Hagel's 'Jewish problem': He doesn't have one, but let's see what he says about Iran

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As if life in Washington wasn't dispiriting enough, we must now get ready for a bruising fight over whether former Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's nominee as secretary of defense, has a "Jewish problem."

Mr. Hagel's confirmation by the Senate isn't a sure thing in any case -- gay-rights activists are unhappy with his more archaic views (conveniently renounced as soon as his name was floated) on matters of sexual orientation, and defense hawks think that Mr. Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, is allergic to the projection of American force and overeager to gut the Pentagon's budget.

But Mr. Hagel's statements about Jews, Israel and the looming confrontation with Iran may take up a good deal of bandwidth. So: Is Mr. Hagel anti-Semitic?

The short answer is no. The long answer is also no. Which is not to say that Mr. Hagel will soon win the American Jewish Committee's Man of the Year award. He takes a tougher line on certain Israeli government policies, and a softer line on Iran, than most mainstream American politicians, but some of his views are shared by many of Israel's left-of-center politicians and ex-military chiefs.

The anti-Semitism charge was recently advanced by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal, who wrote that Mr. Hagel's use of the term "Jewish lobby" -- in a conversation with Aaron David Miller, the former Middle East negotiator who doesn't hide either his Jewishness or his support for Israel -- had an "olfactory element" to it. Mr. Hagel's statement that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people" on Capitol Hill was particularly ripe, Mr. Stephens said.

"No lesser authorities on the subject than John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of 'The Israel Lobby,' have insisted the term Jewish lobby is 'inaccurate and misleading, both because the "Israel" lobby includes non-Jews like Christian Zionists and because many Jewish Americans do not support the hard-line policies favored by its most powerful elements,' " Mr. Stephens wrote.

The term "Jewish lobby" is unpleasant and imprecise, but Mr. Hagel's comment about the power of this alleged lobby strikes me, after years of listening to legislators whine about the awfulness of pressure groups, as inoffensive, if dumb.

On the other hand, Mr. Hagel, in his two terms in the Senate, voted to support Israel in ways that matter to actual Israelis, including to its defense officials. He supported a close relationship between the U.S. military and the Israel Defense Forces, and he regularly voted to grant Israel generous aid packages. If he has a record of animus toward the Jewish state or prejudice toward Jews, I'm not seeing it.

In fact, one of the more distressing features of the nomination is not Mr. Hagel himself, but some of the supporters he's been accruing, people who believe that he shares their loathing of a strong American relationship with Israel. These include people who do express animus toward Israel and toward the American Jews who support Israel.

The aforementioned Mr. Walt, who has enthusiastically praised Mr. Hagel on his blog, is an example. In his 2007 book with Mr. Mearsheimer, Mr. Walt blamed American Jewish organizations for dragging the United States to war in Iraq, and argued that the pro-Israel lobby is causally related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In the duo's feverish telling, the lobby's stranglehold over Congress forced the United States into an alliance with Israel, which provoked previously pacific Muslim fundamentalist terrorists to commit mass murder.

There is nothing in Mr. Hagel's record to suggest that he scapegoats Jews and Israel in the Walt manner or that he would try to persuade Mr. Obama to separate the United States from Israel in any meaningful way.

The Hagel nomination doesn't represent nearly so drastic a shift in Mr. Obama's Middle East policy as some people might believe (or hope), especially when you consider the views of Mr. Obama's first secretary of defense, Robert Gates.

Mr. Gates, who emerged from the same non-interventionist or "realist" wing of the Republican Party as Mr. Hagel, took two positions on Israel that seemed superficially contradictory. The first was to complain, sometimes bitterly, about what he saw as Israel's self-destructive policies, including its commitment to expanding West Bank settlements. The second was to strengthen the Pentagon's relationship with Israel's military.

Mr. Gates didn't see the contradiction: He believed that Israel should be a safe and flourishing homeland for the Jewish people, and he also believed that its current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, wasn't grateful for American support and was instituting policies that would make Israel more difficult to secure as a Jewish democracy.

Mr. Hagel, it seems, is on the same page. As is -- and this is the most salient point -- the president, who has consistently made similar arguments.

Mr. Hagel has differed from the president on one important issue: Iran. Mr. Obama has taken a tougher line than Mr. Hagel on sanctions and on the need to consider military force to stop Iran's nuclear program. A widespread assumption is that, in nominating Mr. Hagel, Mr. Obama is moving closer to his position. But it's far more likely, given Mr. Obama's stated commitment to keeping nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands, that Mr. Hagel's position has moved closer to the president's.

We'll have to wait for Mr. Hagel's confirmation hearing to learn his exact thinking on Iran, and we can only hope that this issue is given more prominence than his graceless use of the term "Jewish lobby."


Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View.


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