In January, the newly formed Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) opened its doors to “promote progressive values” and “maintain and strengthen support for Israel among grassroots progressives and Democratic leaders.” However, DMFI’s leaders have in the past attacked and worked to suppress progressive values when it comes to the Israel issue. And since its inception, the group has continued that trend by criticizing Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) hiring of a campaign staffer, Max Berger — who co-founded IfNotNow, the Jewish group that condemns Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians — and attacking Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) for taking on Muslim American surrogates Linda Sarsour and Amer Zarhr, outspoken critics of Israel and supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
DMFI’s formation is clearly a response to the Democratic Party’s increasing comfort with openly criticizing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights, and with a growing grassroots effort to tie American aid to Israel taking steps to end the occupation.
But if DMFI is supposed to appeal to progressive Democrats, the appointments of Mark Mellman as the group’s president and CEO, and Ann Lewis as co-chair, are odd choices. Both Mellman and Lewis worked against the President Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative, the Iran nuclear deal, in influential positions at organizations that engaged in factually inaccurate attacks on the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts and embraced anti-Muslim propagandists to stir up fears about Iran.
“This organization seemed to pop up on the screen around the time that the old school part of the Democratic party decided that the growing progressivism in the party, and the Democratic base, was intolerable when it comes to Israel,” Foundation for Middle East Peace president Lara Friedman told Responsible Statecraft. “You suddenly had this organization that is somehow claiming to be a part of the grassroots Democratic environment to push back against what appears to be a growing majority of the Democratic grassroots who were seemingly more progressive than maybe AIPAC was comfortable,” she added, referring to the right leaning American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Indeed, DMFI’s constituency on these issues appears to be quite limited. The group not only faces an uphill fight with Jewish voters showing a high affinity for Israel, of which only 4 percent list Israel as one of their two most important issues, but also, a large majority of Democrats who oppose the occupation and support reentering the Iran nuclear deal. In fact, nearly all of the Democratic candidates for president support resuscitating the agreement. Moreover, the only Democratic Jewish presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, is an outspoken critic of the Israeli government and has suggested that some of the defense assistance funds the United States sent to Israel should go to ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Emails published by The Intercept also showed Lewis participating in an effort back in late 2011 and early 2012 to censor writers at ThinkProgress — a now defunct news website run out of the Democratic Party aligned Center for American Progress (CAP) — for publishing critical articles both about Israeli government policies as well as the network of groups pushing for a U.S. military confrontation with Iran.*
Neera Tanden, CAP’s president, reported in a 2012 email that Lewis was unwilling to distinguish between the writers’ criticism of Israeli government policies and the charges leveled at CAP that ThinkProgress was “anti-Israel.” “She basically said we’re going to continue to have a problem until our blog seems like it’s not anti-Israel,” wrote Tanden after a phone call with Lewis. “I tried to discuss Israel, v. the Israeli govt.’s policies. But she for one was not really buying it.”
That sentiment is consistent with Lewis’s view that U.S. politicians must provide support for Israeli government policies regardless, it would seem, of whether those policies are consistent with American interests and values.
“The role of the president of the United States is to support the decisions that are made by the people of Israel,” the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank quoted Lewis saying in 2008. “It is not up to us to pick and choose from among the political parties.”
Lewis went on to join the board of The Israel Project (TIP), an (also now defunct) Israel-advocacy organization that devoted much of its efforts to attacking the Obama administration’s diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program. The Israel Project received significant funding from Republican megadonor Paul Singer, and attacked the Iran nuclear deal as “a realization of the deepest fears and the most dire predictions of skeptics.” That sentiment took on more of a hysteric dimension in several instances such as when TIP president Josh Block tweeted that Iran wants “to dominate & enslave every man, woman and child they can reach with their nuclear terrorist totalitarian regime,” and when the group produced a video suggesting that Iran would launch a nuclear attack on you while you’re enjoying a walk with your dog.
Mark Mellman’s work in attacking the Obama administration may have been even more extreme. Mellman’s consulting firm, the Mellman Group, was responsible for “management” of Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran (CFNI), according to the group’s tax disclosure. The group, which was affiliated with AIPAC, paid Mellman’s firm $241,439 in the 2015 tax year, the period in which the group was most active.
Like TIP, CFNI’s activities also focused on hyping fears about the nuclear diplomacy being undertaken by the Obama White House and attacking the administration for engaging in negotiations with Iran.
CFNI even went so far as airing a commercial across the U.S. that incorporated b-roll footage from a press conference held by the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a cult-like exiled Iranian opposition group previously listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department thanks to its embrace of violence, including attacks against Americans. CFNI also promoted the MEK on its website.
CFNI, which contracted Mellman for “management” services, also paid $60,000 to the Center for Security Policy (CSP), a group that advocates for a U.S. foreign policy centered on militarism and promoting completely unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about American Muslims and Muslim Brotherhood infiltration of the U.S. government.
CSP is headed up by Frank Gaffney who led the bogus charge that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist were part of a vast Muslim Brotherhood plot to infiltrate the U.S. government at the highest levels. Gaffney’s Islamophobia runs so deep, he once claimed the Missile Defense Agency logo “appears ominously to reflect a morphing of the Islamic crescent and star with the Obama campaign logo.”
After LobeLog reported on CFNI’s funding of Frank Gaffney, Mellman told The Intercept he had no affinity for Gaffney’s ideology and claimed he had no knowledge of the payment to Gaffney.
DMFI does make a point of criticizing President Trump’s embrace of anti-Semitism and white nationalism, but it’s attacks on Democratic primary front runners, such as misrepresenting Sanders’ defense of Palestinian human rights with a defense of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and demanding that “simply reentering the JCPOA is no longer practical… a new Iran agreement must be negotiated,” is both disingenuous and a dramatic departure from positions taken by most of the Democratic primary candidates.
DMFI’s activities seeking to misrepresent the defense of Palestinian rights and opposing a reentry into the Iran nuclear deal are, however, consistent with Lewis’s work at TIP and Mellman’s work at CFNI.
Rachel Rosen, DMFI’s communication director, criticized Trump’s withdraw from the Iran deal without a plan to get a better deal, and explained the group’s position on the agreement going forward.
”After President Trump’s withdrawal, the Iranians broke the caps and restrictions of the original agreement, she told Responsible Statecraft in an email. “In reality we cannot simply reenter an agreement in January 2021, whose limitations have not been observed, and some of whose core provisions sunset two and three years later. Practically speaking there is no such thing as simply reentering the deal. The next president will have to negotiate a new agreement which should address key issues like the sunset provisions, inspections, Iran’s ballistic missile program, and its support for terrorism.
The Mellman Group did not respond to Responsible Statecraft’s request for comment about the firm’s role in managing CFNI and what oversight or other responsibilities the firm had for the funding of CSP’s work.
Lewis and Mellman may indeed represent a wing of the Democratic Party that seeks to push back against the growing sentiment that U.S. aid to Israel should be conditioned on Israel taking steps to ending the occupation. But DMFI’s claim that it will connect with Democrats and “promote progressive values” is in sharp contradiction with its principles’ track record of aligning with extremist and fringe anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists and working in active managerial and fiduciary responsibilities for groups that focused their resources on attacking a Democratic president’s signature foreign policy initiative and the Democratic members of Congress who supported him.
*In the interest of full disclosure, Eli Clifton, the author of this article, and Ben Armbruster, the managing editor of Responsible Statecraft, were two of the writers targeted in this campaign.