After word leaked from the White House late last week that Chuck Hagel was in line to become the next secretary of defense, Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard manned the Patriot missile batteries to shoot down that trial balloon.
The neoconservative journal, no fan of the iconoclastic former Republican senator, published a smear under the headline: “Senate aide: ‘Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.'” In the posting, this anonymous aide went on to accuse Hagel of “the worst kind of anti-Semitism there is.” As evidence, the article included a quotation from Hagel referring to the “Jewish lobby.”
Other right-wing publications and conservative Zionist groups inevitably joined the chorus, including a column by Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal saying Hagel’s prejudice has an “especially ripe” odor.
The Hagel hit is wrong on the merits, but it’s particularly egregious because the former senator from Nebraska is among the best and bravest public servants. He was an enlisted man in Vietnam, earning two Purple Hearts in jungle combat. In his legislative career, he was a powerful voice against the chicken hawks who have recklessly sent American troops to their deaths; he became one of the most outspoken critics of former President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq war.
Hagel would probably be swiftly confirmed by the Senate, and he should be: A man of unassailable military credentials who regards war as a last resort is exactly the sort of person to head the Pentagon.
Kristol’s criticism of Hagel included a variety of supposed sins in various categories: terrorism (“Hagel was one of 11 senators who refused to sign a letter requesting Bush not meet with Yasser Arafat … “), Israel (“Hagel was one of only four senators who refused to sign a letter expressing support for Israel during the second Palestinian intifada”), and Iran (“Hagel was one of only two U.S. senators who voted against renewing the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act”).
It’s fair criticism to say Hagel isn’t sufficiently pro-Israel, although much the same is said of the man who would nominate him. But Kristol, and then others, went further, publishing a passage from a 2008 book in which Hagel is quoted as saying: “The political reality is that … the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”
That was a dumb phrase — many Christians are pro-Israel and many Jews aren’t — and Hagel said he misspoke (he used the phrase “Israel lobby” elsewhere in the interview). But, as an American Jew who has written about anti-Semitism in political dialogue, I don’t see this as anti-Semitic or anti-Israel.
Hagel was explaining why he didn’t sign all of those nonbinding letters from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, justifiably calling them “stupid.” He further said: “I’m a United States 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 a party. Not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that.”
Hagel’s foes claim groundlessly that this means he was accusing others of divided loyalties; that, they say, and his less-than-perfect record of voting AIPAC’s position disqualify him from running the Pentagon. But let’s examine Hagel’s record further:
He voted for the Iran Nonproliferation Act, the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act and the Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act. He co-sponsored resolutions opposing any unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and praising Israel’s efforts “in the face of terrorism, hostility and belligerence by many of her neighbors.” He also co-sponsored legislation urging the international community “to avoid contact with and refrain from financially supporting the terrorist organization Hamas … until Hamas agrees to recognize Israel, renounce violence, disarm, and accept prior agreements.”
Such gestures won’t satisfy the neocon hard-liners, and Hagel’s occasional criticism of the Israeli military’s excesses doesn’t help. But this isn’t indicative of anti-Semitism, or even of anti-Israel sentiments.
It’s indicative of an infantry sergeant who isn’t opposed to war (he voted for the conflicts in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq) but knows the grim costs of going to war without a plan. And it’s indicative of a decorated military man who, unlike some of his neocon critics, knows that military action doesn’t solve everything.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.