Chuck Hagel’s defenders and anti-Israel bloggers (there is a great degree of overlap) are parroting a new, false argument in his favor as President Barack Obama’s nominee to be Secretary of Defense: So what if Hagel used the term “Jewish lobby”? Why, one of the most powerful Jewish leaders in America, Malcolm Hoenlein, used the term “Jewish lobby” as recently as December 2012. It can’t be antisemitic if Hoenlein used it, can it?
Yes, it can–because Hoenlein used the term “Jewish lobby” to attack it, not to endorse its use.
That much is immediately apparent from the context of Hoenlein’s remarks–an interview on a radio show, first transcribed by the Algemeiner online newspaper, in which Hoenlein criticized New York Times columnist Tom Friedman for praising Hagel’s willingness to resist the so-called “Israel lobby.” (Friedman has used the term “Israel lobby” before–a term loaded with antisemitic connotations–and has been criticized harshly for doing so.)
Hoenlein was asked by interviewer Zev Bronner to respond to Friedman’s comments on Hagel and Israel:
Brenner: How does an article such as Tom Friedman in the New York Times where he says it’s the pro-Israel lobby that’s challenging him when really there are a lot of American groups that are opposed to his candidacy, but he propels the pro-Israel lobby as being the top, and writes about it in the New York Times, and if he gets the nomination and he gets in, how does that make his attitude towards the Jewish community and Israel?
Hoenlein: I think Tom Friedman has gone off the cliff […] the political cliff, I think his columns have increasingly become hostile, and frankly unjustifiable, you can differ with a view on Israel, but his position, it was not the Jewish lobby. Unfortunately, one of the early articles in a major publication spoke about this as a Jewish problem, when there were many other groups and many people, because of his positions on the military, his opposition to certain things in the past in relation to other groups that raised many more concerns than this, and I think there is no reason why Jews as Americans can’t express their views, but it was never a Jewish campaign, it was never intended to be, and the lobby I think actually was pretty silent, the quote, “official lobby,” silent on this, so I think it was […] lets say an unfortunate characterization on his part to say the least and I don’t think he did it without certain people encouraging him to write this article.
It is clear that Hoenlein is using the term “Jewish lobby” to refer, disparagingly, to Friedman’s remarks about the “Israel lobby.” Hoenlein’s use of the word “Jewish” is also an implied criticism of Friedman, since the term “Israel lobby” has antisemitic connotations of Jewish control (certainly as used by some of Israel’s critics). He also points out that the opposition to Hagel has been inaccurately characterized as a “Jewish problem.” At no point did Hoenlein actually adopt the term as his own, or endorse its use in general political discourse.
That has not stopped Hagel’s defenders from twisting Hoenlein’s words to make it seem as though he had made the term “Jewish lobby” kosher. The latest to do so was Daily Beast columnist (and frequent Israel critic) Peter Beinart, during a debate with Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS. Beinart said he agreed that that the term “Jewish lobby” was inaccurate, but that it “also happens to have been used by Malcolm Hoenlein, the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last December.”
No, Hoenlein did not use the term “Jewish lobby”–not in the way Beinart and others have suggested. To repeat that lie is to offer false legitimacy to the term, and false promise to Hagel’s candidacy.