By now, thousands of articles have been written about newly-nominated Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Many of them thrust one of two extremes at the reader: either that Chuck Hagel is a rabid anti-Semite and Israel-hater, or that Chuck Hagel is a Jew’s best friend and Israel’s closest ally. So, which is it?
We should examine some of the more pointed comments that Hagel’s critics have used as political ammunition. Perhaps the most infamous of these pronouncements emerged from remarks Hagel made during a 2006 interview with Aaron David Miller (former Middle East peace negotiator):
“The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here…I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator.”
Obviously, Hagel’s first mistake was referring to what could be called the pro-Israel lobby as “the Jewish lobby,” which sounds considerably more disdainful and lumps all supporters of Israel into the same category — “Jewish.”
The next issue is more ideological than semantic, namely that Hagel went through the explicitly verbal trouble of separating his and his country’s interests from the interests of Israel. Of course, pointing out that he is a member of the United States government and therefore not a member of the Israeli government is a tautology in the purely literal sense (we know that this must be true by definition). However, Hagel’s purpose was to reinforce his primary allegiance to the United States and to shrug off any responsibility for Israel that his status as a U.S. senator might potentially confer.
Finally, referring to the supposed power of the “Jewish lobby” conjures up age-old stereotypes of Jewish ventriloquists controlling governments and economies. Perhaps it is this allusion that drew the most ire from those concerned about Hagel’s alleged anti-Semitism.
Based on this quote alone, should we label Chuck Hagel anti-Israel and anti-Semitic? No, of course we should not. Most of the anti-Semitic imagery and hateful undertones are extrapolated from his words and cannot be rationally substantiated.
A much more salient point of contention between Hagel’s supporters and detractors relates to his attitude towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hagel is well-known for sympathizing with the plight of the Palestinians, and believes that the world takes Israel’s side too lightly and too often. It is here that we run into our first serious problem.
Hagel believes that Israel is as least partly to blame for the inability to achieve peace with the Palestinians; the Washington Post reports that after visiting the Middle East in 1998, Hagel remarked that “The Israeli government essentially continues to play games…Desperate men do desperate things when you take hope away. And that’s where the Palestinians are today.”
It may be true that “desperation” is driving the incessant violence against Israeli civilians, but Hagel makes it sound like a workable excuse. It isn’t.
The Washington Post also mentioned that in a 2002 speech to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Hagel decided that “what we need isn’t a ceasefire,” but immediate Palestinian statehood. Of course, Hagel later added, “I have said that the U.S. relationship with Israel is one of a friend and ally that has required and will continue to require a commitment to the freedom of Israel.” Even so, these lukewarm and quasi-supportive comments do not make up for the fact that Hagel’s speech to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee came directly in the wake of a slew of Palestinian suicide-bombing attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis.
There is still not enough evidence to brand Hagel as an anti-Semite or make him out to be explicitly against Israel. At best, Hagel’s remarks expose him as a skilled political tightrope walker, trying his best to support both sides of this issue simultaneously (an acrobatic stunt that may not be possible in a case where Israel is systematically and ferociously targeted). However, his frequent refusal to side with Israel — based on his suspicion that the world often supports Israel “at the expense” of the Palestinians — may have gone overboard on a few occasions.
For example, according to an editorial in the Investor’s Business Daily, Hagel “was one of only 11 senators who refused to ask President Bush not to meet with Palestine Liberation Organization terrorist chief Yasser Arafat until he stopped attacking Israel.” He also “refused to call Arafat a terrorist,” remarking that “whether you think he’s a terrorist or not, that’s rhetorical sword-play.”
In 2007, Hagel declined to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (responsible for killing multiple American soldiers in Iraq) a terrorist organization.
Another important point is Hagel’s reluctance to support sanctions against Iran. Perhaps “reluctance to support” is too soft — Hagel has voted against unilateral sanctions again and again, claiming that they are not effective (he purportedly believes that the U.S. should pursue sanctions in collaboration with the U.N. and other nations instead). In a recent CNN article entitled “Chuck Hagel is a friend to Israel,” Rabbi Aryeh Azriel (who claims to know Hagel personally) submits that “I know Chuck’s preferences for multilateral sanctions over unilateral sanctions, and what’s wrong with that?”
According to Washington Post opinion blogger Jennifer Rubin, quite a lot is wrong with that, actually. Rubin writes:
“It is hard to argue that the sanctions haven’t severely harmed Iran’s economy, including its crude oil exports and its banking system. It would be one thing if Hagel were arguing from the right that sanctions will never work and we should skip right to the threat and use of military action. But of course that isn’t his view. Moreover, he can’t argue that when he voted repeatedly against sanctions in the Senate that we were ignoring international sanctions. In fact, President George W. Bush pursued and obtain[ed] four separate sets of international sanctions.”
