Lies, Statistics and News Reports: Hagel and “Friends of Hamas”

Leon Panetta (right) and Barack Obama (center) announcing the  nomination of Chuck Hagel (left).

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

It’s rare for light to be cast on the origins of a rumor. But a recent revelation about a charge made against Chuck Hagel before his confirmation as Secretary of Defense does that — and might provide us all some illumination too.

Contrary to what some have surmised, I didn’t and don’t feel there is enough hard information about the now confirmed Defense Secretary on which to make a judgment of his attitude toward Israel. As attacks mounted on nominee Hagel, though, I suggested that Jews should think twice and thrice before attacking a public figure for animus to the Jewish state on the basis of pickings as slim as those gathered to criticize him.

More after the jump.
Several people, including some pseudonymic letter-writers to a magazine that published my article, took my suggestion that bandwagons are best inspected before being leaped onto as support of Mr. Hagel. I explicitly wrote, however, that he might well not make a good Defense Secretary, and that I can’t claim to know one way or the other. All that I pointed out was that, despite a maladroit phrase Mr. Hagel once used — for which he apologized — and unsubstantiated claims of a similar sin, there was no actual evidence for the charge made by some that the man is “anti-Israel” or “anti-Semitic.” I pointed out, too, that a Secretary of Defense does not make U.S. foreign policy, and that it behooves us American Jews, in a world containing all too many all too real enemies of Jews, to not imagine, or inadvertently create, new ones.

An edifying postscript to the Hagel hubbub emerged this week. In the midst of all the sturm und drang over the nomination, a conservative website (a “news source,” as it happens, that the angry letters to the editor suggested I consult for my education) reported suspicions that Mr. Hagel had received foreign funding from a group called “Friends of Hamas.” The story, of course, spread across the blogosphere with the speed of a brazen lie, which is precisely what it was. There is no such group.

And this week, the tale of how the charge came about was told — by the fellow who originated it, albeit unwittingly.

New York Daily News reporter Dan Friedman explained how, digging for a story, he had asked a Republican aide on Capitol Hill if Mr. Hagel’s Senate critics knew of any controversial groups that he may have addressed. Had the nominee perhaps “given a speech to, say, the ‘Junior League of Hezbollah’ […] or the ‘Friends of Hamas’?” the journalist jocularly queried.

Not realizing that politicians and their aides can be humor-impaired, Mr. Friedman compounded his little pre-Purim joke with a follow-up e-mail to the aide, asking if anything had turned up about that “$25K speaking fee from Friends of Hamas?”

Before Mr. Friedman could say mishenichnas Adar, the website had its scoop. The report, by one Ben Shapiro, informed its readers:

Senate sources told Breitbart News exclusively that they have been informed one of the reasons that President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has not turned over requested documents on his sources of foreign funding is that one of the names listed is a group purportedly called ‘Friends of Hamas.’

And so, other websites immediately ran with the fiction. For good measure, Mr. Shapiro tweeted the link to his nearly 40,000 Twitter followers. Countless inboxes welcomed the “news”; countless heads nodded knowingly.

Whether or not Mr. Hagel turns out to be a happy surprise or great disappointment, one thing is undeniable: Anyone who values truth — the “signature” of the Divine, in the Talmud’s description — must make painstaking efforts to be objective, and eschew the siren-call (to mangle a metaphor) of the bandwagon.

Lies, overt and subtle, large and small, are, unfortunately, the fertilizer (in both senses of the word) of politics today. They are regularly foisted upon us all from every political corner and by both major parties’ “activists.” We are being gently misled and manipulated whether our source of information is right-wing talk radio or NPR, Rush Limbaugh or Diane Rehm. True objectivity and fair-minded discussion are as rare as Yangtze River dolphins.

And so, if we really insist on having opinions about political matters, we do well to absorb different perspectives, to weigh them fairly and to realize, constantly and deeply, that not everything portrayed as obvious or fact is necessarily either.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.

B’nai B’rith to Senate: Carefully Review Hagel’s Record and Hearing

Just ahead of the Senate vote on the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary, B’nai B’rith International has released the following statement:

B’nai B’rith International remains concerned with many aspects of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel’s responses to questions during his confirmation hearing for the position of Secretary of Defense. Since then, more questions have been raised about Hagel’s views on a number of important issues.

During the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Hagel did not assuage our reservations on how he would approach such topics as terrorism, Iran and Israel. We urge all Senators, as they prepare to vote, to carefully review Hagel’s record and hearing responses to determine his qualifications for the post.

More after the jump.

We are concerned that Hagel, unlike the vast majority of his Senate colleagues, underestimates the threat of the Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah.

