Josh Block is an outspoken "pro-Israel" activist who has worked for a number of hawkish lobby groups in the United States, including serving as a spokesperson for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and as a fellow at the Democratic Party-aligned Progressive Policy Institute.
Since 2012, Block has been the CEO and president of The Israel Project (TIP), a Washington- and Jerusalem-based lobbying organization that provides "pro-Israel" talking points to journalists and the public with the goal of giving a "more positive public face" to the country. Commenting on Block's hire, the Jewish daily Forward opined: "Block's reputation as a pro-Israel bulldog seems to stand in stark contrast to that of [former president Jennifer Laszlo] Mizrahi, who chose mostly to engage with journalists and policymakers rather than fight with them."
Block, who also served as a USAID spokesman during the Clinton administration and co-founded with Lanny Davis the public affairs firm Davis-Block LLC, earned his "bulldog" reputation in part as a result of his efforts to smear critics of Israel and one-sided U.S. support for the country as "anti-Semitic."[v5
At TIP, has helpedsteer the lobby away from the global focus it maintained under its former president and toward a more parochial, Washington-centric approach. "There exists today," Block said shortly after taking over the organization, "a well-coordinated and financed, albeit fringe, echo chamber of organizations and individuals ranging from anti-Zionist conspiracists and apologists for Iran, and [for] terrorists like Hamas and Hezbollah, to anti-Israel advocates and those hypocritically and relentlessly critical of Israel, seeking to spread and mainstream distortions and misinformation in pursuit of their misguided and often hostile agenda." TIP, Block added, "blunts the spread of false, malignant, even anti-Semitic claptrap."
Under Block's leadership, TIP has engaged directly in divisive partisan battles in Washington, sometimes staking itself in opposition to the White House. For example, when Block derided future Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's "realist" views on Iran as "well outside the mainstream" during Hagel's confirmation battle, a former administration official familiar with TIP remarked that Block's confrontational style "calls into question what the role of TIP is, could be and should be."
Block opposed the Obama administration's 2013 negotiations with Iran, arguing in favor of increasing sanctions even while talks are underway and warning that any agreement that allows Iran to peacefully enrich uranium on its own soil—a right under the Nonproliferation Treaty—would be an "unacceptable outcome."
Block has also taken aim at professional diplomats, accusing State Department desk officers in late 2013 of being "Arabists" who "make a career of representing their clients. … You've got an inbred kind of industry in the foreign policy establishment and in the dialogue is [sic] fomenting a perspective that is not sympathetic to Israel."
Ali Gharib, a former ThinkProgress blogger whom Block once wildly accused of being an anti-Semite, observed that "Block's accusations about State employees who push Arab states' interests—so called 'Arabists'—are not new; they're a hallmark of right-wing, pro-Israel attacks on American diplomats for what's seen as hostility to Israel in the professional Foreign Service. … But Block took it a step further in describing Arab states as the 'clients' of American Foreign Service Officers; that is, these U.S. diplomats are actually working for the Arab states."
When he came under fire from current and former Foreign Service officers, Block tweeted a half-hearted apology for the remark, claiming that he had been attempting to paraphrase Francis Fukuyama's quip about the so-called State Department "Arabists"—which, Gharib observed, was not substantially different. Fukuyuma, Gharib quoted, referred to the diplomatic corps' Arab specialists as "an elite within an elite, who have been more systematically wrong than any other area specialists in the diplomatic corps. This is because Arabists not only take on the cause of the Arabs, but also the Arabs' tendency for self-delusion." Gharib concluded of Block, "One would think a pro-Israel activist might be self-aware enough to not make baseless accusations that others are dedicated to promoting the interests of foreign countries, but one would be wrong."
Feud with CAP
Block was at the center of an important debate in Democratic Party circles that erupted in December 2011 after the publication of an article by Politico's Ben Smith that contended that some Democratic-allied organizations were diverging from the party's standard "pro-Israel" line. Smith wrote, "The Center for American Progress [CAP], the party's key hub of ideas and strategy, and Media Matters, a central messaging organization, have emerged as vocal critics of their party's staunchly pro-Israel congressional leadership and have been at odds, at times, with Barack Obama's White House, which has acted as a reluctant ally to Benjamin Netanyahu's Israeli government."
Block served as the key source for Smith's piece and was quoted in the story claiming that some CAP writers at the think tank's blog, ThinkProgress, were "borderline anti-Semitic": "There's two explanations here—either the inmates are running the asylum or the Center for American Progress has made a decision to be anti-Israel. … Either they can allow people to say borderline anti-Semitic stuff and to say things that are antithetical to the fundamental values of the Democratic Party, or they can fire them and stop it."
A day after Smith's story broke, Justin Elliott at Salon.com revealed that Block pushed the Politico story on a neoconservative listserv, urging the writers on the listserv to "AMPLIFY" that article and reiterating his claim that the CAP writers were anti-Semitic. Wrote Block: "This kind of anti-Israel sentiment is so fringe it's [sic] support by CAP is outrageous, but at least it is out in the open now—as is their goal—clearly applauded by revolting allies like the pro-HAMAS and anti-Zionist/One State Solution advocate Ali Abunumiah [sic] and those who accuse pro-Israel Americans of having 'dual loyalties' or being 'Israel-Firsters'—to shape the minds of future generations of Democrats. These are the words of anti-Semites, not Democratic political players."
