Bret Stephens' Evidence Problem

Peter Beinart argues that Bret Stephens lacks the necessary evidence to accuse Chuck Hagel of anti-Semitism.

When it comes to identifying prejudice against African Americans, Hispanics, Arabs, Muslims and gays, Bret Stephens is remarkably restrained. If, during the 2012 campaign, the Wall Street Journal columnist detected any bigotry in Donald Trump’s obsession with Barack Obama’s birthplace or Newt Gingrich’s declaration that Obama is the “food stamp president,” or Herman Cain’s vow not to appoint a Muslim to his cabinet, he didn’t share it with his readers. When Mitt Romney blamed Palestinian “culture” for the discrepancy between Palestinian and Jewish living standards in the West Bank, Stephens ridiculed claims that Romney’s comments were racist and instead enthused that “I’m beginning to warm to Mitt.”

But when it comes to anti-Semitism, Stephens is not quite as machmir. Take his column today entitled “Chuck Hagel’s Jewish Problem,” the first paragraph of which notes that “prejudice—like cooking, wine-tasting and other consummations—has an olfactory element” and that when it comes to Hagel’s statements about Jews “the odor is especially ripe.” Pretty subtle, huh?

So what’s Stephens’ evidence? Two quotations. The first is Hagel’s statement, four years ago, that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.” What Stephens doesn’t tell his readers is that Aaron Miller, the well-respected former peace processor from a distinguished Cleveland Jewish family who quotes Hagel as saying that, also calls him “a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values.” Or that Miller himself writes that “political pressures have taken a serious toll by conditioning a key branch of the American government [Congress] to be reflexively pro-Israel.” Maybe Miller has a Jewish problem too?

Stephens is enraged that Hagel uses the term “Jewish” rather than “Israel” lobby. And it’s true that while some hawkish pro-Israel groups—the American Jewish Committee, for instance—are exclusively Jewish, others like Christians United for Israel, are obviously not. So yes, the groups that lobby for America to support the policies of the Israeli government are substantially, but not exclusively, composed of Jews. And, of course, those groups don’t agree on everything—any more than do the various organizations commonly lumped together as the “gun lobby.” Hagel was imprecise. Call the Anti-Defamation League.

Stephens is similarly enraged that Hagel says that this “Jewish lobby” (better described as “hawkish pro-Israel lobbies”) “intimidates” members of Congress. But Miller says basically the same thing. After all, isn’t that what lobbying groups do? The NRA wants members of Congress to fear that if they vote for gun control, the NRA may help defeat them at the polls. The AFL-CIO wants the same thing. Stephens thinks it outrageous that Hagel “suggests that legislators who adopt positions friendly to that lobby are doing so not from political conviction but out of political fear.” Yes, Chuck Hagel is suggesting that when it comes to Israel—like every other political issue since the dawn of time—some politicians act based on expediency rather than conscience. Someone call the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

That single quotation comprises half of Stephens’ argument that Hagel is an anti-Semite. His other piece of evidence, also from Miller’s book, is Hagel’s statement that “I’m a United States Senator. I’m not an Israeli Senator. I support Israel. But my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States.” Stephens says this constitutes “the usual slur on Jewish-Americans: Dual loyalty.” Nonsense. All Hagel is saying is that although he supports Israel, when American and Israeli interests diverge, he puts American interests first. And like every other two countries on earth, American and Israeli interests do sometimes diverge. A guy named Ronald Reagan said so in 1981, when AIPAC and the Israeli government were lobbying against America’s sale of AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia. “It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy decisions,” Reagan told the press. Was Reagan implying that AIPAC—a largely Jewish organization—was doing the business of “other nations” and thus disloyal to the United States? Luckily for the Gipper, Stephens didn’t write a column back then.

Stephens, as he explains in the second half of his column, doesn’t like Hagel’s views on the Middle East. Fine. That’s a worthwhile debate to have. But using charges of bigotry to, yes, “intimidate” people with whom you disagree about public policy is exactly what drives conservatives batty when it comes to affirmative action, welfare and abortion. And if they want African Americans, feminists and other liberal groups to assume their good faith on those sensitive subjects, conservatives should extend that same good faith—absent overwhelming evidence—to gentiles who don’t share their enthusiasm for Benjamin Netanyahu. That, however, would require them to best Hagel’s arguments in a fair fight. Which is exactly what Bret Stephens won’t—and can’t—do.