Only Part of the Story: The Smearing of Chuck Hagel

January 26, 2013   ·   0 Comments

Source: NYTX

Chuck Hagel

By Murray Polner:

“Israel Vows To Use Veto Power If Chuck Hagel Confirmed As U.S. Secretary of Defense.”
–the Onion, Jan. 8, 2013.

The above headline was a typical Onion gag but like so many of its sarcastic pieces it contained a measure of truth.

Not long after an advertisement was placed in the Times by the neoconservative Emergency Committee for Israel, which read “Who is Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s Anti-Israel Nominee for Secretary of Defense?” ECI is run by William Kristol (remember when he was a Times Op Ed columnist?), and Gary Bauer, a former Reagan staffer and fervent Christian supporter of Israel. Extreme as the ad was, it wasn’t too different from the ADL’s Abraham Foxman who was so upset he called the possibility of Hagel becoming Secretary of Defense  “disturbing” and “troubling” because “He has a checkered past on Israel,” meaning  he had not been an unquestioning backer of all Israeli policies.  Hagel once had the effrontery to say “I am an American senator, not an Israeli senator,” something that really stung his opponents. “That is really the crux of the matter,” wrote Uri Avnery, the veteran Israeli leftist, peacenik and political writer who knows that any American politician daring to criticize Israel is flirting with loss of donations, a possible primary challenge, and near- certain political suicide.

Actually, the ad and Foxman had it right. The battle over Hagel’s nomination was never about his comments about a “bloated” Defense budget or his inane and insulting remark about gays –for which he publicly apologized.  It was always about Israel and the automatic support demanded by its most ardent defenders. Hagel’s transgression was that he had once publically referred to AIPAC and by implication the Israel Lobby. He even mistakenly called it the Jewish Lobby ignoring that while it is predominantly Jewish it is reinforced by impassioned Christian Zionists, hard-line conservatives, many liberal Democrats and even Presidents.

The frenzied clash that followed rumors of Obama’s nomination of Hagel may well have initially been a bit delicate for the editorial board of the Times with its well-educated and informed Jewish readership. It published only one editorial during the heat of the battle but to its credit it vigorously supported Hagel and excoriated his “dishonest” enemies. More backing in the paper came from Thomas Friedman, a longtime critic of the Israeli right, continued coverage by Mark Landler, and especially Jim Rutenberg’s piece on Hagel’s neocon detractors, a number of whom smeared him as anti-Semitic, a favorite ploy of extremist “pro-Israel” types who equate any and all criticism of Israel with hatred of all Jews; non-Jewish critics are denounced as anti-Semites and Jewish critics stigmatized as self-hating Jews.

A second Times full-page anti-Hagel ad was posted soon after by the minuscule gay Log Cabin Republicans, who had never before shown any public concern for Israel. Writing in the Guardian (UK), Glenn Greenwald, the tenacious civil liberties writer, interviewed LCR’s Executive Director R. Clark Cooper, who told him the ad “is being funded by  number of donors” he refused to identify. That anonymous people paid for the anti-Hagel ad was something the Washington-based Times staff could just as easily determined. Greenwald added: “What makes this all the more inexplicable is that, a couple of weeks before the LCR ad was placed, the very same R. Clark Cooper spoke out in praise of Hagel in the “Gay City News.”

Myra MacPherson, author of the impressive “Long Times Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation,” published a Times Op Ed” in support of Hagel. “No doubt some armchair militarists on the Hill” —she could just as well have added those safely situated in AIPAC, ADL and Weekly Standard offices – were offended that Hagel, a wounded Vietnam combat veteran, had once said “There is no glory in war” and “We cannot stay as an occupying force in the Middle East, which is essentially what we are,” judgments that in part help explain the sharp attacks on him.  A few years ago he upset living room warriors itching to attack Iran (with, of course, other parent’s kids) when he said, “A military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.”  To which, Stephen Kinzer, a former Times correspondent, commented in the Guardian (UK) that “Challenging orthodoxy is a death sentence in Washington.”

Despite the Times’ coverage and editorial it rarely considers alternative, especially dissenting, American Jewish individuals and groups for comments and coverage about Israel rather than relying on “Jewish leaders” as the paper invariably describes them. In truth, virtually all are chosen by small closed groups, wholly dependent on wealthy donors in whose name and interests they speak.