She adds that “Hagel also misunderstands how we work with allies. Going to the United Nations over and over again for meager results is — as we’ve seen with Syria — useless. However, when the United States act[s], our allies normally follow.”
Essentially, that Hagel believes in the existence of a more effective way to handle Iran’s out-of-control saber-rattling is not a satisfactory explanation — for whatever reason, he simply does not want to play hardball with Iran. Perhaps he perceives Iran to be a bigger threat to Israel than to the United States at the moment, and since, as we know, he is a U.S. senator and not an Israeli senator, he shouldn’t have to care that much. Right?
There’s really no evidence to support the claim that Hagel is an enemy to Israel, or the Jewish people as a whole. But there is evidence to support the claim that Hagel does not believe Israel deserves any kind of special treatment. Therefore, as is the case with many situations that deliver two radical arguments, the answer can be found somewhere in between.
As American Jews, we have come to expect that every influential American politician should take every opportunity to help Israel deal with its increasingly belligerent neighbors and protect the safety of its citizens. Chuck Hagel doesn’t hate Israel, but he doesn’t radiate warmth, either. He’s somewhat indifferent — and that’s what people are so upset about.
Hagel’s disinclination to support powerful action against Iran represents his attitude towards Israel, which can best be personified by an apathetic shrug accompanied by an “eh.” He simply doesn’t care that much. He thinks that Israel is given too much preferential treatment, and that perhaps it’s time for America to focus on its own interests and let Israel fend for itself for a change.
While this attitude of lethargy isn’t anti-Semitic by any stretch of the imagination, it should certainly trouble American Jews and Israelis alike. Especially since this is the man who will be running the Pentagon.
In a recent CNN commentary piece, Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer may have pinpointed the source of Hagel’s indifference: he “thinks Israel has won support because of ‘intimidation,’ not merit.” (Indeed, this would explain the “Jewish lobby” comments.) Instead, as Fleischer argues, “Israel is widely supported by the American people because Israel deserves to be supported. Israel is a lonely democratic ally and a steady friend of the United States in a dangerous and tumultuous region. Their people are like the American people — free, independent, capitalistic and tolerant.”
In addition, Fleischer cites a Gallup poll that “showed 71% of the American people view Israel favorably while only 19% view the Palestinian Authority favorably and just 10% view Iran favorably.” While, as a side note, it should definitely inspire shock and disgust that 10% of those surveyed viewed Iran “favorably” (whatever that means), the point here is clear — that a vast majority of Americans express positive emotions in association with Israel.
Indeed, Fleischer points out that “contrary to Hagel’s logic, Israel doesn’t enjoy widespread American support because anyone — from any faith — intimidated someone else; Israel earned the support of the American people because of its people’s values.”
While politicians usually strive to reflect the sentiments of a majority of voters, Hagel definitely does not support Israel as ardently as the American electorate. Of course, Hagel is not an elected official — he was appointed by President Obama! Therefore, Hagel functions much better as a reflection of Obama’s tepid sentiments towards Israel.
Hagel is a Republican — Obama wanted to showcase his political magnanimity and desire to “reach across the aisle,” but he was nevertheless able to locate one of the few conservatives to hold Israel in some sort of suspicious contempt. Coincidence? Doubtful — especially since President Obama recently said that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” Maybe Chuck Hagel does?
It’s true that Hagel has since expressed regret for his “Jewish lobby” remarks and reneged on some of his criticism of Iranian sanctions, but it is difficult to be completely convinced by an eleventh hour apology — especially one that was issued prior to a meeting with major American-Jewish leadership. Hagel is doing everything he can to secure his nomination, so a sudden reversal of opinion at this stage cannot be taken seriously (he certainly regrets his comments, but we cannot know, at least at this point, if his beliefs have changed).
Chuck Hagel’s position towards Israel should remain unclear to many in the American Jewish community. New York Senator Chuck Schumer, however, despite previously expressing doubt himself, has thrown his full weight behind supporting Hagel after meeting with him to hash out some of Schumer’s concerns. Last Friday, Schumer told a Jewish radio show that Hagel “convinced me that he had changed his views” and that he “satisfied my concerns.”
We don’t know exactly what Hagel told Schumer to cause such instantaneous camaraderie, but only time will tell if Hagel’s policies will reflect a rehabilitated support for Israel. Until then, we reserve the right to remain skeptical.