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The Conservative Curmudgeon
January 15, 2013

The Neo-Conservative Assault on Chuck Hagel:
The Politics of Character Assassination

by Allan C. Brownfeld
fitzgerald griffin foundation

ALEXANDRIA, VA — When former Senator Chuck Hagel, a conservative Republican from Nebraska, was nominated by President Obama to be Secretary of Defense, he was promptly subjected to a withering attack by neoconservatives, the people who so eagerly promoted war with Iraq and are now promoting a pre-emptive war with Iran. They have rushed to the barricades to oppose his selection. Their tactics, and the arguments against Hagel, are the ones they usually employ against anyone who challenges their views, among them the charges of being "anti-Israel" and, far worse, "anti-Semitic."

The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens fired the opening shot with a column entitled, "Chuck Hagel's Jewish problem." The first paragraph notes, "Prejudice — like wine tasting and other consummations — has an olfactory element. " When it comes to Hagel's criticism of the influence of the pro-Israel lobby, "the odor is especially ripe."

The Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman declared, "The sentiments Hagel expressed about the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism." Elliott Abrams, a promoter of the war in Iraq while a member of the Bush administration and now an advocate of pre-emptive war with Iran, reported — with no evidence whatever — that Hagel's interactions with Jews in Nebraska were characterized by anti-Semitism.

What some of Hagel's critics, such as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, another neoconservative advocate of war with Iran, found an indication of "anti-Semitism," was Hagel's use of the term "Jewish lobby." Hagel lamented the inordinate influence of that lobby in determining U.S. Middle East policy.

The fact is that Chuck Hagel holds traditional conservative Republican views about America's role in the world. For this reason, he has been endorsed by such Republican foreign and defense policy specialists as Robert Gates, James Baker, Colin Powell, and Brent Scowcroft. The false charge of anti-Semitism is simply a neoconservative tactic to silence opposition to their agenda of involving our country in unnecessary and costly wars. Chuck Hagel is a decorated war hero. The neoconservatives who so eagerly promote war have never themselves seen fit to serve their country in combat.

It is instructive to see the many Jewish voices that have been raised in defense of Chuck Hagel. With regard to the use of the term "Jewish lobby," Henry Siegman, who formerly headed the Synagogue Council of America and the American Jewish Congress, notes , "Since AIPAC's creation in 1951... the organization was referred to by everyone in the Jewish community as 'the Jewish lobby for Israel.' And to this day, Jewish establishment organizations constitute virtually AIPAC's entire organizational membership.  The suggestion... that his (Hagel's) reference to AIPAC as 'the Jewish lobby' is 'hurtful to Jews'… is not only untrue but also a cynical exploitation of the issue of anti-Semitism for the narrowest political purposes."

When it comes to the charge that Hagel had been hostile to Jews in Nebraska, there is not only no evidence for such a charge, but not a single Jewish resident of Nebraska has come forward to confirm this accusation. Gary Javitch, a Jewish activist in Omaha who sharply disagrees with Hagel on foreign policy questions, declared, "He never demonstrated anything like that (antipathy to Jews) in all the meetings I had with him." The Rabbi of Omaha's largest synagogue also defended Hagel against this false charge.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen declares, "The most depressing aspect of Hagel's nomination... has been the unremitting and underhanded attack on him, especially the imputation of anti-Semitism.... I thought the day had long passed when a skeptical attitude toward this or that Israeli policy would trigger charges of anti-Semitism. The accusation is so powerful — so freighted with images of the Holocaust — that it tends to silence all but the bravest or the most foolish.... The article that implied Hagel was a touch anti-Semitic.... suggested Hagel...‛had the odor' of prejudice.... If there is an odor here… it is not the rancid stench of anti-Semitism but instead of character assassination."

Time Magazine columnist Joe Klein said that the charge of anti-Semitism "is a bullying canard that has been thrown about with increasing frequency, and sloppiness, by American supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud government. In Hagel's case, it means that he has opposed the continued illegal settlements on Palestinian lands, a position held by every American President since Johnson. This imaginary offense was compounded by some plain talk about the power of the Israel lobby.... I'm Jewish, and AIPAC doesn't speak for me."

Indeed, the assault on Chuck Hagel shows us that his comments about the pro-Israel lobby and its tactic of intimidation are accurate.  New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman pointed out that the standing ovation that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu received from Congress in 2012 did nor represent genuine support for his policies; instead, it was "bought and paid for" by the pro-Israel lobby.

Whether Chuck Hagel should be approved by the Senate is a question that should be decided on the basis of a careful examination of his record, his views, and his plans for the Department of Defense. Neoconservatives who oppose him seem inclined to pursue a campaign of character assassination and false charges of anti-Semitism rather than a discussion of the important foreign policy and defense questions before us — issues about which honorable men and women may disagree sharply. This campaign tells us far more about them than it does about Chuck Hagel. Tactics of this kind demean our democratic process, and those who employ them should pay a price.    
Neoconservatives who oppose him seem inclined to pursue a campaign of character assassination and false charges of "anti-Semitism" rather than a discussion of the important foreign policy and defense questions before us, about which honorable men and women may sharply disagree.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2013 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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