Slander Watch

Republican Senate Aide Calls Hagel Anti-Semitic

Ali Gharib on an unnamed Senate Republican aide calling former Sen. Chuck Hagel an "anti-Semite."

The debate about the potential and reportedly likely nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) to serve as Barack Obama's next Secretary of Defense has already turned nasty. And so far, at least, it's all about Israel. Jewish leaders at the White House last night for a Chanukah reception raised their objections to Hagel, citing, for example, his criticisms of Israel's 2006 war against Lebanon (an Israeli government-commissioned report also criticized the war, after the fact). But the most despicable of the allegations against Hagel came from an unnamed Republican Senate aide, who called the former senator an anti-Semite in the Weekly Standard. Here's the meat:

"Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite." When asked to elaborate, the aide writes, "Hagel has made clear he believes in the existence of a nefarious Jewish lobby that secretly controls U.S. foreign policy. This is the worst kind of anti-Semitism there is."The top aide Republican Senate aide passes along this quotation from Hagel: “The political reality is that … the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”

A friend of Hagel's, the Washington foreign policy pundit and Washington editor at large for The Atlantic Steve Clemons, berated the accusation: "That's reckless commentary. This is typical, that people get out and slander someone. I find it disgusting that a staffer would do that." Me too, and this unnamed Senate aide and the Weekly Standard ought to be ashamed of themselves.

As the Standard's Daniel Halper—who was against blind quotes before he was for them—notes, the quote from Hagel comes from Wilson Center scholar Aaron David Miller's 2008 book, "The Much Too Promised Land," about Arab-Israeli peace-making. I let Miller know by phone that the passage was seized upon to tar Hagel as an anti-Semite. "Seized upon is an understatement," Miller told me. "It was hijacked." In fact, Miller—a Mideast adviser to six Secretaries of State who no one in their right mind could ever call "anti-Israel"—quotes Hagel approvingly. In the passage, Miller noted that few members of Congress are willing to publicly criticize AIPAC or Israel, but there are a few exceptions. "One who is willing is Chuck Hagel, the two-term Republican senator from Nebraska," Miller wrote. "Of all my conversations, the one with Hagel stands apart for its honesty and clarity." The line introducing the one cherry-picked by this Senate aide, and reproduced uncritically by Halper, begins with this statement from Miller: "Hagel is a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values." I asked Miller if he still viewed Hagel as "pro-Israel." "I don't think there's a Senator of note in the Senate who is not pro-Israel," he responded. "But there is a difference between a special relationship with Israel and an exclusive relationship with Israel. I believe in the former and Chuck Hagel believes the former."

The statement construed by the Senate staffer and Halper as anti-Semitic should not even be controversial. As for the phrasing about a "Jewish lobby," I myself use "pro-Israel community" to describe both the conservative and liberal factions that strongly support Israel, because "Jewish lobby" is too narrow a term that doesn't include, for example, millions of evangelical Christian Israel supporters. Though it must be noted that much of the strongest support for Israel in Washington does indeed come from the organized Jewish community's groups there. Miller, however, didn't hesitate before telling me Hagel's statement was plainly true: "It's one thing to say that the pro-Israeli community in the United States is a powerful voice," Miller said. "It's another to say that the Jewish community has a veto over U.S. foreign policy." This gets at the common strawman that supporters of Israel use to deflect criticisms: criticizing and even discussing the existence of what's now become known colloquially as the "Israel lobby" and its influence is not the same thing as saying that these people and organizations constitute an all-powerful entity that controls Washington. To be sure, some people speak of the pro-Israel community as the latter; it does smack of an old anti-Semitic canard, and its purveyors should be challenged, ridiculed, or ignored. Chuck Hagel, though, is not one of those people: what he actually said bears no resemblance to what Halper's source said he did.

Herein lies the extraordinary irony of the Weekly Standard posting: it embodies the very existence of the phenomenon which Hagel was describing, the use of intimidation to get critics of Israel—by, yes, Israel's staunchest defenders in Washington—to back down, while holding up mention of the same phenomenon to try to scuttle a nominee who, while supportive of Israel, will not toe the line on every demand of America's right-leaning pro-Israel world. "I think Chuck Hagel is strongly pro-Israel in the sense that matters, that he's not going to make ridiculous false choices or play the kind of nomenclature games that people play sometimes," Clemons said. "You've got a very strident small faction of the Israel-concerned people that engages in slander of people to put them off their positions. Hagel is very balanced and he's always talked about Israel's core interests, and refuses to play these games."