Politics Explained: Hagel, the Israel Lobby, and anti-Semitism

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Five weeks ago, President Barack Obama nominated former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) as his new Secretary of Defense, replacing the retiring Robert Gates. Cabinet nominations of members of the other party usually sail through the Senate. For example, both Republican Ray LaHood and Democrat Norman Mineta were confirmed unanimously by the Senate to the Cabinets of Presidents Obama and Bush respectively.

However, Hagel has run into trouble with Senate Republicans due to his past comments regarding Israel and his views on Iran. In particular, Hagel has said that, “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here . . . I’m not an Israeli senator, I’m a United States senator.” Such comments, as well as criticisms of Israeli involvement in the 2006 war in Lebanon and Israeli dealings with Palestine, have led conservatives and Likud-supporters to call Hagel anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.

Hagel has been repeatedly affirming his support for Israel in the last several weeks, but that Republicans are willing to hold up the nomination of a fellow party member speaks to exactly what Hagel criticized as senator: the outsized power of the Israel lobby in America.

I find the charges of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism against Hagel to be ridiculous. That he is so widely denounced as such by American and Israeli right-wingers speaks to how the definition of anti-Semitic has changed from actual discriminatory speech and action against Jews to criticism of the Israeli state in the eyes of so many. Hagel’s criticisms of Israel are fair ones and well in line with acceptable opinions worldwide of Israel, whether one agrees or disagrees with his positions. His support for negotiations with Iran and his opposition towards US or Israeli strikes on Iran does not make him anti-Semitic. Neither does his desire for a more favorable relationship with Palestine. One may disagree with these positions, but to accuse Hagel of anti-Israelism or anti-Semitism is a clear overreach.

Of course, many of the accusations towards Hagel of being anti-Semitic are coming from Orthodox Jewish Israelis on the Right, such as Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, as well as American right-wingers, such as Sheldon Adelson, who seek to oppose any and all actions taken by Obama. Many liberals and moderates, including the Israeli Jewish advocacy group J Street which supports the Hagel nomination, have defended Hagel from these accusations of anti-Semitism and condemned these smears on his character. But the holdup of the Hagel nomination is indicative of a larger diplomatic issue relating to the relationship between the United States and Israel.

In the 1950s and 1960s,  Israel served as a vital Cold War ally in the Middle East. With Israel under constant threat from Egypt, Jordan, Syria and others, it made sense diplomatically for the U.S. to strongly support Israel’s defense. However, in 2013, Israel is easily the strongest military power in the region, and they offer far less to the United States geopolitically, as the US’s support of Israel harms rather than benefits American relationships with surrounding Arab powers.

This is not to say that the United States should not support Israel. Rather, the United States should demand more of Israel in return for the massive defense and intelligence support we provide. Take last year’s UN General Assembly 138-9 vote to upgrade the Palestinian Authority to non-voting observer state status as a case in point. Palestine cannot be recognized as a full member state because that requires approval by the UN Security Council, and the U.S. would almost certainly veto such an attempt in support of Israel. On this vote, key European powers such as the United Kingdom and Germany abstained, while France voted in favor. American support for Israel against international public opinion was quite apparent here, despite right-wing Israeli claims that Obama has not done enough to support Israel.

Unfortunately, Israel responded to the vote by announcing plans to initiate construction in E1, an area east of Jerusalem in the West Bank that would cut off East Jerusalem– which Palestinians claim as their capital in any agreement–from the West Bank, in a move that severely threatens the prospect of future peace. The United States has urged Israel to not build in E1 for decades, and many European powers recalled their ambassadors from Israel in protest. This issue is just one example of how Israel has defied American interests in spite of our massive military and diplomatic support for them. As a sovereign nation, this is entirely within Israel’s rights, but from the perspective of American interests, blind and noncritical support of Israel is irrational and goes against our best interests.

Of course, I have addressed this from the perspective of American self-interest, but there is also the moral aspect of support for Israel. Many claim that, because it is the only true democracy in the Middle East, America must unwaveringly support Israel as part of our support for democracy worldwide. But, by keeping a significant population of residents within their state as effectively second-class citizens, Israel loses the moral high ground. Until the Israel-Palestine issue is resolved, criticisms of Israel’s domestic policy are entirely warranted.

At the end of the day, you may disagree with my assessments of what the American-Israeli relationship ought to be, and I am perfectly fine with that. What I am not fine with is the notion that our relationship with Israel should get a free-pass. I am not fine with the fact that we are not allowed to critically analyze the relationship without being accused of anti-Semitism, as Hagel has. Ultimately, I expect Hagel to be confirmed by the Senate, but the disproportionate attention towards his views on Israel in relation to other key defense issues demonstrates Washington’s irrational level of support for Israel.


