A Bagel with Hagel? Not If You Are an American Jewish “Leader”

By Shalom Goldman, Duke University

Ever since the name of Chuck Hagel was floated by the Obama White House as a possible appointment to the post of Secretary of Defense, conservative Republicans have been telling us that the former Nebraska senator was the worst possible choice for the job. Particularly pointed were the remarks of Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said that, “Chuck Hagel, if confirmed to be the secretary of defense, would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history.”

Senator Graham’s outburst was preceded by a barrage of negative views about Hegel on Fox news and other conservative outlets. In these comments Hagel was portrayed as ‘soft’ on America’s enemies, particularly on Iran.

Strange words indeed about a former legislator who is a decorated Vietnam veteran, one who would be, as President Obama remarked, the first Secretary of Defense to be a combat veteran. Announcing his nomination of Hagel, Obama said, “As I saw during our visits together to Afghanistan and Iraq, the troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength. They see one of our own.”

But among many Republicans, and among so-called ‘pro-Israel’ pundits, Obama’s appeal to patriotism has fallen on deaf ears. The chorus of objections to Hagel’s confirmation and appointment grows louder every day.

Joining this vociferous chorus of nay-sayers to the Hagel nomination, though a little belatedly, are the self-appointed “spokesmen” of America Jews. As American Jewry is known for being quite fractious, it may come as a surprise to observers that there are spokesmen for such a diverse and opinionated group. Unlike American Catholics or members of the mainline Protestant denominations, the American Jewish community has no official hierarchy or representative body. There is a Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations—with fifteen constituent members—but this is an umbrella organization of charities and advocacy groups, not a body that can speak with any sanctioned authority.

Despite this lack of central authority, a leadership best described as a “checkbook leadership” has emerged, a leadership shaped by money and political influence, not by piety, sagacity, or scholarship. In fact there is something of an inverse ratio at work here. The more these public figures assert to know about what is “good for the Jews,” the less they know about Judaism the religion, or about the Hebrew language and Jewish texts.

But these “leaders,” who, it must be acknowledged, have no pretensions to scholarship or piety, do claim to know what is best for Israel’s interests. And curiously, their often belligerent aims and claims about what is best for the Jewish state often clash with what Israeli experts think and say. To borrow an image from another religious tradition, American Jewish movers and shakers are “more Catholic than the pope.” Surely, they are more militaristic than the pope.

This past week, Hagel has been attacked by right wing Jewish groups, which was to be expected, but he was also attacked by figures who would one would hope to be more restrained in their comments, such as Abraham Foxman of the ADL. On the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, Elliot Abrams suggested that Hagel is an anti-Semite. Former NYC mayor Ed Koch did not go quite as far, but he did opine that he was “sure that the Arabs are drinking orange juice and toasting Hagel’s good health . . . I believe it will encourage the Iranian program. I believe it will encourage the Jihadists” (www.algemeiner.com).

Some liberal Jews have rallied around Hagel. The progressive group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), has started an email campaign in support of the former Nebraska senator, but JVP is not part of the Conference of Major Jewish Organizations; its views are too far to the left to be taken seriously by the establishment spokespersons.

A glance at the Israeli press, including the centrist Yediot Ahronot, the country’s biggest-selling newspaper, reveals that Israelis are much more equanimous about the possibility of the combat veteran serving as the U.S. defense chief. Actually, that is the Israeli model. In an article titled “Israeli Minister Warms to Choice of Hagel for Pentagon,” Yediot Ahronot quotes Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon as saying that “I have met Hagel many times, and he certainly regards Israel as a true and natural U.S. ally.”

I doubt that Minster Ayalon’s comments will have any influence on the self-appointed ‘leadership’ of American Jewry. ‘Make War and Fear Peace’ seems to be the motto that they will cling to.

Shalom Goldman, Religion Department, Duke University



  • Jack Harper

    Hello Shalom, just read your article and I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know much about Hagel, but the venomous attacks on him caused me to question the rights objectivity. I was surprised you didn’t mention Christian Zionist like John Hagee and other pro-Israel advocates. I’m not sure if Hagel is the best candidate or not, we all want someone in a position of power to reflect our moral or ideological beliefs. It would be nice to see some balance on the topic of Israel and her right to be a self governing nation and yet not side with her maltreatment of the Palestinian people.

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  • Barry Wright

    Thank you Shalom, your crystal clear assessment is sorely needed in this land of news spin and deception, I mean our good ol’ US of A. It amazes me when I am suspected of being an ‘anti-Semite’ for wanting to stop the occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel and a peaceful two state solution. I am not being ‘loyal’ to our ally
    Israel, their way must be unconditionally supported right or wrong, and I believe it’s currently pretty wrong.
    I believe justice and fairness will finally prevail, but there are sure a lot of advocates of injustice in this country.