Freeman imbroglio splits liberal US Jewish NGOs

Activists ask: What will happen when Obama gets tough on settlements?

charles freeman 88 (photo credit: AP)
charles freeman 88
(photo credit: AP)
As the controversy over Charles Freeman's withdrawal from the chairmanship of the US National Intelligence Council continues to roil, with Freeman's supporters and members of the Arab media pointing to his exit as proof of the power of the "Israel Lobby," it has also provoked debate in the progressive Jewish community about their own role and response. Some activists are charging that left-wing groups did not do enough to support an appointment whose derailment could bode ill for other critics of Israeli policies, while others split over the appropriateness of Freeman's selection in the first place. Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia appointed NIC chair by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, stepped aside last Tuesday amid outcry from several members of Congress, media figures and pro-Israel activists about statements he made criticizing Israel, praising Saudi Arabia after 9/11 and seeming to favor China over democracy advocates, as well as questions over his business ties to China and Saudi Arabia. Certain Israel advocacy groups, such as the Zionist Organization of America, welcomed his withdrawal and highlighted their role in the decision. Freeman himself made a lengthy statement blasting the "Israel Lobby" for costing him the job. In response, liberal Jewish blogger Richard Silverstein took left-wing Israel groups to task for "turning tail and running from this fight as fast as their little feet would carry them," rather than speaking out for Freeman, enabling a precedent that he painted as dangerous for other administration appointees who question Israeli policies. He particularly criticized the J Street lobby for not standing up for Freeman even as executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami sent an e-mail after his departure urging that "it cannot be a litmus test for service in the American government that you have never criticized Israel or its policies publicly." "You can object all you want," Silverstein wrote. "The opponents set the terms. They won. They get to define what their victory means." At the same time, Silverstein praised M.J. Rosenberg, policy director of the dovish Israel Policy Forum, for being one of the few Jewish voices speaking out in favor of Freeman. "This is a country where an appointee to a high government position can be on record harshly criticizing any or all policies of our own government, but not Israeli policies," Rosenberg wrote in a letter to The New York Times published on Saturday, the latest in a series of op-eds and blog posts he penned on the topic. "This is bad for America, bad for Israel and bad for the Jewish community." But even within Rosenberg's own organization, not everyone agreed with him. Seymour Reich, a former president of the Policy Forum, took issue with Rosenberg's perspective. "I was personally opposed to the Freeman appointment. I thought it was a bad choice for the administration and I'm pleased that he withdrew," said Reich, who decided to step down from the forum's policy-making committee over differences on issues including the Freeman affair. Reich said that while Freeman maintained he would have put aside his personal opinions to hold a job devoted to analyzing the information gathered by US intelligence agencies, the appointee was "clearly biased against Israel," as his blaming the "Israel Lobby" demonstrated. "I don't see how he could have given any objective intelligence assessment on the Middle East with that baggage hanging out so openly," Reich told The Jerusalem Post. One activist at a liberal Jewish organization, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that differences of opinion over Freeman were common in these circles and that many felt he was "not the right candidate," something his "hysterical" statement fingering the Israel Lobby only intensified. "The main reason why most of them didn't want to touch it," he said of fellow left-wing organizations, "was that it seemed like there was too much there." The activist pointed, for instance, to Freeman's controversial statements on China, which raised the ire of Human Rights Watch, among others. Ben-Ami, of J Street, said that to reflexively back Freeman would have been as bad as joining the pro-Israel crowd going after him. "It would be extremely thoughtless and naïve to immediately leap to the defense of someone [just because he's] under attack from people I don't agree with," he said. "That only furthers the 'us versus them' mentality in the Jewish world." But Silverstein argued that not speaking up in favor of Freeman, which could have helped him keep his hold on the job, only enabled the "litmus test" on Israel-views that Ben-Ami opposed. "What happens when and if [US President Barack] Obama finally bites the bullet and tells Israel to freeze the settlements," Silverstein wrote. "Everyone will have in the back or front of their mind the 'job' the lobby did on Freeman. You couldn't fault Obama for pulling punches after the shellacking they gave Freeman." Yet Rosenberg argued that the experience with Freeman would only make the Obama administration more likely to take bold action by calling for a settlement freeze and other policies likely to rankle Israel in order to prove it's not beholden to any interest group. "He needs to demonstrate that this is just a personnel issue, not a policy issue," Rosenberg said of Obama. "He'll push all the harder now." While Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League disagreed with many of Rosenberg's assertions, he did express hope that the views he voiced would at least put to rest the concept that the Jewish community was a powerful cabal acting in lockstep. "It says that in the Jewish community we have dissent and diverse views," Foxman said. "It only puts the lie to the idea that the Jewish community is a monolith and that we intimidate those who speak out."