walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: December 21, 2012
Secretary Hagel?

So, I am given to understand that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B‘nai B‘rith, which more or less boils down to its national director Abe Foxman’s personal view of the planet from his Manhattan bubble, is not thrilled with the prospective (not even real yet) nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. According to Foxman, Hagel is not pro-Israel or anti-Iran enough for the job. Foxman has accused Hagel of invoking stereotypes that suggest not just anti-Israel attitudes but even anti-Semitism. He used the record of an interview Hagel gave to Aaron David Miller a few years back (more about that anon) when he was writing The Much Too Promised Land (2008) to support his accusation.

It’s sort of ironic that an organization with the phrase “anti-defamation” in its own name should resort to defaming others. Well, maybe “ironic” isn’t quite the right word; a few others also come to mind. But defamation it is, because the idea that Chuck Hagel is either anti-Israel or anti-Semitic is risible. It seems pretty clear that Mr. Foxman doesn’t understand how much damage he does by tossing around such innuendo. It’s even clearer that he doesn’t want my advice. (I met him years ago within the confines of a closed meeting, but that’s another story.) The damage done, and how it is done, is not clear to everybody, however—hence this note.

As it happens, Senator Hagel is in very good company as one of Mr. Foxman’s targets. Another of those targets has been none other than Harry Truman.

It came to light in 2003 that Harry S. Truman’s private diary contained what Abe Foxman referred to as “anti-Semitic canards.” Foxman declaimed in a statement that, “sadly, President Truman was a man of his times, and much less a man because of it.” A few days later Foxman published a short essay in the Forward in which he accused Truman of “attributing classic stereotypes about Jews.” He quoted Truman’s diary as follows: “The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish. When they have power, physical financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment of the underdog.” Citing his childhood as a Holocaust survivor and a displaced person, who believed in 1950 that Harry Truman had personally enabled him to become an American, Foxman wrote: “It personally saddens me to learn that he too was flawed.”

Foxman’s comments were unfortunate, to say the least. In the first place, it did not take until 2003 for anyone to learn that Truman had made disparaging remarks about Jews. One example, from Truman’s memoirs published many years earlier, concerns the President’s anger and resentment in the autumn of 1947 against what he calls some “extreme Zionist leaders”:

. . . not only were there pressure movements around the United Nations unlike anything that had been seen there before, but that the White House, too, was subjected to a constant barrage. I do not think I ever had as much pressure and propaganda aimed at the White House as I had in this instance. The persistence of a few of the extreme Zionist leaders—actuated by a political motive and engaging in political threats—disturbed and annoyed me. (Truman Memoirs, Vol. II, p. 158)

The President noted at the time in a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, “I regret this situation very much because my sympathy has always been on their side.” (Quoted in Margaret Truman, Harry S. Truman, p. 420)

Was Truman really guilty of anti-Semitic thoughts–and thoughts are all they could possibly have been, since we are talking here about a private diary, not any public statement. Let’s look at the whole diary entry, for July 21, 1947, six p.m., not just the part Foxman chose to quote:

Had ten minutes conversation with Henry Morgenthau about Jewish ship in Palistine [sic]. Told him I would talk to Gen[eral] Marshall about it. He’d no business, whatever to call me. The Jews have no sense of proportion nor do they have any judgement on world affairs.

Henry brought a thousand Jews to New York on a supposedly temporary basis and they stayed. When the country went backward—and Republican in the election of 1946, this incident loomed large on the D[isplaced] P[ersons] program.

The Jews, I find are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D[isplaced] P[ersons] as long as the Jews get special treatment. Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the under dog. Put an underdog on top and it makes no difference whether his name is Russian, Jewish, Negro, Management, Labor, Mormon, Baptist he goes haywire. I’ve found very, very few who remember their past condition when prosperity comes.

Is Truman irritated at his Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau? Yes, and he is irritated in part because something he did, Truman believes, had negative political consequences for him and the Democratic Party. Probably it did, too. Did Truman not understand the dire plight of the ship Secretary Morgenthau must have been talking about, given the date: the later-to-be-very-famous Haganah ship Exodus? Probably he didn’t. Was Morgenthau justified in trying to get the President’s attention, despite the risks of irking him? Yes, he was.

