Chuck Hagel’s Jewish problem
By DOUGLAS M. BLOOMFIELD
US President Obama values Hagel’s advice and made him co-chairman of his Intelligence Advisory Board. He should remain there.
The White House trial balloon to test support for former senator Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be the next secretary of defense has been taking withering fire from all directions, the most over-the-top criticism coming from those questioning his support for Israel, and it appears to be losing air.
If the barrage of attacks succeeds in shooting down the former two-term Nebraska Republican’s hopes to run the Pentagon, it will mark the second time this month President Barack Obama has been forced to abandon plans to put a trusted adviser and friend in his cabinet.
Late last week he nominated Sen. John Kerry to be the next secretary of state after his first choice, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, withdrew in the face of bitter and largely unfounded attacks from Senate Republicans.
Hagel came under fire from some of his former GOP colleagues and Democrats were in no rush to come to his defense, but it was friends of Israel and the Jewish community that did the most damage, with complaints that included offensive claims that the former senator is a closet anti-Semite.
To be sure, there were other critics. A Washington Post editorial said he was “not the right choice” and his views “well to the left” of Obama’s, particularly on issues involving dealing with Iran, the use of force and sanctions. Those issues were part of the case made by many friends of Israel, but they were bundled with charges of bigotry.
It was suggested, and often more than suggested, that Hagel is a borderline anti-Semite.
The evidence was not just that he was sometimes critical of Israeli policy and didn’t consistently toe the Likud line, but that he had referred to AIPAC as “the Jewish lobby,” accused it of “intimidating a lot of people” in Congress and insisted “I am a United States senator, not an Israeli senator.”
The latter was almost exactly the same phrase I heard from a prominent Jewish senator when he first came to the Senate and wanted AIPAC to know he wasn’t there to do its bidding.
Hardly a closet anti-Semite, he had a long history of leadership in Jewish causes.
The conservative Weekly Standard quoted an unnamed Republican Senate aide’s email warning, “Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.”
What’s the evidence? “He believes in the existence of a nefarious Jewish lobby that secretly controls US foreign policy.”
The reference was to a comment Hagel made in a 2008 interview with former US Mideast envoy Aaron David Miller: “The political reality is that...the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”
The ADL’s Abe Foxman, who should know better, said, “The sentiments he’s expressed about the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism.” And then came the big insult: Foxman compared Hagel to Jimmy Carter.
Miller said that the quote in his book had been “hijacked” because it left out the previous sentence which said, “Hagel is a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values.”
Hagel, he said, is not an anti-Semite, not an enemy of Israel, not even hostile to the state of Israel.” That view was echoed by Dan Kurtzer, the former US ambassador to Israel.
The term “Jewish lobby” is commonly used around the Hill and in Israel AIPAC is known as “ha lobby hayehudi,” the Jewish lobby. As for intimidating, just ask two Jewish congressmen who got visits from wealthy AIPAC officers warning them they’d be unable to raise money in the Jewish community if they dared to run for the Senate in their states against the board’s preferred candidates.
It’s true Hagel was never an enthusiastic supporter of Israel during his two Senate terms, although he consistently voted for economic and security assistance.
A major criticism is that he didn’t sign all the letters AIPAC and others circulated on the Hill to produce shows of strength. He even had the temerity to call one of them “stupid.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition circulated a list of charges against Hagel this month that resembled one its Democratic counterpart circulated when it looked like the then-senator might be planning a run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. This time the National Jewish Democratic Council was silent.
Both sides in the debate brought out their own Nebraska Jews. The Huffington Post quoted Israeli-born Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha’s Temple Israel, who said Hagel is a good supporter of Israel and any notion that he is anti-Israel or anti-Semitic are “extremely stupid.”
Algemeiner, a conservative Jewish website, quoted the former editor of the Omaha Jewish Press, Carol Katzman, saying Hagel “basically showed the Jewish community that he didn’t give a damn about the Jewish community or any of our concerns.”
Among the most self-serving attacks were those from a pair of stridently anti-Obama columnists. Isi Leibler, writing in Sheldon Adelson’s newspaper, Israel HaYom, said Hagel’s nomination “will be a litmus test of whether President Barack Obama is poised to resume his anti-Israel campaign,” conveniently – or intentionally – ignoring the fact US-Israel security cooperation has achieved new highs under this “anti- Israel” president.
Bret Stephens wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Hagel’s nomination will confirm the author’s earlier charge that “Mr. Obama is not a friend of Israel.”
There are a lot of good reasons why Hagel should not be the next secretary of defense, but flunking the Likud loyalty test shouldn’t be one of them.
Columnist David Ignatius questioned whether he is the right person to run the Pentagon at “a delicate moment of transition in defense policy and spending.”
I, for one, hope the president doesn’t nominate Hagel. I don’t think he has the temperament for the job and he seems out of sync with the president’s policies on a number of fronts. Most notably, he advocates containment of Iran and acceptance of its nuclear ambitions as a fact of life.
Obama and Hagel became friends when they served together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee along with then-chairman Joe Biden and future chairman John Kerry, who, like Hagel, is a decorated Vietnam combat veteran.
The president values Hagel’s advice and made him co-chairman of his Intelligence Advisory Board. He should remain there.