Some observers speculated that Block and Smith intended for the Politico story to lead to the marginalization of various Israel critics in Democratic Party establishments like CAP and Media Matters. However, Block's flagrant and disingenuous use of the "anti-Semitic" tag to smear establishment outlets led to a severe backlash in party circles. In a follow-up piece by Smith, Block attempted to deny that he accused CAP of anti-Semitism, stating: "I've been accused of leveling the charge of anti-Semitism against the Center for American Progress. That is not true, and suggesting so is an attempt to distract from what I am actually saying." He added: "As a progressive Democrat, I am convinced that on issues as important as the U.S.-Israel alliance and the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program, there is no room for uncivil discourse or name calling."
Block's business partner, former Clinton adviser and staunchly "pro-Israel" Democrat Lanny Davis, also distanced himself from Block, telling Eli Clifton of ThinkProgress: "I respect Josh Block but I 100 percent disagree with much of his language. People can disagree about Israel's policies without being anti-Semites. In fact I think it's a terrible mistake to blur the two. ... Impugning motives of people at the Center [for American Progress] and impugning [that] those motives are driven by anti-Semitism is, in my opinion, wrong."
Commented the Inter Press Service's Jim Lobe, who was mentioned in the original Politico story as the producer of a blog that publishes some of the CAP writers targeted by Block (including Eli Clifton and Ali Gharib), "That's exactly what the neoconservatives and the right-wing leadership of the Israel lobby have been trying to do for the past decade: conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. While some that criticism is indeed motivated by anti-Semitism, most of it is directed at specific policies pursued by the Israeli state (a political entity and actor); not because the Israeli leadership is Jewish (whether defined culturally, religiously, ethnically, or racially). The ability to play the anti-Semitic card is perhaps the single strongest weapon in the lobby's arsenal of arguments … and the fact that Lanny Davis, a not insignificant member of the lobby establishment, is now calling for everyone to use that deadly epithet with much greater care and discrimination seems quite remarkable, particularly in these circumstances."
Regarding Block's role in the episode, Philip Weiss of the blog Mondoweiss opined: "Josh Block, once an eminent member of the self-claimed progressive pro-Israel establishment, has been revealed as a sleaze-merchant working with neocons and has had to hobble off the field. I wonder how long his association with the Progressive Policy Institute and Lanny Davis will last. … Most importantly, the Israel critics inside Democratic Party thinktanks are more entrenched than ever. They have won this battle. Even Lanny Davis has said, We must debate this subject."
At AIPAC, Block developed a reputation as a "pro-Israel" hardliner who helped overhaul the lobby's public image. According to Politico's Ben Smith, "Block turned AIPAC from a group known for not returning phone calls into one of Washington's most aggressive media operations."
Block was known for leading AIPAC's attacks against figures and organizations critical of Israeli actions and U.S-Israeli relations. Along with such neoconservative ideologues as Steven Rosen, also a former AIPAC employee, Block worked to derail the nomination of Chas Freeman, a respected career Foreign Service officer and outspoken critic of some Israeli policies, for a top intelligence post in the Barack Obama administration.
According to Smith, Block "also sparred with J Street, the pro-Israel lobbying group established as a liberal alternative to AIPAC," particularly when right-wing bloggers and pro-Israel hawks attacked the group over its funding sources. "It's nice to leave on a high note," Block told Smith when asked about J Street.
Progressive and "Pro-Israel"?
Block equates "progressive" politics with Israel-centric policies.
"There is an important debate taking place inside the Democratic Party and the progressive movement, and I'm relishing my return to the political, as well as the policy, conversation," Block once said when asked about the position of Israel in the Democratic Party.
He added: "There are actually Democrats out there these days calling themselves 'progressives' who don't care about the debt we're laying on our children, who think it's a good idea to let Iran get nukes, and no longer see America as the leader of the free world, and these guys are so out of touch with reality, they actually think those positions will help get folks elected. It's incumbent upon those of us who know better to stand up and be counted."
Block has written on a number of issues regarding Middle East politics. In a mid-February 2011 article for PPI's Progressive Fix blog, Block applauded the get-tough-on-Iran rhetoric adopted by the Obama administration since the uprisings in Egypt (for more on this, see Barbara Slavin, "As Talks Stall with Iran, US Steps Up Propaganda War," Right Web, February 18, 2011).
Wrote Block: "The current tone … is a welcome contrast to the unseemly vacillation that marked the first days of the Green Revolution, when White House and State Department spokespeople refused to throw their weight behind the protesters. That won us no good will from the Iranian regime and it risked alienating many of the freedom-loving Iranians with whom we should have been standing in solidarity. The truth is that we have nothing to lose and much to gain by supporting the protesters."