In his now-famous Aaron Miller interview, Senator Hagel used the term “Jewish lobby” to refer to supporters of Israel, for which he has now, in a way, apologized. In truth I am not very disturbed by this comment, but am disturbed by other words of his, also worth repeating. Hagel recounted speaking to an unidentified group “in New York . . . [where] this guy kept pushing and pushing. And he alluded to the fact that maybe I wasn’t supporting Israel enough or something. And I just said let me clear something up here, in case there is any doubt. I said, ‘I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator.’ I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States — not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that. Now I know most senators don’t talk like I do.”
They certainly don’t — but is that due to their cowardice before the “Jewish lobby,” as he suggested? Obviously no one in that group in New York was in any doubt that he was a United States senator. What, then, is the meaning of his reply if not this: that he is loyal to the United States, and his oath is to the Constitution of the United States only, “not to Israel,” unlike some people, who put Israel’s interests first. This remark seems to me more than merely irascible; it suggests that those who challenged his views have different loyalties. Can such a statement really be left unexamined and unchallenged?
There are more of the senator’s troublesome comments on the record, and there are plenty of defenses of him, too — for example, from Jews who know him, and have known him for a long time, and say that never once has he said anything to them that could remotely be considered anti-Semitic. This defense reflects a misunderstanding of the issue. Senator Hagel is a highly intelligent man and a successful politician. To wonder if he has some kind of problem with the organized Jewish community is not to suggest that he makes anti-Semitic remarks to Jews, nor that he lacks Jewish acquaintances. I imagine a few Jews from Nebraska will testify as to what a fine fellow he is when the hearings are held.
In fact, dismiss my allusion to anti-Semitism and you are still left with the same issue: his view of the organized Jewish community, in Nebraska and nationally, and the legitimacy of its demands. The comments from Omaha Jewish leaders suggest that he viewed their demands, or requests, coldly indeed. The quotation above from the Miller interview is cut from the same cloth, reflecting a sense that too much is being asked, so much indeed that the demands — or call them requests, pressures, or lobbying — are illegitimate and reflect some unacceptable or un-American loyalty.
In the 1930s, the organized Jewish community in America learned a great lesson from its powerlessness and its failure to challenge the Roosevelt administration to do more to save European Jewry. In later decades, it organized itself and stood up for Soviet Jewry, despite the objections of many analysts and specialists, even then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger, that the demands were wrong, damaging, and counter-productive. It was said that such advocacy would interfere with American interests and damage critical U.S.-Soviet relations. But the lesson learned from that more recent experience was that influence is good to have, and to use, and that it is legitimate for organized groups of citizens to press their government in the way advocates for Soviet Jews did. In the end, the Soviet Jewry drive both freed 2 million Soviet Jews and, by denying trade credits and guarantees to the decaying Soviet Union, helped bring the empire down — and saved U.S. taxpayers a fortune.
Today most pressure from the organized Jewish community over foreign-policy issues is related to the security of Israel and the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. To be treated with indifference by an elected official is bad enough. To be told by a future nominee for very high office that, “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator,” and “my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States” is insulting and unacceptable. It suggests that Senator Hagel believes such lobbying by American Jews to be illegitimate and offensive, and is indeed evidence of loyalty to another country.
In 2013 the American Jewish community is not worried about name-calling, “restricted” apartment houses, or the admission policies of country clubs. Such things are rare and unimportant. But the view that Jews are doing something questionable or even disloyal when they join together to promote the closest possible alliance between the United States and Israel, and urge that the United States act to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, remains a serious matter. That apparent sentiment is what bothers me about Senator Hagel, not the use of the term “Jewish lobby.” It may be that in hearings all these concerns will be fully allayed to the satisfaction of any fair-minded person. But the question must be asked. To do so is not to “smear’ Senator Hagel or raise a “distraction.” It is to ask for a full answer to a serious and legitimate question.
— Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, will be published in February.