by David Safier
If Chuck Hagel said, "the gun lobby intimidates a lot of people" in Congress, few people would bat an eye. Likewise if he referred to the oil lobby, the tobacco lobby or Big Pharma, to name a few groups with an outsized influence on our government. But when Hagel says the "Jewish lobby" intimidates a lot of people in Congress, he's in big trouble, even though the statement is just as true.
I'm Jewish, so I don't have to worry about how I choose my words here. Hagel would have been wiser to call it the "pro-Israel lobby," but he's right on the substance. Groups like AIPAC (American-Israeli PAC), scare the hell out of politicians. When AIPAC says a politician is "anti-Israel," it means being labeled antisemitic, anti-"The Holy Land" and pro-Arab. Those are three big strikes against anyone running for office. AIPAC and others use these accusations like bludgeons to keep politicians in line. That's what's happening to Hagel as he prepares to defend his nomination as Secretary of Defense.
But there are two problems with the accusation that people who oppose AIPAC and similar groups are anti-Israel and antisemitic. First, AIPAC has become a neocon organization promoting a conservative, militaristic view of what it means to support Israel. Its motto might as well be "Israel right or wrong," (These days, that means "Netanyahu right or wrong"). Many people like me believe the best way to support Israel is to urge the country to move away from the armed occupation of the West Bank (and Gaza) and the building of settlements toward a two state solution that recognizes the rights of Israel and an independent Palestine. And that leads to the second problem with saying opposing AIPAC means you oppose Israel. The Jewish community, which voted overwhelmingly for Obama, is far more progressive than the leaders of AIPAC. True, when it comes to Israel, many Jews become more conservative, shaken by fears of antisemitism going back centuries and fears of Israel being wiped out going back decades. But still, most Jews, especially younger ones, are far more progressive concerning Israel than AIPAC.
Recently formed Jewish groups pushing a more progressive agenda have been gaining visibility lately, most prominently J Street, and they're gaining influence, but they lack the big money and big names behind groups like AIPAC, which still holds sway in Congress. We'll learn more about how powerful right wing, "pro-Israel" groups are during the Hagel confirmation fight.