On Monday, January 7, Elliott Abrams was interviewed on National Public Radio. During the course of the interview, he referred to Chuck Hagel as an anti-Semite.
I was stunned. I was under the impression that in discussions about Hagel over the last few weeks, a consensus had emerged in the Jewish community that while some may be uncomfortable with the former Senator’s views, he is not an anti-Semite. But Mr. Abrams, a thoughtful man and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, obviously did not agree.
And so I waited. It is a serious matter to call a major figure in American public life an anti-Semite, and if he is an anti-Semite I want to know about it. Surely Abrams would be ready to substantiate his accusation with hard evidence; surely he would back up his words with chapter and verse, explaining why the anti-Semitic label was justified.
But he did no such thing. Instead, he made some references to an article that he had written in The Weekly Standard in which he suggested that some elements of the Nebraska Jewish community saw Hagel as hostile. The article was mostly silly, and what it mostly demonstrated is that certain Jewish leaders in the state were unhappy that they were not getting the attention from the Senator that they thought they deserved. This happens quite a bit with Jewish leaders. What it does not prove, on any level, is that Hagel is an anti-Semite.
Anti-Semitism is a matter of great consequence. There is a lot of anti-Semitism in the world, and much to indicate that it is a growing phenomenon. But to throw the term around without the slightest justification is to do a disservice to Jewish values and Jewish interests; it is to trivialize and politicize a subject that, given our history, Jews must always treat with scrupulous care and great respect. When Jewish leaders among us find an anti-Semite under every bed, they undermine our community’s credibility and make it much harder for us to do the important work that we have to do on behalf of Israel and Jewish concerns around the world.
My own inclination is to be supportive of the Hagel nomination. He is a war veteran and a tough and serious thinker about strategic issues. I have heard him speak powerfully on behalf of Israel, and I am much influenced by voices such as those of Aaron David Miller, who know him well and see him as friendly to Jews and the Jewish state.
I was not happy when Hagel referred to AIPAC as “the Jewish lobby,” but neither did I see this as an issue of importance. True, AIPAC does not consist only of Jews, but of course it is referred to as the “Jewish lobby” all the time. Indeed, on the front page of Israel’s mass circulation daily Yediot Acharonot on January 7, there was a headline mentioning “the Jewish lobby”—and it was not a perjorative reference.
But I am concerned about Hagel’s position on Iran. It is one thing to see a military attack as a last resort; it is another to imply that it should be ruled out altogether. Here, he seems to differ from the views articulated by President Obama; and this is a subject that deserves careful attention at his confirmation hearings.
Yet to Elliott Abrams and others who are now engaged in a campaign to discredit him, my message is this: Hysterical charges of anti-Semitism are out of place and unfair. And because they are so outrageous, they are also counterproductive; they make it less likely that matters that need to be considered will receive the scrutiny they require.