Hagel and the Jewish lobby: The (half) truth hurts

Despite living in a place of unprecedented acceptance and prosperity, American Jews are taught from birth to watch out for anti-Semitism.  We’re not quite as Holocaust-centric as popular critics and novelists sometimes make us out to be, but it cannot be denied that significant portions of American Jewish education are dedicated to watching out for creeping forms of Jew-hatred. On the far left, particularly in Europe, this tendency is understood as a sort of Zionist plot. This is ridiculous, of course.  A conspiracy theory is not required to explain why an ancestor of 19th or 20th century European Jewry would feel the need to watch her back, even if she happens to be driving a nice new sedan while doing so.

Still, our sensitivity towards the vocabulary of anti-Semitism does create problems when it comes to talking about America’s relationship with Israel.  Much has been made of potential Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s willingness to employ the term “Jewish lobby” when describing those forces such as AIPAC that lobby on behalf of what they believe to be the interests of the state of Israel. These organizations tend to be hawkish and right-leaning. American Jews, to put it mildly, tend not to be.  As a result it seems even to many of Hagel’s supporters that the term “Jewish lobby” is a dangerous mischaracterization of what could be better described as “Pro-Israel advocates.”

For supporters of AIPAC, the nomenclature here is not particularly relevant. If one contends that the Israeli government should be supported — particularly by all Jews — in its policies in the West Bank and that bellicosity is the only sensible attitude with which to meet Iran, it does not much matter whether Hagel is leery of the “Israel lobby,” or the “Jewish Lobby.” The two terms appear equally objectionable when used in a pejorative sense. But for us Jews committed to our community but deeply scared about what might happen to the world’s only Jewish nation if it continues down a path of occupation and saber-rattling, things are a good deal more complex.

At first blush, it seems as though Hagel’s characterization of Israel’s supporters as “The Jewish Lobby” is mistaken at best, deeply anti-Semitic at worst. Israel’s supporters are not all Jewish and not all Jews support AIPAC. JStreet, Jewish Voice for Peace and a litany of other groups serve as reminders that Hagel’s phrase implies something that simply is not true and comes perilously close to accusations of Jewish dual allegiance.

But what is the alternative? Mersheimer and Walt’s controversial book The Israel Lobby established a sort of middle ground, employing a title that certainly was criticized for potential anti-Semitic usage but that nonetheless left enough wiggle room for the lobby to include Christian Zionists and Gentile Neocons. “Israel lobby” has the benefit of avoiding the uglier implications of “Jewish Lobby” while acknowledging the reality of powerful forces advocating in America for the interests of Israel’s (currently very right-wing) government. It is still uncomfortable, but it sounds less incontrovertibly anti-Semitic and avoids liberal Jewish implication in America’s role supporting the status quo in the Holy Land.

I worry, however, that this comfort comes in the form of self-delusion and a dismissal of self-responsibility. It’s true that there are Christian Zionists and it’s true that, as a Jew, I and millions like me are opposed to the politics and tactics of AIPAC. But to overstate the importance of organizations such as JStreet is no less a misrepresentation than Hagel might be accused of for ignoring them. The fact is that not only is AIPAC the dominant force in lobbying for Israel, but it is also a group thoroughly tied into many neutral and even politically liberal Jewish organizations throughout America. For example, the Hillel I attended as a graduate student offered dozens of liberal organizations ranging from Jewish environmentalists to Jewish LGBT groups. And, of course, it offered a junior AIPAC group and sponsored Israel Advocacy trainings. I suspect the vast majority of AIPAC members enter the organization through some similar, Jewish, portals. And though I don’t directly support these subprograms, I proudly pay my synagogue dues and donate to Jewish organizations that, among many other things, contribute to the sort of lobbying that Hagel refers to. If you are an active member of the American Jewish community, it’s virtually impossible not to.

In the end, I’m not quite ready to take the leap that people such as MJ Rosenberg have, embracing Hagel’s terminology in full. The historical ramifications scare me too much. But I remain ambivalent. The people working at AIPAC right now to stop Hagel’s confirmation are not the Jewish lobby, but they are a Jewish lobby and their work is deeply ingrained in my Jewish community. Yes, Hagel’s turn of phrase hurt to hear, partially because it’s false. But also because it’s more true than we like to admit.

About the Author
Matt Sienkiewicz is professor of Communication and International Studies at Boston College