0 thoughts on “Politics Explained: Hagel, the Israel Lobby, and anti-Semitism

  • February 13, 2013 at 8:43 am

    Hagel is beloved by Israel-haters and anti-Semites (including the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Iranian regime’s TV network mouthpiece, TVPress) precisely because of the extreme anti-Israel, anti-Jewish views that Hagel has expressed over the years.

    Hagel believes that U.S. foreign policy has been skewed too much in Israel’s favor. He ascribed the pro-Israel tilt to the power of what he called the “Jewish lobby,” which he said had the ability to “intimidate” members of Congress. While serving in the Senate, he boasted that he was not sent to Washington to serve as an “Israeli Senator.” This was an obvious swipe at his Senate colleagues who believed in supporting the only true democracy in the Middle East. Hagel was also using the age-old code words of anti-Semites who accuse Jews of dual loyalties.

    Hagel showed his complete indifference to the plight of Jews trapped in the Soviet Union in 1999 when he was the only senator out of 100 who refused to sign the American Jewish Committee’s statement against anti-Semitism in Russia. The petition was set to appear as a full-page newspaper ad during then-president Boris Yeltsin’s visit to the United States. In October 2000, Hagel and only three other senators refused to sign a Senate letter in support of Israel. In August 2006, Hagel joined only eleven other senators in refusing to write the European Union asking them to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

    It’s not as if Hagel doesn’t sign letters dealing with Israel and its enemies when he wants to. For example, although the terrorist organization Hamas has yet to renounce violence and its covenant to destroy Israel, Hagel signed a letter delivered just days before Obama was to take office for his first term as president urging Obama to talk to leaders of Hamas.

    Israel is surrounded by enemies determined to destroy the Jewish state. It is also a strategic partner in our own war against global Islamist jihadists – sharing intelligence, developing state-of-the art body armor used by our troops and anti-missile defense systems that are more sophisticated than our own. Yet we are facing the prospect of a Secretary of Defense who goes out of his way to antagonize our only true ally in the Middle East and who cannot bring himself to treat Hamas and Hezbollah as the terrorist enemies of all freedom-loving countries that they surely are.

    Some of Hagel’s defenders are blaming pro-Israel groups for supposedly besmirching his character in order to sabotage the nomination. This accusation is absurd. Hagel’s disturbing past statements about Israel and its enemies speak for themselves.

    But even if Hagel had not shown the kind of antipathy towards Israel that has won him praise from the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Council on American-Islamic Relations and earned him the “anti-Israel” title on Iranian state TV, Hagel would still be a complete disaster as Secretary of Defense.

    Ultimately, Hagel is unqualified for Defense Secretary and should be rejected by the Senate. But his obvious antipathy toward our ally Israel demonstrates how Obama’s anti-Israel (pro-Islamist) biases are further endangering the security of the American people.

    • February 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm

      I think the entire point of this article is that criticism of Israeli policy or the US’s policy towards Israel is NOT antisemitism, nor is it “anti-Jewish,” a point you seem to have missed. Would you use similar logic to say that supporting sanctions against Iran in response to uranium enrichment represents prejudice against Shi’as?

      A lack of unconditional support for Israel’s government is not prejudice against Judaism or the Jewish people.

      • February 16, 2013 at 2:42 pm

        Your whining is better directed at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

        “Don’t talk like that. When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism.”

        For a more scholarly discussion of the phenomenon, try “The Socialism of Fools: The Left, the Jews, and Israel.”
        [Swarthmore Libary DS145 .L47 1992]

        • February 18, 2013 at 9:40 pm

          Your argument is completely flawed. Let’s do a rational analysis of it.
          1. Anti Semitism is a racist hatred towards Jews.
          2. Anti Zionism could be anything critical at all of Israel, either disliking policies or even wishing the state to not exist.

          These are not the same thing by definition. Being critical of the policies of Israel is critical at the state level, not at a racist level.
          If you applied your logic to any other state it wouldn’t make any sense. If you’re critical of the United State’s policies for example, that doesn’t make you a racist american-hater.
          This weird dichotomy between supporting Israel completely or being an Anti-Semitist is a complete fabrication.

          • February 19, 2013 at 3:04 pm

            Once again, your whining denials (masquerading as “logical” rejoinder) is better directed at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

            Don’t be a bigotry apologist your whole life.

