Hagel: Not An Anti-Semite, Just A Slob

Gil Troy argues that criticisms of Chuck Hagel are overblown, but there are good reasons to oppose him as Defense Secretary.

Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty Images

The shadow-boxing over the Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense trial balloon has turned ugly—and misleading. Some opponents have accused the former Nebraska Senator of being anti-Semitic, leading Hagel’s defenders to pitch their support for him on the equally simplistic and reductionist grounds that he is not. I think there are many good reasons for opposing Hagel, as I detailed in my recent post. However, I have not seen evidence that he is an anti-Semite.

I reserve the term “anti-Semite,” like the term “anti-Israel,” for those bigots who deserve it. There are too many blatant anti-Semites and anti-Zionists in the world today—and I will not function as their recruitment agent by adding to their ranks. I also refuse to dilute the power of the accusation through inaccurate overuse. Just as calling the nationalist clash between Israelis and Palestinians “racism” and “apartheid” drains those words of their meaning, calling Chuck Hagel anti-Semitic based on two indelicate Jewish-lobby-oriented quotations is rhetorical overkill.

Without rehashing the entire debate, as senator, Hagel was more of an Israel skeptic than an enthusiastic Israel friend, no Ted Kennedy, or John McCain, or Joe Biden, or Hillary Clinton was he. And for that reason, snarky comments about the “Jewish lobby” and about being a “United States Senator” and “not an Israeli Senator” rankle. Prejudice has a pedigree. Just as we winced when Biden as a candidate called Obama “articulate”—because of the twisted history that had many people questioning black people’s brains and eloquence, respectful American leaders should not stir the hornet’s nest around the Israel lobby question.

In researching my Moynihan book, I learned from Malcolm Hoenlein that Shoshana Cardin, the President of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, confronted President George H.W. Bush after his dramatic September 1991 press conference, claiming he was “one lonely little guy” facing “powerful political forces,” after 1,200 Israel activists lobbied Congress seeking loan guarantees to help Israel resettle emigrating Soviet Jews. In a private meeting, Cardin explained that talk of Jewish lobbyists out-muscling the president echoed traditionally bigoted exaggerations about Jewish power. Bush pointed out that he “didn’t use the word ‘Jews.’ ” Cardin explained he did not have to. “Everyone understood that the people you were referring to were Jewish. That’s why the White House switchboard lit up with so many messages of support from anti-Semites.”

“I never intended to hurt anyone,” Bush said, teary-eyed, “Or give encouragement to anti-Semitism.” He then apologized to the American Jewish leaders gathered to meet him.

For that reason, I find Peter Beinart’s parsing of Hagel’s quote too coy. Hagel’s “I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States” and I’m "not an Israeli Senator" had edge to it. He wasn’t simply saying, as Peter argues, “that although he supports Israel, when American and Israeli interests diverge, he puts American interests first.” He was saying, don’t push me around, you aggressive pro-Israel lobbyists, you, who care more about Israel’s interests than America’s.

So I stand by my analysis, that we are talking about Obama-Hagel tone-deafness, not bigotry, that Hagel implied that support for Israel is imposed not authentic, and that Hagel should take responsibility for glib words that convey the impression that he views Israel through a distorted Walt-Mearsheimer lens rather than as a true friend to America.

When President Warren G. Harding was knee-deep in scandal, Alice Roosevelt Longworth said, “Warren’s not a bad man, he is just a slob.” I think you could make a case that Chuck Hagel is not an anti-Semite, but he has been—and may still be—a slob.