Unsafe space?

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Hurt Feelings and Other Israeli Crimes

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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It's official: Thanks to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Center for American Progress is no longer a safe space for progressives.

At least this is the considered opinion of about a dozen of the liberal think tank's staff members who endorsed a 13-paragraph statement expressing how their employer's decision to invite Israel's prime minister to speak on Tuesday wounded their feelings.

The statement says that inviting Netanyahu was "a humanity and human rights issue universally felt," and "we are in a place of confusion and hurt." The staffers complain that it will be difficult to explain the invitation to their progressive allies.

Normally, the earnest and unsuccessful protests of anonymous research-institution staffers are not all that important (the statement was read aloud in a closed meeting last Friday, but eventually reported by the Nation). Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at CAP who specializes in Middle East policy, told me he respectfully listened to the dissenting voices last week, but chose to go forward with the event anyway. "We are a think tank, and if we start going down the road of only inviting voices that agree with us, our analysis will suffer and run the risk of slipping into a one-dimensional advocacy," he said.

Nonetheless, the uproar and the encouragement the dissidents received from many outside of the institution mark an important moment for the left in the twilight of the Barack Obama administration.

To start, it shows the migration from U.S. college campuses to Washington of the "cry bully" culture, to borrow a brilliant phrase from Julie Burchill. It's a new politics of powerlessness, where the aggrieved (or those in solidarity with them) demand that all dissenting views be excised from the discourse for the safety and well-being of the aggrieved.

Now, there is nothing new about activists of all stripes making hay about the associations and utterances of think tanks. In late 2011, Josh Block, a former staffer for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, launched a campaign to get CAP to better police the work of some of its bloggers who had attacked members of Congress for, allegedly, placing their loyalties to Israel ahead of the U.S. One of those bloggers at the time, Ali Gharib, told me that as a result of the campaign he was told to stop writing about Aipac. In the end, however, Block's campaign failed to make CAP's blog any less critical of Israel and its supporters. Following the prime minister's talk on Tuesday, Think Progress published a piece titled "10 Falsehoods that Netanyahu told at his Appearance at CAP."

What is new here is that the grievance of the Netanyahu protesters isn't so much political as it is psychological. It's not that Netanyahu's views are reactionary or objectionable, it's that simply allowing him to speak somehow harms the broader progressive community. 

So what is so special about Netanyahu and Israel to be singled out for this kind of scorn? The answer many progressives would give would be the expansion of Jewish settlements in the lands Israel won in the 1967 war, the disproportionate death toll in the hostilities between Israel and Gaza in recent years and, more recently, the alleged mistreatment of African migrants

But at the same time, does anyone think these CAP staffers would protest if their employer had invited, say, Iran's president to speak? Netanyahu's errors and sins are worthy of discussion and criticism, but it's not like the guy has actively aided Syria's dictator in his brutal campaign against his own population, or supplied terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan with the roadside bombs that killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers. Gharib himself conceded the point. "Would there be petitions asking Rouhani not to talk? Probably not," he said, referring to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. "But this came out of the Democratic Party's left, which doesn't like Israel."  

Indeed, when in 2007 President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran was asked to speak at Columbia University, the Nation ran a column not only defending the invitation but even criticizing Columbia's president for being so rude as to call Ahmadinejad a dictator during his introduction. 

That flank is increasingly noisy these days, but its members should brace themselves for disappointment. Democratic leaders are prepared to nominate Hillary Clinton to succeed Obama. But Clinton, who presents herself as a progressive when it suits her, has not signaled she will join those condemning the Jewish state and boycotting its elected leader. On the contrary, last week she published an op-ed article promising to reaffirm America's "unbreakable bond" with Israel if elected president.

"Some in the progressive camp seem to have the view that isolating and condemning Israel would achieve the most effective results to advance America's interests and progressive values," Katulis told me. "I don't agree with that view because I don't see what that would practically achieve. My view is that it would be more effective to keep the dialogue open and remain critical of Israel's actions when we disagree with them, which is what we've done for years."

There was a time, not so long ago, when those words would not be controversial among the Democratic grassroots. Today, they probably require a trigger warning.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net