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The Chuck Hagel affair and the American 'pro-Israel' litmus test

In the controversy over Obama’s candidate for the next U.S. Secretary of Defense, the right-wing American Jewish elite has once again asserted that the term ‘pro-Israel’ is a code word in Washington for, among other things, a belligerent foreign policy on Iran and enabling Israeli occupation. 

“Pro-Israel” rally, during Gaza offensive, New York Nov 20, 2012 (asterix611/CC BY NC ND 2.0)

The sheer volume of articles that have appeared in American media over the last few weeks surrounding Obama’s potential appointment of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as next U.S. Secretary of Defense is astonishing. Everywhere you turn, there are reports, op-eds, features and blogs about Hagel. It almost feels like the issue is making more noise than the “Israel firster” fiasco a year ago.

That may be because the same far-right Emergency Committee for Israel that led the smear campaign against the Center for American Progress and Media Matters is now leading the same witch-hunt against Hagel, labeling him anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic. They are joined by hawkish Republicans, conservative pundits and, of course, the ADL and others within the so-called “pro-Israel” American Jewish establishment, who are all ganging up on Hagel because he has expressed foreign policy positions on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that do not line up with the AIPAC/GOP ideology.

This is not the first time “pro-Israel” leadership has defamed a public official – or even a Republican one. AIPAC did it to Charles Percy in 1984, and to Paul Findley in 1982, and, 30 years later, they are still going strong.

As Benard Avishai writes,

It is time to acknowledge, bluntly, 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.

As I have written many times in the past, Israel has become a major wedge issue in American politics. In fact, the very first post I ever wrote on +972 more than two years ago addressed the problematic use of the term “pro-Israel.” In the last two years, it has only gained more explosive political traction, as its definition is increasingly monopolized and leveraged by the abovementioned major American Jewish organizations. This was most recently evident by the Obama-Romney election and the way Israel was utilized to try to defame the all too “pro-Israel” Obama by a variety of groups, from the Republican Jewish Coalition using Prime Minister Netanyahu as a poster boy in their election campaign, to Ron Lauder and his iVoteIsrael campaign.

Thanks to this right-wing American Jewish elite, the term “pro-Israel” has become a code word in Washington for, among other things, a belligerent foreign policy on Iran and of course enabling Israeli occupation and the country’s holistic shift to the right. Thanks to them, any criticism of Israeli policies is tantamount to being “anti-Israel.” Thanks to them, anti-Semitism has become a cheap insult devoid of meaning. Thanks to them, by engaging in such vitriolic attacks against American public officials in order to sway policies, these Jewish groups look like they are actually trying to embody the worst myths of anti-Semitism levied against Jews in history: that we are working relentlessly to exert global control through the channels of media and politics.

More than just neo-McCarthyism, this is a deep-seated clash of ideologies with global consequences: One one side, roughly, is the “pro-Israel” right – hawkish Republicans, the Christian right and, by default, the Israeli government and its destructive policies. On the other side is are left-wing think tanks, media organizations and journalists, a handful of Democrats and Republicans, a few vocal American Jewish organizations and figures, and of course President Obama (although only as regards his rhetoric, not his actions).

This deep division originates in and is propagated by the American Jewish establishment, first and foremost AIPAC, and by extension, the State of Israel. It is between those that interpret their Jewish identity as the state of being in constant fear, understanding their possibility for a secure existence only through force, and those who understand anti-Semitism is still alive and kicking, but refuse to let it dictate their lives.

As Brent Sasley put it, “as the struggle over how to define ‘pro-Israel’ continues into 2013, nothing less than the very identity of the American Jewish community is at stake.” This division over Israel has been a defining characteristic of the American Jewish community since Israel’s establishment. In recent years, though, it has permeated American politics to the point that the “pro-Israel” paradigm is being aired out in almost every major American political event.

The Chuck Hagel affair not only highlights the very palpable divisions that cut across American Jewry –  from Bill Kristol to Abraham Foxman, to Peter Beinart, to Judith Butler – but also the new political and ideological alignments being formed in America, where your stance on Israel is a major litmus test.

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    1. aristeides

      It stretches the limits of irony.

      The Lobby has pledged to destroy Hagel’s nomination because he once said that the Lobby destroys nominations. Way to prove that US politics is controlled by the agents of a foreign power.

      Reply to Comment
    2. I agree that the “pro-Israel” group is becoming more and more fascist. But that is unavoidable when you based a country on nationalism, as occurred with Zionism. The longer any such country exists, the more its initial contradictions appear; which were all there from the beginning, just not clearly seen. This has happened everywhere nationalism took over: Nazi Germany, fascist Spain and Italy, I propose all communistic countries, Serbia, Bosnian Serbs, etc..

      I further propose this fascism will more and more predominate, until a majority of Israelis realize Zionism doesn’t work, and move toward a secular, one-state, multicultural, free enterprise Palestine.

      You should realize the Hagel situation is a tempest in a tea pot, since there is nothing authentic a secretary of Defense can do; that office is exclusively a manifestation of the administration’s view on any one issue.

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        The issue here is when the self-appointed leadership of American Jews will recognize the corruption of Israel and set America free.

        Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Every European country with the potential exception of Great Britain was built on nationalism. This includes France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland and every *single* other state on the continent. It also includes pretty much every state in East Asia. The lessons you seem to draw are based on a very selective reading of history.

        The majority of Israelis will discard Zionism as a driving ideology once peace is established and it has outlived its usefulness given that this is what happened in Europe as well. At that point we can determine the best nature for the state, but let’s not pretend that France became France in the first place out of a multicultural approach. There are dozens of dead languages and millions of dead that died for ‘France’ that are clear evidence to the contrary. Even in Europe this process isn’t exactly going great. What percentage of Germans see the German-born descendants of Turkish immigrants as ‘Germans’ in anything more than just citizenship?

