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Sunday, June 24, 2018

As if life in Washington wasn’t dispiriting enough, we must now get ready for a bruising fight over whether former senator Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee as the new Secretary of Defense, has a “Jewish problem.”

Hagel’s confirmation by the Senate isn’t a sure thing in any case — gay-rights activists are unhappy with his more archaic views (conveniently renounced as soon as his name was floated) on matters of sexual orientation, and defense hawks think that Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, is allergic to the projection of American force and overeager to gut the Pentagon’s budget.

But Hagel’s statements about Jews, Israel and the looming confrontation with Iran may take up a good deal of bandwidth. So: Is Hagel anti-Semitic?

The short answer is no. The long answer is also no. Which is not to say that Hagel will soon win the American Jewish Committee’s Man of the Year award. He takes a tougher line on certain Israeli government policies, and a softer line on Iran, than most mainstream American politicians, but some of his views are shared by many of Israel’s left-of-center politicians and ex-military chiefs.

The anti-Semitism charge was recently advanced by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal, who wrote that Hagel’s use of the term “Jewish lobby” — in a conversation with Aaron David Miller, the former Middle East negotiator who doesn’t hide either his Jewishness or his support for Israel — had an “olfactory element” to it. Hagel’s statement that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” on Capitol Hill was particularly ripe, Stephens said.

“No lesser authorities on the subject than John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of  The Israel Lobby, have insisted the term ‘Jewish lobby’ is ‘inaccurate and misleading, both because the [Israel] lobby includes non-Jews like Christian Zionists and because many Jewish Americans do not support the hard-line policies favored by its most powerful elements,’” Stephens wrote.

The term “Jewish lobby” is unpleasant and imprecise, certainly, but Hagel’s comment about the power of this alleged lobby strikes me, after years of listening to legislators whine about the awfulness of pressure groups generally, as inoffensive, if dumb.

On the other hand, Hagel, in his two terms in the Senate, voted to support Israel in ways that matter to actual Israelis, including to its defense officials. He supported a close relationship between the U.S. military and the Israel Defense Forces, and he regularly voted to grant Israel generous aid packages. If he has a record of animus toward the Jewish state or prejudice toward Jews, I’m not seeing it.

In fact, one of the more distressing features of the nomination is not Hagel himself, but some of the supporters he’s been accruing, people who believe that Hagel shares their loathing of a strong American relationship with Israel. These include people who do express animus toward Israel and toward the American Jews who support Israel.