Indeed. many of the “pro-Israel’ groups are no more than names on letterheads, some without any paid members. Their new rivals, The Israel Policy Forum, J Street, and Jewish Voices for Peace among others backed Hagel but were barely noticed in the Times. The paper took omitted a report by Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, a new progressive Israeli think tank, which deplored Israel’s “self-appointed supporters” in the U.S. while defending Hagel. “We believe that those who have Israel’s real interest at heart should applaud his nomination.”

“I think the lobby has a demographic problem,” says M.J. Rosenberg, a freelance columnist who once worked for AIPAC and is now considered an apostate for revealing how the group works and gets results. “Every poll shows the baby boomers are less interested in Israel than their parents, the WWII ‘greatest generation’ but even more striking is that the boomers’ kids, people in their 30’s and younger, are far less interested than their parents. “Israel,” he says, “is no longer a central concern of young Jews. That is reflected in the American Jewish  Committee poll which shows that less than 5% vote on the basis of Israel. Today, politicians think the way to a Jew’s heart and pocketbook is through Israel. Soon enough they will understand that the way is through social justice issues here in America. From my experience, Jewish kids are offended when anyone assumes that their main concern is Israel. It isn’t. And even Congress will grasp that soon enough. The lobby is an anachronism.”

Twenty-three years ago the late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, one of the American Jewry’s genuine religious and secular  Zionist intellectuals, said much the same thing.  What had happened, he said in 1990,  “is an organized and aging half moving right and a younger, more liberal group increasingly abandoning Jewish organizations and declining to offer financial support.” The Israel Lobby has serious problems, something of enormous potential importance that should interest the Times.

The American Jews Rosenberg and Hertzberg referred to gave Obama 70% of their vote in 2012 even though Netanyahu’s government preferred Romney. They are the group that Peter Beinart was writing about in his perceptive book “The Crisis of Zionism,” which did not receive a favorable review in the Sunday Times Book Review. They are the group who will not be bullied by rightwing rich donors who back the Jewish establishment and the pro-settler, annexationist zealots among them.

What did Beinart write which so upset critical “pro-Israel” readers and reviewers? For one thing, he complained about the “pro-Israel” establishment’s abandonment of their historic defense of working people, minority rights, civil liberties and democracy. Now it is Israel all the time. He warned about “the refusal to accept that in both America and Israel we live in an age not of Jewish weakness, but of Jewish power, and that without moral vigilance, Jews will abuse power just as hideously as anyone else.” In other words, Jews are no longer victims.

But, then, has the Hagel fight really demonstrated that the Israel Lobby and its neocon friends are “generals without armies,” as liberal Eric Alterman recently put it in The Nation?  The NRA, Oil, corporate, and Cuban lobbies have been studied and tracked by the Times. Why not then the Israel Lobby?

Perhaps the Times needs to interview skeptics  M.J. Rosenberg, James Besser, longtime Washington correspondent for American Jewish newspapers, Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street, Cecile Surasky of the Jewish Voice for Peace,  Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, and, especially, Rabbi Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America and now President of the U.S. Middle East Project, who recently expressed his overlooked views in a letter to The Times where he wrote that Hagel’s “skepticism of military solutions to all problems resonates far more authentically prophetic Jewish values than the reflexive support offered by the Israel lobby to the most extreme militaristic polices of this Israeli government.”

Mark Landler’s Jan. 23rd piece in the Times reported that Hagel, perhaps seeking to make nice before his confirmation hearings, met with AIPAC, the ADL and other Jewish groups “to try to ease their concerns,” according to Landler. Citing an anonymous official, Landler reported that in meetings with congressional representatives, “Mr. Hagel has sounded a more hawkish tone on issues like American sanctions on Iran, about which he had once been skeptical.”

Does this mean that Hagel is now learning to behave, Washington style? Did he also meet with Kristol and Co.? Have the pressures on him been too great? It’s a continuing story that also requires the close attention of Times editors and reporters.


Murray Polner was editor of Present Tense, a liberal Jewish magazine published for 17 years by the American Jewish Committee. He has written and edited four books on Jewish life.


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