Nominations

12.17.12

Was Hagel The "Buzz" At The White House Chanukah Party?

To read the press, you might think the organized American Jewish community is in full revolt against Sen. Chuck Hagel's likely nomination to head the Defense Department? Not true. Sure, the pro-Israel right has raised objections to Hagel. But, as this fall’s elections reminded us, once again, there’s a vast gulf between Republican-Jewish-leaning groups and the mass of even committed American Jews. And that’s true on the Hagel nomination, too. In fact, there have been virtually no on-the-record statements from liberal Jewish groups or figures opposing Hagel.

What's the press saying, then? Take, for example, an article that appeared on the website BuzzFeed last Friday morning about the White House Chanukah party, which was attended by more than 500 American Jewish figures from across the country. The BuzzFeed article, which was then cited in the Washington newspaper Politico, gave no attributed quotes from partygoers. BuzzFeed described opposition to Hagel thusly:

“He was one of these worst senators in his party in memory when it comes to Israel,” said one Jewish Democratic operative. “It’s a terrible idea.” [...]

Several attendees at the Hanukkah party said they witnessed or participated in reaching out to administration officials about the potential selection of Hagel, with one attendee saying “he was the talk of the party.” One Democrat in attendance predicted the fight over Hagel would be “Susan Rice times 10.”

But eight attendees at the party interviewed by Open Zion gave mixed responses as to whether Hagel even came up, let alone that he was a hot topic; half said they never heard his name uttered.

"I talked to a lot of people and I did not hear anything like that and many people were asking a variety of questions and no one raised Sen. Hagel," former Obama Middle East adviser and Washington Institute distinguished fellow Dennis Ross told me by e-mail, adding that he was asked about Syria, Iran and the Palestinians, among other topics. "No one asked anything about Sen. Hagel and I did not hear any such discussion. So as far as the claim there was such a buzz, I sure did not hear it and don't believe it—and I was there for two and half hours."

Others contacted by Open Zion did acknowledge some conversations about Hagel. One attendee who's hawkish on Israeli security, and who didn't want their name to used for fear of being seen as gossiping, said they "certainly heard some" conversations about Hagel, "all negative." Another guest, a Democratic foreign policy adviser connected to Washington's pro-Israel community, said, "People were talking about Hagel at the party." However, the source, who acknowledged they might be seen by some as a "hawkish, pro-Israel Democrat," explained that "Republicans and Democrats were in attendance. These weren't all Obama supporters. It was a very diverse representation of the American Jewish community."

Still, those party guests willing to speak on the record were emphatic that they'd not had conversations about Hagel, and only one confirmed even hearing anything about the prospective U.S. defense chief. "I absolutely can say that I did not have any conversations about Chuck Hagel and didn't hear anyone say anything about Chuck Hagel," said Alan van Capelle, the head of the Jewish social justice group Bend the Arc. "And I spent some time with several Members of Congress and didn't have any conversations about Hagel—not even they raised it." Another guest, Betty Lu Saltzman, a longtime Obama ally whom the New York Times once described as "a Democratic doyenne from Chicago's lakefront liberal crowd," told me: "No, I didn't hear a word about it. Not one word."

Another attendee said he heard there was chatter about Hagel, but didn't hear any himself. "I came kind of late to the party and I didn't hear the stuff," said Rabbi David Saperstein, the head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. "I heard second-hand that people were talking about it, but I had no first-hand conversations about it. I literally didn't have a single conversation about it for the hour and a half I was there, other than people saying that it was a topic of conversation."

"It is possible people were talking about Hagel. If there were people talking about it, it was the same five people talking about it in an echo chamber," said one Jewish Democratic partygoer. "It's just an utter fiction that this was the buzz at the party. It didn't happen." The attendee recounted a Rosh Hashanah party thrown by Vice President Joe Biden just after he made public comments against freeing Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard from U.S. prison. According to the source, Jewish leaders including Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations confronted Biden at the podium immediately after his remarks and demanded a meeting about Pollard, which they got. "That was a real concerted and serious effort," the Jewish Democrat said in a Friday interview. "Nothing even close to that last night."

Instead, several attendees reported that the actual "buzz" at the party was all about the so-called fiscal cliff. "The conservation that I thought dominated was the fiscal cliff," said Bend the Arc's Van Capelle, echoing others. "My sense was that most people in that room care about social justice and were talking about the fiscal cliff was because of the 300 rabbis nationwide that signed the letter about supporting the repeal of the Bush tax cuts." That tracks with polls that have shown again and again that the list of American Jews' political priorities focus heavily on domestic issues, especially the economy.  Van Capelle added, "The reality is that I'm in very few conversations where foreign affairs is the topic that's dominating the room."