

According to WaPo, the scandal has caused a lot of hand-wringing in the administration – the White House’s Jewish community liaison reportedly told the Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper that the situation at CAP was “troubling,” adding “that is not this administration.”

The article is worth reading in full, but this quote from J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami tucked all the way at the end of the piece was particularly interesting:

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a left-leaning voice on Israel issues, said he had no problem with “Israel-Firster.”

“If the charge is that you’re putting the interests of another country before the interests of the United States in the way you would advocate that, it’s a legitimate question,” Ben-Ami said.

Ben-Ami added that Jewish groups “should tread lightly” when they make accusations of anti-Semitism. “Because when they do need to use that word, people won’t take you seriously,” he said.

J Street has pretty much vanished from the scene during the past year, so it’s mystifying why Ben-Ami would want to reenter the picture with a quote like that. He must have realized the problem, because later today he walked it back on his website (or, rather, he acknowledged that the term “Israel-Firster” was offensive and immediately demanded everyone change the subject).

But Ben-Ami’s argument that accusations of anti-Semitism are being used too loosely is becoming standard fare on the left. Glenn Greenwald wrote something similar in his own piece on the CAP scandal today:

[S]mearing those with policy disagreements as anti-Semites has become a leading tactic in these precincts. And the prime purveyors are those who have anointed themselves as the guardians and arbiters of the term, and have thus done more to dilute and trivialize it than any actual anti-Semites could ever dream of achieving. It’s the classic Boy Who Cried Wolf syndrome: if you scream “anti-Semite” in order to prohibit perfectly valid ideas from being expressed, then nobody will listen or care when you scream it in order to highlight its genuine manifestations. …

So this smear campaign not only threatens to suppress legitimate debate about crucial policy matters in the U.S., but it also is aimed at the reputations and careers of numerous young liberal writers who have done absolutely nothing wrong.

If Greenwald doesn’t think any of the CAP or Media Matters comments were offensive, that’s fine. But calling criticism of the writing a “smear campaign” is simply inaccurate, since CAP officials and the writers themselves have already conceded some of the remarks crossed the line.

His claim that critics of CAP and Media Matters are looking to collect “scalps” or ruin reputations also strikes me as paranoid nonsense. The criticism over the past month hasn’t been focused on the writers themselves, but on the ideas CAP has started channeling into the mainstream.

These weren’t ideas CAP bloggers personally invented, or even necessarily realized the anti-Semitic connotations. But they’re concepts steeped in anti-Jewish tropes that have grown increasingly prevalent on the left in recent years. It would be wrong to let these ideas go unchallenged, simply because they’re being voiced by people who don’t necessarily have bad intentions.

When Zaid Jilani told me he didn’t realize the connotation behind his “Israel-Firster” comments, I believed him, and still do. I know and like some of the writers at CAP, and while I don’t agree with them on Israel, they’re not anti-Semites.

But I strongly disagree with Greenwald. Suggesting that American supporters of Israel are disloyal citizens is not a “perfectly valid idea.” Claiming that AIPAC is marching the U.S. into war with Iran on behalf of Israel is not a “perfectly valid idea.” And characterizing Israel as an apartheid state is not a “perfectly valid idea.” These notions are false and offensive, and saying so publicly doesn’t mean you’re “prohibiting” free discussion. People who honestly believe those conspiratorial ideas about the Israel lobby and dual-loyalty – who aren’t just repeating them without considering the meaning behind them – have plenty of extremist right-wing and left-wing outlets to push their message out. An influential Democratic think tank should not be one of them.