As the confirmation hearings for Chuck Hagel get underway this week, the incoming defense secretary will undoubtedly face numerous questions about his support for Israel and his widely reported past comment about the “Jewish lobby” in America.
That remark has been cited as one of the most damning marks against his record. That the former Nebraska senator once suggested the “Jewish lobby” inappropriately tried to intimidate him has engendered withering criticism both on and off of Capitol Hill. So, too, his remark that he was not the senator from Israel, but the senator from Nebraska.
When Chuck Hagel’s name first surfaced, we were clear that he would not have been our first, second, or even third choice for defense secretary. But he is the president’s choice, and his nomination likely will pass muster with Congress. Sen. Hagel did begin to repair the damage in his letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer and in a meeting with a few of us representing the Jewish community. So we hope he will make additional efforts to repair the damage of his words — more on that in a moment.
Let’s first look at why it is so wrong and disturbing to hear the term “Jewish lobby” used in the context of excessive Jewish power. The term “Jewish lobby” and even “Israel lobby” is often employed in a highly derogatory context and even in conspiratorial ways.
There is, unfortunately, a tragic history connected with this theme, mostly in the 20th century. Part of that history was the infamous document known as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the Czarist forgery which claimed to be the secret plans by Jews to take over the world. It was used by Hitler to justify the Holocaust. It was disseminated in America by Henry Ford in his newspaper, “The Dearborn Independent.” And, sadly, it continues to resonate in the current world.
More recently, two well-known professors, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University, though carefully avoiding the term “Jewish lobby” in their 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy accused supporters of Israel (read: Jews) of dominating and controlling American Middle East policy to America’s detriment. Former President Jimmy Carter often talks about excessive Jewish control over U.S. policymaking. And it is a bow in the quiver of every major anti-Semite on the world scene, from Minister Louis Farrakhan to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Those ideas convey anti-Semitic beliefs. Our recent polling on anti-Semitism found that 14 percent of the American public agrees with the statement that “Jews have too much power in the U.S. today.” Moreover, nearly 30 percent of Americans accept the notion that Jews “are more loyal to Israel than to America,” a level that has remained virtually unchanged for nearly 50 years.
When one refers to the “Jewish lobby” rather than the “Israel lobby” advocating for Israel, it inevitably conjures up an image that the main support of Israel in America comes from the Jewish community.
Let’s be clear: Israel has been and continues to be a priority concern for American Jews and American Jewish organizations. It is a source of pride that we engage in extensive legitimate educational and policy activity on behalf of the Jewish state. Yet, poll after poll shows that U.S. support for Israel runs deep among the American people.
Perhaps former Secretary of State George P. Shultz put it best: In the foreword to my book, The Deadliest Lies, Schultz wrote that while Jewish groups are influential, the idea of Jewish control of U.S. policy has no resemblance to the way policy is actually made. Many factors go into Middle East policymaking, and the Jewish factor is just one, and not a dominant one. He wrote that, “ . .. the notion that these groups have anything like a uniform agenda, and that U.S. policy on Israel and the Middle East is the result of their influence, is simply wrong.”
I hope that through his confirmation process, Sen. Hagel will make it clear that, more than the regret he has expressed for his words, he understands why his remark about “a powerful Jewish lobby” was so offensive. Hagel needs to reassure the American people and the Jewish community that as our secretary of defense he will represent longstanding U.S. policy as a staunch ally of Israel in times of calm and crisis.
Most important, he needs to make clear that America’s strong alliance with Israel is not the product of a powerful Jewish lobby, but rather the result of a broad-based, bipartisan support for Israel that is predicated in the reality of Israel as a steadfast ally in America’s fight against terrorism and as a vital, reliable, stabilizing force in the Middle East.