PRO: Should Chuck Hagel become secretary of defense?

Were it not so sad, so absurd and so stupid, I might be amused by the recent attacks against former Senator Chuck Hagel as being anti-Semitic for his failure to distinguish between the Jewish lobby and the pro-Israel lobby.
January 9, 2013

Were it not so sad, so absurd and so stupid, I might be amused by the recent attacks against former Senator Chuck Hagel as being anti-Semitic for his failure to distinguish between the Jewish lobby and the pro-Israel lobby.

There is real anti-Semitism in the world; openly anti-Semitic fascist forces are the Parliament in Hungary; they has asked for a list of Jews, Hungarian rabbis were wondering when – not whether – to advice their community to leave. There is genuine fear; reasoned fear. Neo-Nazis are rising to prominence in the economic dislocation that has beset Greece. I was invited by representatives of the Greek Jewish community to speak at the Holocaust Remembrance Day meeting on January 28th, 68 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, there was genuine angst in their request, appropriate not invented fear.

There is anti-Semitism in significant segments of the Arab world where the discredited myths rejected by post World War II Europe has enjoyed a resurgence. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a century-old Russian forgery stands without reputation in the Arabic language where the belief in a Jewish conspiracy for world domination is taken as gospel. The blood libel abandoned by Western Christianity, which makes no sense in a Muslim religious world view where atonement and the death of the innocent are not linked as they are the Christian narrative of crucifixion, has been resurrected in the Middle East. Iran and some of its client groups expresses
vehement anger at Jews – all Jews — and not just political disagreement with Israel. Israel is under threat of nuclear attack.

But Jewish groups on the right who were losers in the last election and who did not enjoy the support of more than two thirds of the Jewish community, and the well-respected American Jewish Defense Organizations have joined together to attack the possible nomination of Chuck Hagel.

Hagel apparently confused AIPAC with the Jewish lobby. It is a distinction with barely a difference.

Many members of AIPAC – but surely not all – are Jews. Many Evangelical Christians who support AIPAC support Israel because the return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land is central to their faith, essential for the Second Coming of Jesus, a key element of their eschatological vision. They are current allies with Jews, but theological opponents of Judaism; they believe — as is their right — that we Jews were wrong to reject Jesus as the Christ [ the Messiah] wrong to maintain that the Messiah has not yet come and wrong to reject the salvation that has been offered to the world through Jesus Christ. But they support Israel. I can see why many Jews welcome such support in a world where Israel is increasingly isolated, but I can also see that were Israel to relinquish territory in some settlement
with the Palestianians, they and the Jewish religious messianists would see oppose such a move as an eschatological disaster rather than a necessary political settlement.

Hagel may have noticed that the dinners at AIPAC are Kosher, that kippot are worn by many in the audience. He may have noticed that there are many rabbis in the room. Many synagogues send delegations of members, as does mine, led by our rabbi and synagogue president. Participation in AIPAC is considered normative Jewish behavior, but still we want to maintain that AIPAC is not a Jewish lobby.

How then to deal with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which is a registered lobby and not a tax exempt organization? This surely cannot be regarded solely as a pro-Israel lobby. Its agenda is larger than Israel and it conceives of itself as representing Jewish interest world-wide.

When I served three decades ago as Executive Director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, we had a monthly meeting of representatives of national Jewish organizations who had offices in Washington, to share information and coordinate strategies for defending common Jewish interests on Capitol Hill and at the White House. We were not ashamed to see ourselves as part of a Jewish lobby, as part of an expression of Jewish power in a complex political system.

The critique that was offered of Jewish leaders during the Holocaust was that they were not aggressive enough, not secure enough, not confident enough and not willing enough to risk their tentative acceptance as Jews in America to push Jewish interests to the national fore. The generations that followed the Holocaust was raised on the chant of “Never Again.” We were deeply and unashamedly committed to Jewish empowerment and determined that we would not be silent when the Jewish people were imperiled.

It was on that basis that we dared to oppose President Richard Nixon, who had saved Israel from defeat during the Yom Kippur War, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, to first of hold that office who then described himself as of Jewish origin, to pass the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. A dozen years later we demonstrated on the National Mall on behalf of Soviet Jewry just on the eve of the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit. Détente, we said, however important could not go forward on the backs of Soviet Jews, nor could glasnost despite the goodwill of the Soviet leader and the affection with which Jews held the American President.

Let's not pretend there is no Jewish lobby and let's hope that the Jewish lobby is respected and that its views considered in the corridors of power. It is not bad to be feared in politics. I think that we should not be embarrassed to speak of a Jewish lobby and if speaking of a Jewish lobby is anti-Semitism count me also as an anti-Semite.

There may be reasons for opposing Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary. But his supposedly being an anti-Semite is not one of them.

And if one were to judge his statements on the War in Iraq against the statements of Senator John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, or the inability of William Krystal to distinguish between Sunni and Shia in Iraq or of Paul Wolfowitz to manage the war and understand its cost, that too would not be a reason to vote against him.

I must say that I do not understand my respected friend Abraham Foxman's statement on the much discussed possibility of Hagel nomination. Foxman wrote in an email to Jennifer Rubin: “I must confess Chuck Hagel would not be the first, second, or third choice for the American Jewish community's friends of Israel… His record relating to Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship is, at best, disturbing, and at worst, very troubling. The sentiments he's expressed about the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism in the genre of professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt and former president Jimmy Carter.”

If Foxman wants to compare Hagel to Mearsheimer and Walt or to former President Jimmy Carter, he should document his case and ADL should actively oppose the nomination. Were he to offer such evidence, which I have no seen, I would join him in opposing Hagel; but in the absence of evidence, this seems like name calling and not even guilt by association.

James Besser the long=time syndicated columnist for the Jewish Week in New York has warned that it would be unwise to let political extremist drive the American Jewish communal agenda. In a world of real anti-Semitism, we should be cautious and, above all, accurate in raising its specter lest we use the term so often that it loses all meaning.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.