I Admire Chuck Hagel’s Chutzpah

He can't be anti-Semitic because he's practically Jewish himself.

Now that Obama has moved forward with his nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, the cries that Hagel is an anti-Semite or anti-Israel (or both) will get louder. The charges bubbled up to mainstream consciousness when a conversation Hagel had with Mideast analyst Aaron David Miller started making the rounds. In the 2006 interview, Hagel stupidly used the term “Jewish lobby” to refer to the pro-Israel lobby, which is problematic for two reasons. First, it makes it sound as though he was invoking the old sinister-cabal stereotype. The second is that it’s not accurate: There are probably many more Christians who climb the Capitol steps on Israel’s behalf than Jews.

Still, his overall point to Miller—that legislators are intimidated by the pro-Israel lobby—was admirably unguarded. Critical conversation about the role of the pro-Israel lobby—and AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) in particular—only started in earnest after the 2006 publication of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s London Review of Books essay “The Israel Lobby.”

Miller, who spoke about Hagel to the Guardian yesterday, seems to have admired Hagel’s honesty as well. From the Guardian:

Miller said Hagel was only saying what many members of Congress think but do not voice. “Hagel talked about the issue of domestic political pressure. Most sitting senators and congressmen don’t. But it’s a fact: The pro-Israeli community or lobby has a powerful voice. It does not have a veto over American policy but it has a powerful voice. To deny that is simply to be completely out of touch with reality,” he said.

Hagel also told Miller that one time, when it was suggested by someone at a public event that he wasn’t attentive enough to Israel, he responded, “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator. I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States—not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel.”

Somehow, this simple statement of fact—substitute the country of France for Israel and you’ll see what I mean—has been cited as further proof of Hagel’s Israel problem, and even of his anti-Semitism. The reaction demonstrates, yet again, why legislators don’t want to pipe up on the subject. What does it get you? Here’s a man who, as far as I can tell, supports Israel and votes his conscience on military issues. Those votes may not please every constituency, but why should they?

Those saying Hagel is anti-Semitic are especially disingenuous. Andrew Sullivan:

It’s highly reckless to throw that epithet around so promiscuously on such flimsy grounds simply because of a difference of opinion on foreign policy. The more the neocons’ self-serving trivialization of real anti-Semitism is ignored, the sooner we may get to the point of identifying actual anti-Semitism and its poisons.

Joe Klein gets to something similar:

Accusing someone of being anti-Israel or anti-Semitic is powerful juju … until it is misused. When you start flinging around these canards and libels to describe people who support Israel but don’t want to see the illegal settlements expand, or who want to negotiate with Iran, you are debasing the currency. The accusations become meaningless.

“There is anti-Semitism still abroad in the world,” continues Klein, but if we simply listen to the “extreme rantings” of people like Bill Kristol, he says, how will we know where it truly lies? To paraphrase Breaking Bad for the fans out there, Chuck Hagel is not the danger.

In fact, based on my lifetime as a Jew, Hagel’s practically ready to be a member of the tribe: He talks too much and too openly and feels deeply conflicted about Israel. L’chaim, Chuck!