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Progressive Except on Palestine: Activists Target Center for American Progress

The decision by the Center for American Progress, which calls itself progressive, to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu serves as another example of a phenomenon endemic in mainstream American politics called “progressive except Palestine,” observed Josh Ruebner, policy director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

With co-sponsor Jewish Voice for Peace, Ruebner and his group organized a picket line in front of the offices of the Center for American Progress in downtown Washington, D.C., during the morning rush hour on Nov. 10. Netanyahu was scheduled to speak at the Center for American Progress in a question-and-answer format later in the day, with the center’s president, Neera Tanden, facilitating the discussion.

“We, as progressives, are not going to sit by and allow a policy institute that calls itself progressive to be used to promote racist and apartheid policies that the prime minister will be spouting this afternoon,” Ruebner said in an interview on the picket line. “Would the Center for American Progress be hosting an American politician who said Latinos are a demographic threat? Of course not because that’s racist discourse, but the Israeli prime minister is allowed to say that Palestinians are a demographic threat and it’s okay for him to speak at a progressive think tank.”

The Center for American Progress’s decision to host Netanyahu is a “transparent effort” to position the Israeli prime minister as a bipartisan figure, Ruebner said. “It’s a transparent attempt to try to mend the broken fences that he’s created through all his partisan shenanigans over the Iran deal and undermining the Obama administration,” he contended.

Netanyahu’s appearance at the Center for American Progress, Ruebner noted, also represents a central component of the 2016 presidential campaign. Center for American Progress founder John Podesta is the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “It’s clear that Hillary Clinton has been bending over backwards to ingratiate herself with Netanyahu and with the pro-Israel campaign contributions that come with ingratiating oneself with Israel,” Ruebner said.

Seth Morrison, a national board member of Jewish Voice for Peace, expressed bewilderment over the Center for American Progress choosing to give Netanyahu a platform to speak. “When 61 members of Congress skipped Netanyahu’s [March 3] speech, it was a sign that the progressive movement in the U.S. is recognizing that Israel is not progressive,” Morrison said in an interview on the picket line. “For CAP to ignore its primary constituency, it’s a major breach of trust.”

Foreign Policy reported Nov. 9 that the Center for American Progress’s decision to invite Netanyahu has sparked an internal uprising among staffers. At a Nov. 6 staff meeting, opponents of the upcoming event received an enthusiastic round of applause in the 100-plus person conference room despite the presence of senior CAP leadership, according to the Foreign Policy article.

Morrison sees Israel losing some of its luster among Democrats. He credits the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for raising awareness of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and causing real economic harm to Israel.

“We believe that when Palestinians can freely elect their own government and negotiate on an equal basis with Israel, they will determine the best solution,” Morrison said. “BDS is a tactic to force Israel to the negotiating table. It is slowly having an effect. We saw it with SodaStream. We saw it with Veolia, which is pulling out of Israel.”

Mainstream protestant denominations in the U.S. are supporting the BDS movement. The Connecticut affiliate of the AFL-CIO recently passed a resolution in support of BDS, a historic vote because the AFL-CIO traditionally has been allied with Israel.

On U.S. college campuses, some Jewish students are supporting the BDS movement, while others are claiming they feel unsafe because of pro-Palestine activism.

“No one should feel physically threatened or physically unsafe on campus,” Ruebner said. “But a campus needs to be a place for the free exchange of ideas. And if you don’t like other people’s political opinions, grow a thicker skin. This is America. People have the right to voice their opinion, the right to organize and if what they’re saying makes you feel uncomfortable, you better check your own attitudes and check your understanding of situations because it’s not okay to derogate from someone else’s freedom of expression because you don’t like their political opinion. That’s not what the First Amendment is about.

During her campaign, Hillary Clinton has been outspoken in denouncing the BDS movement. “She has vowed to use her position, if she were elected president, to defeat the BDS movement,” Ruebner said. “It’s extremely troubling because here you have a presidential candidate vowing to crack down on Americans exercising their First Amendment right to speak, to organize, to act.”

The success of the BDS movement and Palestinian solidarity campaigns has created greater nervousness among Israel’s supporters in the U.S., whether progressives or right-wing evangelicals. “We’re seeing more and more desperation from the Israeli lobby, from Israel supporters trying to suppress the movement,” Ruebner said. “But they’re not going to succeed. It’s an unstoppable phenomenon. The genie cannot be put back into the bottle.”

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Mark Hand has reported on the energy industry for more than 25 years. He can be found on Twitter @MarkFHand.

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