Media Matters, Think Tank Under Fire for Israel Commentary

Two left-leaning Washington organizations are facing heated criticism for their Israel-related coverage and commentary after throwing around the disparaging term "Israel firster" and accusing the Simon Wiesenthal Center -- a group dedicated to tolerance -- of being a "far-right" outfit.

The comments by writers for the Center for American Progress, a think tank, and Media Matters, a media advocacy group, have received increasing attention over the past week, in particular for their criticism of American supporters of Israel and for their repeated downplaying of the threat posed by a nuclear Iran. The CAP also was reproached for its criticism of the Simon Wiesenthal Center as a partisan outfit.

The Wiesenthal Center responded this week with a lengthy statement that condemned the remarks and suggested that the organizations are trying to make it difficult for others "to take a position sympathetic to the Jewish state."

At issue is a litany of blogs, stories and tweets over the past year from the CAP and Media Matters, whose founder has committed to launching a "war" on Fox News.

Of particular concern was the repeated use of the term "Israel firster" by MJ Rosenberg, senior foreign policy fellow for Media Matters, and by another blogger for ThinkProgress, a CAP website.

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The term is used to describe lawmakers and others who voice unwavering support for Israel, but it also implies that their loyalties are to Israel first, and to America after that.

One Democratic congressional aide likened using the term to "questioning one's patriotism" and called it "outside the mainstream" of acceptable discourse.

"What you're saying is that they put Israel's interests above all else ... over the national security of the United States and our troops abroad," the aide said, requesting anonymity so as not to imply the office in which the aide works was officially responding to bloggers.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center had a similar assessment.

"When it comes to the charges of being 'Israel Firsters' and having 'dual loyalty,' we not only plead innocent but also counter-charge that these sponsored bloggers are guilty of dangerous political libels resonating with historic and toxic anti-Jewish prejudices," the center said in a statement first distributed to The Washington Post.

The center described the accusation as the kind of "odious charges" that have been around since before World War II.

Other writings by the two groups have also come under scrutiny.

Think Progress claimed in August that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobby, was banging the war drums on Iran.

"It would appear that AIPAC is now using the same escalating measures against Iran that were used before the invasion of Iraq," the article read, citing an AIPAC letter in support of congressional calls to sanction Iran's Central Bank.

A subsequent ThinkProgress post described as "factually inaccurate" assumptions in a Quinnipiac University poll about an Iranian nuclear weapons program, which Iran denies but the international community claims is at best on the backburner.

A ThinkProgress writer in May also slammed the Simon Wiesenthal Center as a "far-right" organization that "basically called Obama a Nazi" when it criticized the president for backing a return to Israel's 1967 borders.

The center at the time called those lines the "Auschwitz" borders, but in the statement this week described the "Nazi"-calling charge as a "low blow"

"The Center for American Progress ought to stick to fair-minded discussion of serious issues about the U.S.' future. It ought to disown immediately 'Israel Laster' bloggers who take the low road and drag down policy debates into the gutter of individual and group defamation," the Wiesenthal Center said.

Josh Block, a former spokesman for AIPAC, also raised concerns last week, telling Politico that "either the inmates are running the asylum or the Center for American Progress has made a decision to be anti-Israel."

The CAP subsequently denounced the use of the term "Israel firsters."

In a Dec. 9 blog, ThinkProgress National Security Editor Ben Armbruster said the organization does not "endorse the term."

Zaid Jilani, the ThinkProgress reporter who used the term on Twitter, told Commentary magazine he was "unaware of all the connotations it carried." He apologized and deleted the tweets.

The CAP has rejected any suggestion that it is anti-Semitic or anti-Israel, and it has fired back at Block and the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, who has written about the dispute. Armbruster called on the Post to retract Rubin's charge that some of the views espoused by CAP and Media Matters writers are anti-Semitic.

The CAP also responded to the Simon Wiesenthal Center's statement, saying that, contrary to the center's suggestion, the "Iranian issue is a strong point of concern for us."

"It is incorrect to assert that we do not take the threat of Iran's nuclear program seriously," the CAP wrote.

At Media Matters, Rosenberg remained defiant.

He published a lengthy piece Monday, arguing that he uses the term "Israel firsters" because "can anyone argue with the assertion that, for neocons, Obama is always wrong and Bibi (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) is always right?"

Rosenberg, a former congressional aide and AIPAC editor, gave a "clarification," though.

"By the term' Israel firster,' I do not mean right-wingers and necons who advance bellicose Middle East policies are putting the interests of Israel first," he wrote. "Far from it. They are putting the interest of Binyamin Netanyahu and his hardliners first. ... The people I call 'Israel firsters' are, in fact, Netanyahu firsters."

He continued, "There is no evidence that these people care about Israel at all."