December 22, 2012 · 6 Comments
By Murray Polner:
There’s a not-so-subtle war raging against former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, a twice-wounded Vietnam veteran, who is rumored to be President Obama’s choice as Secretary of Defense. When word leaked out articles and editorials appeared in newspapers such as the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. The Wall Street Journal has run two Op Eds—both highly critical of Hagel—and another, an evenhanded article by Peter Nicholas and Julian E. Barnes (12/21) covering the growing Republican opposition. So far, for the New York Times, it is apparently a minor and inconsequential story on the Washington scene: two articles, the second essentially irrelevant, but no editorial denouncing or supporting Hagel’s possible candidacy. Not even an Op Ed, attacking or defending Hagel’s reputation.
Mark Landler’s initial Times article on December 19 was fair enough, raising the question of whether Hagel is sufficiently supportive of Israel and whether there is in fact an Israel lobby which has the power to coerce politicians. In an interview with Aaron David Miller, a veteran American diploma writing a book, Hagel once unfortunately mentioned the Jewish rather than Israel lobby, a mistake for which he promptly apologized, given that the lobby contains many non-Jews. But he also said, “I’m a United States senator, not an Israeli senator.”
The article went on to quote the ubiquitous Abraham Foxman of the ADL (aren’t there any other Jews available for quotes? Landler did manage to find a lesser known group called the Israel Project to quote, apparently not a Hagel backer). He also cited anonymous Jewish “leaders,” many of whom represent “pro-Israel” groups, few of whom have any paid members though they seem to present themselves as speaking for all American Jews, which by no means is the case. Landler did quote Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street, another pro-Israel group which, like the Israel Policy Forum, supports Hagel. Landler’s follow-up piece two days later dealt almost entirely with Hagel’s negative past record on gay rights.
But that’s hardly why Hagel’s been assailed with such vehemence. Yes, he has long seen the Pentagon budget as far too swollen and yes, he has called for a go-slow approach to Iran. “He has a checkered past on Israel,” Foxman told Landler. “At the least, it’s disturbing; at worst, it’s troubling.”
But the key reason why neoconservatives and American Jewish organizations who rarely if ever seriously question any Israeli policies are furious may be that Hagel dared mention out loud the words “Israel lobby” which supposedly “intimidates” politicians, editors and journalists. As a former AIPAC writer, M.J. Rosenberg, who is now viewed as a turncoat by some of the same people who condemn Hagel, put it this way: “The reason is because he dared to refer to the existence of the Israel Lobby.” Then, too, to those of Hagel’s critics who believe Israel’s interests are America’s as well, it renders him potentially anti-Israel.
Hagel does have some defenders. The New Republic’s John Judis, William Buckley’s biographer, wrote “Don’t Let Chuck Hagel’s Hardline Israel Critics Sink His Nomination. In the Atlantic, James Fallows takes aim at neoconservatives and others in “The Bogus Case Against Chuck Hagel.” The uproar caught Michael Cohen’s eye in The Guardian (12/20), writing: “…it was the self-appointed protectors of Israel who determined Hagel suspect because he finds the efforts of the pro-Israel lobby to punish any public official who diverges from the notion that Israel can do no wrong somewhat problematic.” Cohen adds that “the ‘pro-Israel’ lobby is both predominantly Jewish and intimidating to politicians is a surprise, of course, to no-one who lives inside the Beltway.”
Yet where is the Times in all this? Trembling in editorial fear or busy assigning a team of crack reporters to investigate? To date, in addition to the two articles there have been no editorial, no Op Eds, no news analyses. Is not the existence of a powerful pro-Israel pressure group newsworthy? Perhaps even a well-researched magazine piece like the one that recently carved up Oliver Stone’s book “The Untold History of the U.S.”? If the NRA, oil lobby, Cuban lobby and all the other lobbies aren’t off-limits why is the Israel lobby? How and in what forms does it operate? To what extent does it or doesn’t it play a significant role in shaping American foreign policy? Peter Beinart’s book “The Crisis of Zionism” (which didn’t receive a rave review in the Times’ Book Review) is not especially loved in many quarters (he was recently banned from speaking in Atlanta) because he denies that American Jews are no longer victims but do have power, “and that without moral vigilance, Jews will abuse power just as hideously as anyone else.” So why is the Times consistently silent about these issues?
And if the Times is absent from the conversation the same may be said about our President, who recently allowed Susan Rice to withdraw from a possible role as Hillary Clinton’s successor before withering, often unfair Republican criticism? To their credit, Nicholas and Barnes in the WSJ give ample space to Zbigniew Brzezinski who blames the President for permitting the disparagement of Hagel to mushroom. “I find that, unfortunately, a symptom of being not willing to stand up for people you want to surround yourself with. That’s not a good way to protect presidential territory.”
Nor is it a good way for the Times to protect its journalistic territory—and integrity.
Murray Polner served as editor of Present Tense for 18 years, a magazine published by the American Jewish Committee. He is the author and editor of four books about Jewish life and culture.