The Hagel Finagel: On McCarthyite Attacks

Gil Troy examines McCarthyite attacks on the pro-Israel community as McCarthyite.

A perverse inversion has occurred in the public debate this Christmas holiday. While most Americans were busy sipping eggnog, snogging under mistletoe, or insisting on claiming that the Christmas holidays were simply happy secular vacation-times that just coincide with some Christian celebrations, the mainstream media has been mugging the pro-Israel community for supposedly mugging former Senator Chuck Hagel, Barack Obama’s supposedly wannabe Secretary of Defense.

At a time when the fiscal cliff problem is looming, when Senator John Kerry has already been nominated as Secretary of State, and speculation should be growing about just what Obama will say during his second inaugural address, the New York Times ran two op-ed articles, two days in a row, defending Hagel in hysterical terms. “Don’t Let Pro-Israel Extremists Sink Chuck Hagel,” pleaded James Besser, whose byline only tells us that he used to write for Jewish newspapers. “Give Chuck a Chance,” Thomas Friedman demanded a day earlier, calling much of the opposition to Hagel “disgusting.” In that spirit, this website, Open Zion, has declared open season on the big bad pro-Israel, anti-Hagel, uncivil Jewish wolves, with this week’s biggest feature, offering Open Zion’s “take” on Obama’s Appointments, showcasing Bernard Avishai’s overwrought screed “Hagel and the Neo-McCarthyites.”

Bernie is a fabulous writer I have long admired, a model McGill alumnus, and a new friend. His Jewish reading of the opposition to McCarthyism in the 1950s is sweeping and moving, reminding us of how many Jews stood up in the face of anti-Communist smears, celebrating that “They stood for fairness, patience, and sanity.” Avishai’s essay forced me to rethink my impression of heroes like Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly, whom I have always thought of as motivated by their American values more than their Jewish identities.Alas, all this good work and great talent is applied to make the outrageous—dare I say McCarthyite—accusation “that certain major Jewish organizations, indeed, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations—also, the ADL, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, political groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition, along with their various columnists, pundits, and list-serves—are among the most consistent purveyors of McCarthyite-style outrages in America today.” To make his case, Avishai mentions four cases including Hagel, which stretch back to the 1970s, of individuals who were indeed attacked for being chary about Israel. The first mentioned, Andrew Young, who was fired by Jimmy Carter of all people, for lying about his meeting with the PLO, was no anti-Semite but he was no friend of Israel either. And to make his case that mirror, mirror on the wall, Israel’s defenders are the shrillest of them all, Avishai ignores the shrill criticism the left launched against George W. Bush, the right launched against Barack Obama, the left launched against Ronald Reagan, the right launched against Bill Clinton, and so many left and right launched against Jimmy Carter.

The alleged Neo-McCarthyism Avishai sees has these supposed pro-Israel bullies calling any critic of Israel an anti-Semite. Thomas Friedman goes even further, as he is wont to do these days. He tries to make Hagel’s criticism of Israel and of what Hagel once called the “Jewish lobby,” but at other times calls “the Israel lobby,” proof of Hagel’s great love of Israel and the Jewish people. Using the same mental gymnastics that had him and many other Jewish Democrats elevating Barack Obama from a supporter of Israel to Israel’s “best friend” ever, no, really, really, truly, truly, Friedman writes: “Hagel at least cares enough about Israel to be an exception” to what Friedman contends is an army of cowed ostriches “stick[ing] their heads in the sand” on the Israel issue because they supposedly have been bullied by this big bad Israel lobby.

Whew, it is getting way too easy to lose track of reality in the new Star Chamber that is being constructed here—and there were similarly overwrought pieces in, you guessed it, the Huffington Post, the New Yorker, but even the Jerusalem Post. Just as the secret seventeenth-century British courts degenerated from instruments set up for fair enforcement of laws against aristocrats to politically biased vehicles, just as three centuries later, Bill Clinton brilliantly turned Kenneth Starr’s dogged opposition into proof of presidential innocence, Hagel’s defenders are inverting and perverting the conversation here. Just as they have every right to criticize Israel—and do, consistently—other Americans have every right to defend Israel. And just because there are some shrill voices on both sides of the spectrum should not prompt such a torrent of criticism. In fact, the zeal of those criticizing the Hagel critics has been so great, that the first nine articles I saw when I Googled “Chuck Hagel” and “Israel Lobby” were popularizing the criticism of Hagel in order to knock it down.

Moreover, I read repeatedly that AIPAC was slurring Hagel, yet there is nothing about Hagel on the AIPAC website; I saw no direct quotations from AIPAC officials on Hagel. Attacking individuals or organizations for making statements that some of their associates made but they did not is precisely what McCarthy-style innuendo in the 1950s was all about.

Yes, some in the pro-Israel community jumped on Hagel’s words. Others of us, myself included, argued that Hagel was not an anti-Semite, just a slob, or have advanced many other criticisms of a potential Hagel nomination. The vehemence of Hagel’s defenders has me worrying whether this whole episode, whether or not he becomes Secretary of Defense, will best be understood as the Hagel Finagel—a key moment when those who have been looking to weaken the pro-Israel community deceptively seized on the extreme criticism some pro-Israel Hagel critics made to tar a group of organizations and millions of individuals, whose views are subtler, deeper, and more civil than this (Jewish) Star/Starr Chamber suggests.