New Koch Group Dogged by Charges of Anti-Semitism

Quincy Institute staff and scholars bring a long record of attacks on American Jews, Israel to the organization

Charles Koch / Getty Images
January 28, 2020

Asked about the thinkers who have shaped her views of the world, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) pointed to a scholar leading a new Washington, D.C., think tank that aims to lay the groundwork for an American foreign policy based on military retrenchment and restraint.

"I hope you’ve read books like Andrew Bacevich’s, books about the war in the Middle East," Warren told VICE News during an interview in Iowa earlier this month. "This notion that we get ourselves entangled in these wars, and it creates more risk for people here at home and more risk for people in the region. I don’t believe it makes us safer and that’s why I want to be able to bring those troops home."

Warren’s Senate colleague, Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), had a different take on Bacevich and his new organization, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, borne of a new alliance between the billionaires George Soros and Charles Koch.

Amid a spate of attacks on Jews in New York City, Cotton said in a speech on the Senate floor earlier this month that the "ancient hatred of anti-Semitism ... festers in Washington think tanks like the Quincy Institute, an isolationist, blame America First money pit for so-called scholars who’ve written that American foreign policy could be fixed if only it were rid of the malign influence of Jewish money."

Launched in early December, the Quincy Institute entered the fray to a cavalcade of press from outlets including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Politico.

While much ink has been spilled on the organization’s financial backers and its attempts to chart a new direction in U.S. foreign policy, less attention has been paid to whether it has managed to distance itself from the anti-Semitic bigotry that was intertwined with the America First Committee and that dogged the most extreme parts of the Bush-era antiwar movement.

The isolationists of the interwar period had a strained relationship with American Jews from the outset because of their opposition to U.S. involvement in the war against Nazi Germany. Charles Lindbergh, a leading member of the isolationist America First Committee, argued in an infamous 1941 speech that it was "not difficult to understand" why Jews wanted America to declare war against Nazi Germany, but their reasons were "not American."

Bacevich said his organization will not be focused on highlighting the dangers of pro-Israel organizations or donors.

"Our purpose is to promote restraint as a central principle of U.S. foreign policy—fewer wars and more effective diplomatic engagement," he told the Washington Free Beacon via email.

Pressed by the New Yorker about the historic relationship between isolationism and anti-Semitism, Bacevich—who himself has argued that the goal of the America First Committee had an "honorable" purpose and that it "did not oppose Jews"—conceded that there were anti-Semites among the isolationists of old but rejected the notion that "anybody who is an anti-interventionist somehow is a racist."

Yet the Quincy Institute’s hires include a string of figures who have courted controversy due to their views of Israel and American Jews.

Lawrence Wilkerson, a nonresident fellow at the institute, said in a 2007 documentary that "the Jewish lobby in America" and "AIPAC in particular" played an outsize influence in the run-up to the warand, in fact, had more of an impact than the administration's belief that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction or the president's belief in spreading democracy. He singled out Jewish officials like Bush national security aide Elliott Abrams, former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, former undersecretary of defense Doug Feith, and former Defense Policy Advisory Board Chairman Richard Perle. 

He came under fire again in 2013 for arguing that Syrian chemical weapons use "could’ve been an Israeli false-flag operation." There is no evidence to support such a claim and investigations by the United Nations and the United States intelligence community concluded that Bashar al-Assad had ordered the deadly attack on civilians.

"I think there is this view, going back to the 1930s, and maybe it’s shared by some today, that those who would get us into foreign conflicts were part of some elite, and maybe they saw in that elite Jewish influences," the veteran diplomat Dennis Ross told the Free Beacon

The Quincy Institute is also home to several experts who have accused American Jews of being loyal primarily to Israel, a charge that has often been used to slur Jews.

Paul Pillar, a veteran CIA officer and now a Quincy Institute expert on intelligence and terrorism, has argued that the Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson’s first loyalty is to Israel, writing in 2014, "The Republican party isn’t even his first love among political parties. That would be the Likud party." He continued, "Nor is the United States Adelson’s first love among countries."