Hagel was in the minority when 88 of his then-Senate colleagues called on the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah has been a global terror group since it was founded around 30 years ago. Its decades of terror include the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon that killed 241 Marines, soldiers and sailors, and the July 2012 attack on Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria that killed five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver and wounded 30 others. After a six month investigation, the Bulgarian government issued a report unequivocally blaming Hezbollah for that attack.

We are also troubled that Hagel, during his confirmation hearings, undermined the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He appeared to endorse a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran before being advised that containment was not administration policy.

In recent days, Hagel has disavowed, or said he didn’t remember, making certain past comments about Israel. At a 2007 speech he is said to have referred to the U.S. State Department as “an adjunct of the Israeli foreign minister’s office.”

Our hesitation on his nomination is based on our uneasiness with such updates to his record.

B’nai B’rith International expresses the expectation that members of the Senate will give his record a thorough review prior to the vote.

Prisoners of Preconceptions

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

Even with protective cover from Senator Charles E. Schumer — as determined a defender of Israel as there ever was — and even speaking only for myself, I hesitate to address the overwrought reaction in some corners to President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. I don’t want to be labeled an anti-Semite too.

Not that there wasn’t or isn’t cause for some concern about Mr. Hagel. He is famously on record as having once referred to AIPAC as the “Jewish lobby,” and in the past questioned the wisdom of too hastily employing military force against Iran. But such things — you might want to sit down — do not an anti-Semite or unconscionable isolationist make.

More after the jump.
At least not to reasonable eyes. Unfortunately, some tend to the visceral rather than the rational in such matters, prisoners of their own preconceptions. Despite the clear and ample evidence to the contrary, they just can’t stop pegging the president as less than committed to Israel’s wellbeing, and can be counted on to shoot at anything that moves if Mr. Obama set it into motion. So Mr. Hagel was immediately judged by some as bad for Israel, if for no other reason than that his nominator was the Dark Prince himself. Thus does circular reasoning attain its orbit.

A mindset is a terribly hard thing to move.

Mr. Hagel may turn out to be unsuited for the job of Defense Secretary. But that is a judgment to be made by Congress, based on the candidate’s testimony at his confirmation hearings — not by a trigger-happy pundit gallery.

Do Mr. Hagel’s critics even know what a Secretary of Defense does?

Hint: He does not make U.S. foreign policy. He oversees the operations of the military and, as part of the chain of military command, is answerable to the Commander in Chief. (Of course, that will hardly reassure those who choose to project their darkest fears onto Mr. Obama; cue the circular reasoning. And so, unfortunately, it goes.)

Particularly irksome is that the media has adopted the moniker “pro-Israel” for what would more accurately be characterized as pro-Likud.  Employing the phrase implies that, somehow, anyone who dares to wonder whether every building project in Israel is a geopolitically wise thing to do is somehow insufficiently concerned with the country’s future. But not every legitimate right is rightly acted upon. I can understand (although I’m no less irked for the fact) how a believer in Israel as a re-established Davidic Monarchy might see Israel’s thumbing its nose at the (admittedly largely unsavory) family of nations as some sort of religious imperative.  But that is not the approach of mainstream Orthodox Jewish theology — i.e. the teachings of the universally recognized Torah leaders of past generations and our own.

No, those interpreters of Judaism insist that the Messianic Age is yet to come, and counsel Jews as individuals to embrace modesty, and as a people to demonstrate a degree of deference to the nations of the imperfect world in which we float. Just as Jews in the Middle Ages or pre-Holocaust Europe had to pay (often distasteful but nonetheless necessary) homage to the nobleman or Czar, so do contemporary Jews bear a responsibility to take the feelings — yes, even unjustified, even hypocritical, even evil-fueled feelings — of the rest of the world into account. Even in a world with a Jewish state in the ancestral Jewish land, we are still in exile.

Maybe the Israeli right is right, and there’s a rational reason why contested population centers must be expanded, no matter what the United States or European countries say. Maybe there’s some larger-picture strategic need to do such things even if they alienate important global players, even Israel’s closest friends. But one thing is clear — or should be: Doubting those maybes, as all recent American administrations have done, is no sign of unconcern with Israel, and certainly not of anti-Semitism.

Senator Schumer spent some time with Mr. Hagel the other day, and emerged from their long conversation satisfied that the nominee’s views, both concerning Iran and Israel, are in consonance with his own. Mr. Hagel apologized for calling AIPAC a “Jewish lobby.”

To be sure, even if the nominee is approved, none of us can know the future. “In no man do I place my trust,” goes the prayer taken from the Zohar, advice for the ages. We cannot assume that even leaders who have demonstrated good will toward the Jewish people (or, today, the Jewish state) will always remain the same. But neither do we have the right to indulge in unwarranted panic attacks.

No question about it, it’s a dangerous world for Jews and for Israel. But that’s all the more reason for eschewing alarmism. We have all too many all too real enemies out there. What we really don’t need is to imagine, or create, new ones.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.