          • February 20, 2013 at 1:20 pm

            “Once again, your whining denials (masquerading as “logical” rejoinder) is better directed at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

            And I’m a bigoted apologist?
            Wow, you’re presenting a really powerful argument, what ever shall I do (massive sarcasm)?
            You literally didn’t refute anything I just said, and yes, I do direct my “whining denials” at Martin Luther King as well. What, do you think invoking his name all the sudden gives legitimacy to your non-existent argument? I think not, considering every argument should be analyzed independently, including Martin Luther King’s. Given the still un-refuted statements I made earlier, I don’t see much more I have to say.
            If what I just said is somehow “masquerading” as a logical rejoinder, please, I encourage you to find flaws with the logic presented.
            Good luck, although I sincerely doubt you need it considering there’s probably no way for you to win in a rational debate here, especially given that you’ve resorted to several logical fallacies to attempt to make your point.

    • February 13, 2013 at 2:26 pm

      Nice copy-paste Job, bro.

  • February 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    @Ganesha: If you insist on quoting Joseph Klein verbatim you should at least document the source.

  • February 14, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    Mr. Hagel was vehemently opposed to the appointment of a Swarthmore alum as an ambassador because he is openly gay. This was relayed when James Hormel spoke at the 2009 Swathmore graduation. The attack on him by Mr. Hagel was cruel and vehemently anti-gay.

    Recently Mr. Hormel stated:
    “I have not received an apology. I thought this so-called apology, which I haven’t received, but which was made public, had the air of being a defensive move on his part.”
    Hormel added that the apology appeared to have been given “only in service of his attempt to get the nomination.”

    If you watched his recent hearing, Hagel misspoke about his own views expressed in the recent past, could not remember basic strategic facts about the Defense Department, and did not appear to be cognitively intact. Senators such as Kirsten Gillebrand tried to prompt him, but only made the contrast worse by the contrast in their cognitive abilities (she has good memory and recall).

    It is really frightening to think that Mr. Hagel,who appears to not be in full control of his faculties, could be running a multi-billion dollar entity that involves the military and intelligence. Surely Mr. Obama can find someone who is more on his or her game as a substitute. I would nominate Kirsten Gillibrand after seeing Hagel’s hearing. As an aside, I evaluate patients with psychiatric and with cognitive disordersm, and I see signs of loss of function in Mr. Hagel. His anti-gay stances are also abhorrent.

  • February 15, 2013 at 9:02 am

    Hagel said somethin about Israel Firster syndrome.
    Now he can’t get into office. Why? Because of the Israel Firster syndrome. We shoulda listened to Gen Marshall back in Truman days. Recognize Israel and hell will never end.

  • February 17, 2013 at 8:00 am

    “Five weeks ago, President Barack Obama nominated former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) as his new Secretary of Defense, replacing the retiring Robert Gates.”

    Gates retired in 2011.

    Agree that the U.S.-Israel closeness may be penny-wise but pound-foolish. If Obama agrees, he should come out and say this and act accordingly. Otherwise, we get all of the pain of a strained relationship, but none of the gain.

    Is Hagel really the best that we can do? Is he even mediocre? Neither Obama nor Hagel have made the case. Running the DoD is a big job with a big budget (taxpayer expense). More than ever, we need a heavyweight. Am less concerned with his ideology than his leadership ability and administrative skills. If you were a senior military officer, would you be glad to report to him?

    Hillary Clinton proved the enormous cost of having an incompetent administrator (Benghazi) with no leadership skills (America is less safe and less relevant after her four years) run a major department. Let’s hold appointees to a higher standard.

  • February 18, 2013 at 9:15 am

    These recent nominations by Obama are very concerning because of how divisive they are, and also show that he does not properly vet candidates prior to nomination. He has another candidate now who is in favor of unmanned drone killings.

    As far as Hagel and Israel, regardless of whether we have a strong relationship with Israel, the Islamic countries want to destroy the Western way of life. They want women physically covered, noneducated, and subjugated to men. As a small example, there was last week a strong movement in Pakistan to ban Valentine’s Day because women there may think of their own freedom to love and try to pick their own partners. The first law reinstated in Libya after the recent uprising was to make it legal once again for a man to have 4 wives.

    Women in most Islamic countries cannot drive, vote, own property. Recently a large public university in Gaza mandated burkas/hijabs for women, books are once again censured, and women cannot ride bicycles.

    This repression of women should concern all of us who value women’s rights and freedom.


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