Though Bacevich said that Israel and American Jews would not be a focus of his organization, Quincy expert Eli Clifton took up the matter with the Nation earlier this month, suggesting that the hawkish think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies was originally a mouthpiece for the Israeli government and has insinuated itself into the American bureaucracy.

Asked whether the Quincy Institute shares that view, Bacevich said, "I guess if you are interested in Eli Clifton's views it would make sense to contact Eli Clifton." He did not respond to questions about whether the Quincy Institute shares or stands behind the other statements from its experts and scholars featured in this report.

Clifton previously caused an uproar in Democratic circles as a blogger at the Center for American Progress’s (CAP) now-defunct ThinkProgress when he intimated that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was pushing the United States into a war with Iran. He argued in a 2011 blog post that an AIPAC statement praising a bipartisan Senate letter urging the Obama administration to impose sanctions on Iran’s central bank had "eerie parallels" to the "slow lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003."

When that post and others made CAP an unwanted center of controversy in Obama’s Washington, ThinkProgress added a lengthy update clarification: "Given some misunderstandings about this post, we want to make clear that we are not reporting on whether AIPAC lobbied for the Iraq war."

Clifton’s attacks on Israel had earlier led former Clinton adviser and current CAP president Neera Tanden to impose an additional layer of editorial control on the site, according to a report from the Intercept.

Quincy Institute experts like Wilkerson and others have blamed the "Israel lobby" for a host of ills. The retired diplomat Chas Freeman, who authored the Quincy Institute’s first policy brief in December, blamed the Israel lobby for scuttling his appointment to lead Barack Obama’s National Intelligence Council, for example, arguing in a statement after his withdrawal that "the tactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency." Later that year, in a speech in Moscow, he accused American Jews of comprising an Israeli "fifth column" inside the United States. Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was at the time the head of the Middle East Policy Council, which received funding from the Saudi government. 

These experts are less vocal, however, about other ethnic foreign policy lobbies in the United States. In fact, the Quincy Institute’s cofounder and executive vice president, Trita Parsi, is also the founder of the National Iranian American Council, which has battled accusations that it serves as a mouthpiece for the Iranian government.

The managing director of the Quincy Institute, Sarah Leah Whitson, has helped fundraise for the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), the largest Armenian lobbying organization in the United States. ANCA advocates for the Armenian annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh, an area within the borders of Azerbaijan that the U.N. and the International Criminal Court consider Armenian-occupied Azeri territory.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Whitson, as the former director of Middle East and North Africa for Human Rights Watch (HRW), made a fundraising pitch while in Saudi Arabia intended to entice Arab donors by playing to their animosity toward Israel.

Pressed repeatedly at the time by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the head of HRW, Kenneth Roth, did not deny the allegation that, in Goldberg’s words, Whitson was "attempting to raise funds from Saudis … in part by highlighting her organization's investigations of Israel, and its war with Israel's ‘supporters,’ who are liars and deceivers. It appears as if Human Rights Watch, in the pursuit of dollars, has compromised its integrity."

While there is no inherent relationship between isolationism and anti-Semitism and Israel, according to Eugene Kontorovich, a professor of law at George Mason University, many Quincy scholars have singled out Jews and Israel for special opprobrium. "In America, every interest group lobbies for its own interest. If they’re not blaming [the National Iranian American Council] for all of America’s problems in the Middle East, it does seem a particular demonization of Jews and of Israel," Kontorovich said.

The Koch-funded group will be holding an event in Washington next month featuring Whitson and Matt Duss, the national security adviser to Bernie Sanders, who, as a blogger alongside Clifton at ThinkProgress, defended Freeman during his short-lived battle to join the Obama administration. Freeman, he argued, was forced to withdraw because he voiced "some inconvenient truths about the Israel-Palestine conflict and represent[ed] a challenge to the treasured neoconservative myth that U.S. and Israeli interests are identical," Duss said.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Charles Koch's father, Fred Koch, was a prominent member of the America First movement. He was a founding member of the John Birch Society.