        Reply to Comment
    3. Kafantaris

      There is nothing wrong with Chuck Hagel taking Panetta’s job. Hagel is not only competent but also a true American who calls things as he sees them — and when he sees them.
      When he is wrong, as anybody who speaks his mind often is, Hagel acknowledges it and moves on.
      Accommodating Israel at every turn is not a prerequisite to being a U.S Secretary of Defense. Those who want to make it one should reflect that if Israel had its way we would be bombing Iran by now. With Hagel’s help on the intelligence advisory board we are accomplishing more in the Middle East by letting the people who live and die there determine their own destiny. Things are not pretty now, but chaos precedes order, as Nietzsche said.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Philos

      As if to further your point, Mairav, the Simon Wiesenthal Center published it’s list of top 10 anti-Semites. Unfortunately, they’ve conflated anti-Israel with anti-Semitism, and included some people who wrote (or drew for the #3 slot!) merely anti-Israel content without anything overtly anti-Semitic about the content they included to back-up their claims.
      It’s pathetic that a Brazilian cartoonist who drew a picture of Bibi bilking Operation Phallus of Defense for votes is considered more anti-Semitic than Jobbik, Golden Dawn or Svoboda. These are all fascist neo-Nazi political parties that sit in parliament’s of their respective countries…

      Reply to Comment
    5. Khaled Khalid

      “… these Jewish groups look like they are actually trying to embody the worst myths of anti-Semitism levied against Jews in history: that we are working relentlessly to exert global control through the channels of media and politics.”

      Ami, brilliant analysis. Great piece of writing….just Wow.
      Of course the irony is lost on any Israeli Tea Party types.

      Reply to Comment
    6. It sadly resembles the Richard Falk affair… Some people seem to be panicking these days.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Khaled Khalid

      Sorry Mairav
      I wrote “Ami” by mistake.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Nugsters

      An old man in Gaza held a placard that read: “You take my water, burn my olive trees, destroy my house, take my job, steal my land, imprison my father, kill my mother, bombard my country, starve us all, humiliate us all, but I am to blame: I shot a rocket back.”

      Reply to Comment
    9. Neil Berro

      There is something chilling about Hagel’s iconoclastic and isolationist tone. As an American I reserve the right to form my own judgment and do need leftists or those from the right for that matter telling me what is good.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Besides accepting an Iranian nuclear weapons program even if Iran obtains ICBMS aimed at America, there are many many reasons besides Israel and Anti Semitism issues that make Chuck Hagel a very poor choice.

      Hagel’s troglodyte record on gay rights is still an issue even though President Obama finds it very inconvenient as he would like to nominate Hagel tomorrow.

      I hope the President will not risk the political cost of loosing the confirmation battle on this terrible choice.

      It’s not only about what he said many years ago, but that he has not come out for any specific or general commitment to equality for gay military families.

      In general for gays to accept Hagel, he must say that he would like to see DOMA overturned at the Supreme Court.

      But there are many ways a Secretary of Defense could help gay military families no matter how DOMA is decided and Hagel has not come out in favor of any of these.

      Reports to the contrary, LGBT equality is not yet a done deal in the military. There is still the matter of partner benefits. There still remain a handful of regulations that could be revised independent of the Defense of Marriage act that could bring some equity of compensation and benefits to gay and lesbian service members. but remain denied due only to Department of Defense foot-dragging:

      Included in the discretionary benefits currently denied are spousal identication cards, cited in the Pentagon’s own Working Group study as not requiring DOMA repeal to deliver.

      Presiident Obama should also condider
      that besides the bad politics of alienating Democrats by not choosing, Flournoy, a great Democratic manager, many people familiar with Hagel say he is a poor manager.

      Hagel has drawn additional heat from insiders who claim he lacks the credentials needed to manage a department as large and essential as the Pentagon.

      “Yes, Hagel has crazy positions on several key issues. Yes, Hagel has said things that are borderline anti-Semitism. Yes, Hagel wants to gut the Pentagon’s budget. But above all, he’s not a nice person and he’s bad to his staff,” said a senior Republican Senate aide who has close ties to former Hagel staffers.

      “Hagel was known for turning over staff every few weeks—within a year’s time he could have an entirely new office because nobody wanted to work for him,” said the source. “You have to wonder how a man who couldn’t run a Senate office is going to be able to run an entire bureaucracy.”

      Others familiar with Hagel’s 12 year tenure in the Senate said he routinely intimidated staff and experienced frequent turnover.

      “Chuck Hagel may have been collegial to his Senate colleagues but he was the Cornhusker wears Prada to his staff, some of whom describe their former boss as perhaps the most paranoid and abusive in the Senate, one who would rifle through staffers desks and berate them for imagined disloyalty,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser on Iran and Iraq. “He might get away with that when it comes to staffers in their 20s, but that sort of personality is going to go over like a ton of bricks at the Pentagon.”

      Multiple sources corroborated this view of Hagel.

      “As a manager, he was angry, accusatory, petulant,” said one source familiar with his work on Capitol Hill. “He couldn’t keep his staff.”

      “I remember him accusing one of his staffers of being ‘f—ing stupid’ to his face,” recalled the source

      As for Israel you are engaging in Mcarthy like tacticts of painting all pro-Israel Hagel opponents as far right wing and Likud neo cons.

      Most Jews who oppose Hagel now voted for President Obama, favor a just two state compromise, and a negotiated agreement with Iran that prevents Israel from getting nuked.

      That is the same policy as the Presidents.

      Reply to Comment