by Paul Scham
By now, the battle lines on Chuck Hagel have largely been drawn, and numerous able commentators have exposed the absurdities of claiming Hagel is outside the mainstream, as well as the bizarre and offensive nature of the assertions that he is not only anti-Israel but even an anti-semite. However, this debate is often mischaracterized as being about Israel. It’s really not. It’s the Republican Party and the ideological rightwing shamelessly trying to continue the campaign against Obama even after he resoundingly won a second term, hoping to split the Democratic Party and thus derail Obama’s agenda on domestic as well as international issues. It’s part of the process that began twenty years ago to make support for Israel a rightwing issue, as opposed to its former composition, which was then dominated by liberal Democrats.
We saw something of this back in the 1990s as well when AIPAC and other mainstream Jewish organizations were notably cool to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo peace process. Then, however, Israel was still not a Republican litmus test, Neocons were still to some degree outliers among both Jews and Republicans, and this was largely an intra-Jewish community matter. Since then, however, for a variety of reasons, Republicans and most of the right in this country (apart from paleo-conservatives like Pat Buchanan and mavericks like Grover Norquist) have adopted support for the most rightwing of Israeli parties as a rallying cry, as we saw in the Republican primaries. Absolute and unquestioning support for Israel’s current government now seems to resonate not only with a few billionaires like Sheldon Adelson, but even more with conservative Christians around the country who know little or nothing about the real Israel but cheer whenever it is brought up, partly for theological reasons.
The large majority of American Jews decisively rejected this when they voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2012 with almost as large a majority as they did in 2008. None of Adelson’s candidates won. The perennial claim that American Jews would eventually realize their “real” home is with the Republicans was once again refuted.
However, with the vicious campaign against Hagel, which is really against Obama, we see something new developing. The banner of “support for Israel” (i.e., support for the most extreme rightwing forces there) is moving decisively away from the Jewish community and towards the most rightwing elements in the US, most of whom aren’t Jewish, though some of the leading figures are, e.g. Bill Kristol and the Emergency Committee for Israel. Israel isn’t really the issue; the “pro-Israel” brand is being used for an agenda that’s only partially related to it.
The traditional pro-Israel mainstream is caught in the middle in this. AIPAC and Jewish Democrats in Congress traditionally and reflexively oppose anyone accused of being anti-Israel. In the presidential elections, pro-Israel Democrats had no trouble supporting Obama because his record was so transparently pro-Israel. But now, with the nomination of someone who has not toed their line in all cases, some are wavering and falling for the Republican bait.
The mainstream media has done a disservice to truth by referring incessantly to “Jewish” and “pro-Israel” opposition to Hagel and rarely bringing up the fact that numerous Jews and Jewish organizations have supported Hagel since his name was first bruited about last month. The massive Jewish electoral support for Obama in 2012 should have made the media more careful about accepting such labels blindly.
The growth of organizations like J-Street in the last few years and their acceptance in the national Jewish community is at least as much a symptom as a cause of this change, in which we increasingly see most American Jews more liberal on Israel than the organizations that claim to represent them. Many more are realizing that the real and present danger to Israel is largely coming from those Israeli far-right groups and their American supporters and funders who are trying to and so far succeeding in sabotaging the two-state solution.
The invocation of extremist language against a moderate like Chuck Hagel should be a wake-up call to mainstream American Jewish organizations, members of Congress, and American Jews in general. This is NOT the 1930s. Israel faces real dangers from without, but the misuse of the specter of those dangers to enhance a highly partisan rightwing agenda in this country, and especially the reprehensible slur of “anti-semite” against Hagel, should warn non-extremist American Jews and non-Jews alike that they are being played by forces they would not and should not support under any circumstances.