AJC Leaves Out Context Of Hagel Letters

Ali Gharib on how the AJC's David Harris gave a mistaken impression that Chuck Hagel was soft on anti-Semitism.

American Jewish Committee chief David Harris yesterday released an e-mail to that arbiter of fair reporting, the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin. In the e-mail, the AJC came out against Chuck Hagel's potential nomination as Defense Secretary, citing a years-long growing "concern" with Hagel's positions. The missive, which seems to be published in full, began with this trip down memory lane:

The first AJC encounter with Sen. Hagel I recall was when we sought his support, in 1999, for a Senate letter to then Russian President Boris Yeltsin urging action against rising anti-Semitism. We were unsuccessful. On June 20, 1999, we published the letter as a full-page ad in The New York Times with 99 Senate signatories. Only Sen. Hagel’s name was absent.

Harris then took the letter story other outlets. But what we don't get from Rubin or Harris is why exactly Hagel refused to affix his name to the letter. Who doesn't oppose Russian anti-Semitism? The answer, when it comes to the Senate in 1999, is "No one." Though Hagel didn't sign the letter, the reason had nothing to do with his views on anti-Semitism: a spokesperson for his office said at the time, in the words of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, that Hagel had a "policy not to send letters to foreign heads of state regarding their domestic policy." Deb Fiddelke, the spokesperson, explained that Hagel's absence had nothing whatsoever to do with the content of the letter: "Anti-Semitism and discrimination in any form should not be tolerated," she told JTA.How do we know Hagel was really opposed to anti-Semitism? Well, his record of letters, actually. In 2002, three years after the AJC letter the Yeltsin, Hagel signed another letter urging action against anti-Semitism in Europe and the Arab media—only this letter was not to a foreign head of state, but rather to then-President George W. Bush. "Ninety-nine senators expressed concern Friday over anti-Semitism in Europe and in the Arab media and urged President Bush to address the issue," said an Associated Press report about the letter. The letter signed by Hagel (PDF), which was spearheaded by Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), read: "We urge you and your Administration to make every effort possible to raise, at the highest level, our concerns about anti-Semitic acts in Europe and anti-Semitic portrayals in the Arab media." That, apparently, is how Hagel thought it worked: you urge your own President, who is tasked by the constitution to make foreign policy, to raise it with, as Levin's press release had it, the "highest level of those governments."