A Top Nonprofit’s Internal Disagreements: Was CAP “Played” by Netanyahu?

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Defense.gov photo essay 110325-D-XH843-010” by Cherie Cullen – This Image was released by the United States Department of Defense with the ID 110325-D-XH843-010 (next)photo essay. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

November 9, 2015; Foreign Policy

Yesterday afternoon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stopped by the liberal, Hillary Clinton-linked think tank, the Center for American Progress, as part of his fence-mending tour of America. He campaigned with the help of Congressional Republicans to scuttle the nuclear deal with Iran, alienating the Obama administration and the president himself.

The scheduled visit at the Center for American Progress prompted some significant criticism from American liberals, who suggested that CAP was being used or played by Netanyahu. NPQ wrote about some of the reactions, including critical comments from disaffected former CAP employees.

Yesterday, reports in Foreign Policy and other outlets suggested that the nonprofit think tank endured internal dissension over the invitation to Netanyahu. According to John Hudson writing for Foreign Policy, Winnie Stachelberg, the Center’s executive vice president for external affairs, and Brian Katulis, a senior fellow, called an all-staff meeting last week to explain and defend the Netanyahu invitation. They promised staff that Netanyahu would “undergo tough scrutiny in a question-and-answer format” focusing on issues regarding Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Hudson writes that after the Stachelberg and Katulis statements, “around a dozen CAP employees stood up and delivered an impassioned joint statement criticizing CAP’s decision to hold the event, read aloud by a designated speaker.” One unidentified CAP staffer in the meeting remarked to Foreign Policy that “It was clear that the sentiment was that this was the wrong choice to make as a progressive institution that cares about human rights, justice, and the oppressed.” The staff member characterized the staff statement as a “rebuttal” to Stachelberg and Katulis.

The rebuttal received “an enthusiastic round of applause” from the 100 or so staff in the meeting. According to one participant in the meeting, “it was practically the whole room clapping for 10-15 seconds,” said another staffer in the room.”

The full staff rebuttal is here, thanks to The Nation, reprinted for the uniqueness of seeing the internal conflict of a nonprofit institution revealed on the public stage:

We all came to work at this institution with a passion and belief for the CAP mission, being an organization dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans, through bold, progressive ideas and to change the conversation and to change the country.

Coming to work at CAP gives many of us the opportunity to make this country safe and accepting of all. While we watch the hate crimes, discrimination and biases faced by some of our communities, we come to work every day proud that this institution is a space where our voices will be respected and where our leadership assures we feel safe, respected and heard. In that sense this place isn’t so much a job or a profession or a nine-to-six. It’s a survival tactic. But it’s not just about our individual struggles because, in the words of MLK, we’re not free until we’re all free.

And at CAP we are a family. We spend more hours with one another at this institution than we do with our own families and friends outside the office. It is imperative that we feel confident in this building to improve the lives of all Americans, and essentially to work on getting us all free. It becomes difficult to step outside of our building and say to our allies why this visit is happening, for some of us here we ourselves feel that we were not considered in that decision.

We come with questions and thoughts on how things have been developing and where we go from here:

  • Our approach is to think creatively at the cross section of traditional boundaries. It’s hard to talk about poverty without talking about the economy or women’s issues or education. Similarly, it’s hard to separate American progress from world progress when young people in Palestine are advising young people in Ferguson on how to deal with tear gas and flash grenades. So, while the decision occurred in the policy portfolio of [CAP’s national security team], the ramifications of that decision lives outside of that team.
  • Some of our teams have a concern that there’s something distinctly not bold or progressive about referring to the Prime Minister as “someone with whom we disagree” or “someone who said some terrible things.” We disagree with Mitch McConnell; Don Lemon has said some terrible things. So this is not just a “policy difference,” this is a person who continues to defend the deaths of over 2000 people—many of them children—last summer alone. What do we call a disagreement of that magnitude? A thing that terrible? Would we bring other leaders to this institution who had committed similar crimes?
  • Finally, on the free exchange of ideas and progressivity. How do we engage in progressive discourse, while continuing to fight for basic human rights of all people, across the globe and in our own country, if we fail to emphasize this respect for human rights in whom we choose to engage in conversation with? How do we engage in conversation with world leaders whose views and actions undermine our core principles, while maintaining the integrity of those principles?

And so we know Prime Minister Netanyahu is set to come. But that decision was made in our collective name, without enough consideration of the diverse backgrounds and experiences dedicated employees bring to the table.

Bringing in another head of state on “the other side” is not the solution. Our goal is to promote humanity and shut down oppression and genocide and terrorism. Bringing in another head of state with a record of oppression would further push our mission away.

So what comes next? What happens when we come back to work on Thursday Nov. 12? What is the Center for Americans Progress to the people whose lived experiences Netanyahu’s policies directly impact? How do we face our communities with answers?

These are all questions that we, as passionate and committed employees of the Center for American Progress have been asking ourselves this past week and hope for answers to. As you look around the room, people of faith and all backgrounds are asking these questions. Some are standing; many, many more don’t feel empowered to do so. This is a humanity and human rights issue universally felt. Some of us think this event shouldn’t be happening at all and others think a broader discussion of this with CAP family should have happened before this major decision.

Again, we are appreciative of this institution, and the opportunity to speak out because this is a family and right now as members of the CAP family we are in a place of confusion and hurt.

Thank you for taking the time to listen to us collectively.

The arguments of CAP’s defenders include CAP’s previous hosting of speeches by other political characters who are not popular with liberal Democrats (for example, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee), the importance of providing a forum to heads of state regardless of who they might be, and the likelihood that Netanyahu at CAP would get tougher questions than at his other scheduled stops at the American Enterprise Institute and the Jewish Federations of North America.

In this instance, the timing of the Netanyahu appearance alongside Hillary Clinton’s support from some American donors who strongly support the Israeli cause with scant support for the interests of Palestinians. If it were simply an opportunity to question a controversial figure, that might be one thing. But Netanyahu is categorically different from the likes of Huckabee, and his hour show at CAP has more symbolic meaning than whatever tough questions CAP president Neera Tanden might toss at him.

Regardless of where one stands on the CAP invitation to Netanyahu, the report of widespread internal dissension among the CAP staff tells a picture of staff conflict that rarely makes it outside of nonprofit offices. Usually, disagreements are kept in-house as much as possible. In this case, with a speaker like Netanyahu who is a flashpoint for different paths to solutions in the Middle East, in-house disagreements at CAP have become a public issue. In the wake of Netanyahu’s appearance at CAP, given CAP’s relationship with Hillary Clinton who continues her campaign with statements of strong support for Israel and rather hard to hear comparable statements for Palestinians, what happens next at CAP in the relationship of the majority of CAP staff who seemed to be aggrieved by the Netanyahu speech and the CAP leadership who made this call without much awareness of the reaction it would get.—Rick Cohen

  • Christopher Harris

    Rick, Thanks for a terrific piece and for shining a light on the internal debate at CAP. As you suggest, we should see more of such internal institutional struggles. I am glad that you (and the CAP staff) explain that inviting Netanyahu is far more than “including other voices” in the spirit of being inclusive. And one wonders if his invitation is more related to the 2016 elections. I hope that you will keep an eye of what emerges at CAP. Thanks.