A bitter battle is brewing on Capitol Hill. Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as the next defence secretary of the United States boils down to this litmus test: does he support Israel, understand the threat posed by Iran and is he sorry for past remarks that his critics say were borderline anti-Semitic? Even before President Barack Obama nominated Hagel this week for the top job at the Pentagon, critics of the former Republican senator from Nebraska had launched a full-throated campaign against the nomination.
As a senator in 2006, Hagel had infuriated the powerful pro-Israel lobby when he refused to sign a letter urging the European Union to designate the Iran-backed Shia militant group Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. His explanation of his decision only made matters worse.
In an interview with Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East peace negotiator, Hagel laid it out: “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here (in the US Congress).... I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.” Hagel’s critics were irked by his description of the pro-Israel lobby as a Jewish one. Not all Jews support Israel, and many advocates for Israel are not Jewish.
“In the Arab and Muslim world, the terminology of a ‘Jewish lobby’ conjures up conspiratorial theories, exaggerated notions of Jewish power and, frankly, anti-Semitism,” says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish human rights organisation. “When you take that together with, ‘I’m not an Israeli senator,’ he obviously has a problem which we would like for him to address head on in an open and public way,” the rabbi adds.