Let’s now look carefully at the key passages. Is Truman making a statement about Jews, or is he making a statement about what power seems to do to all people? Well, some of both. Granting that his comparison with Hitler and even Stalin was pretty over the top, Truman first says that Jews have no sense of proportion or judgment on world affairs. This might well have been true under the circumstances in July 1947: What sentient adult Jew at the time did not feel at least a little bit unbalanced, with the blood and ashes of European Jewry not yet settled and a deeply frightening war brewing in Palestine? But Truman is not talking about what sets Jews apart from others—a key aspect of anti-Semitism—but rather what makes them the same as all others. Truman is merely asserting that, in this respect anyway, Jews are just like everyone else. Truman made a perfectly non-Jewcentric remark, ample evidence for which resides throughout much of Jewish history. But Foxman saw the reverse: anti-Semitism. And unlike a private diary, he shouted it out loud in an institutional statement and then in a newspaper.

This makes Foxman the kind of Professional Jew that pisses off Presidents (George H.W. Bush, for example), Secretaries of State (James Baker, for example), and other usually well-meaning high-placed people—even friends. This sort of thing may play well to the ADL professional crowd, but it is broadly counterproductive to American Jewry and to Israel. Look at the reality back in 1947: Truman sympathized with the Jews, with Zionism and with what would soon become Israel, and he acted boldly on those sympathies. But some Jews managed to irritate him all the same.

The obvious point is that it is possible to push a friendship so far as to jeopardize it. Today’s “extreme Zionists” have made an art out of it, particularly those who seem unaware that the standard crass, abrasive and cocky demeanor common among New Yorkers is not the national norm. The quickest and most reliable way to turn a harmless, more or less neutral observer into an anti-Israel zealot is to accuse him of bias where there is none. And the quickest way to make a hero out of someone like Patrick Buchanan is to shove the equivalent of nouveau riche political power into the faces of powerful people.


Why do Abe Foxman and leaders of some other secular Jewish advocacy organizations do counterproductive things like this? To answer this question we need to take a small step back to set the context.

The reasons that major Jewish-American organizations exist today are several, and the distinctions among organizations and their rationales are important to get straight. Some organizations, like the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Hebrew Immigration and Aid Society (HIAS), Friends of Hadassah and others exist to do good works in the United States and worldwide. It is not unreasonable for Jews to want to maximize specifically Jewish philanthropy. Such service groups embody the rabbinic principle that all Jews are responsible for each other, wherever they may be: “Kol yisrael areyvim zeh ba-zeh” (Babylonian Talmud, Shavuot, 39a). So deeply embedded is this principle that the only country in the world today that ranks higher than the United States in per capita charitable giving is Israel.

Jewish-American service groups differ, however, from those, like the ADL, that advocate on high-profile political issues such as separation of church and state, abortion and a host of foreign policy issues. The reasons why these groups still exist today are more complex and have rather little to do with Talmudic principles.

American Jews used to feel they needed special help to attain the first-class citizenship that was their legal due. America was a far more hospital place for Jews, even in the 19th century, than most other places, but there was still plenty of social ostracism and some outright bigotry to boot. When B‘nai B‘rith and later the ADL came into existence, there really was anti-Semitism in America and good reason to lobby against it. There was about as much sense in what the ADL did in its founding era as there was in what the NAACP did. Until fairly recently Jews have not felt they had a level playing field on which to compete in the United States. “Recently” in this case has a specific definition: 1964–65.

Everyone “knows” that the Civil Rights Act was not about Jews but about Negroes, as the term used at the time read. And that’s true. But what everyone does not know is that the change in the law, and how the courts interpreted the law, had a vast impact on Jewish social status and achievement in America. Old restrictions against Jews, whether at Ivy League universities or in professional associations, became illegal. They were literally actionable in court. Decades-old constraints fell rapidly, and Jews advanced rapidly as they did. The supposedly old joke—“What’s the difference between a Jewish peddler and a Jewish nuclear physicist? One generation.”—isn’t really so old: It has been fully true in America for only the past forty-some years.

It is an open question how much envy or resentment there is of Jewish success in America. Not much, probably. Jewish success is far more admired than resented in a society that values success as an emblem of virtue as much as of luck. Those who do resent it either reside at the lower echelons of American society, where denizens resent not just Jewish success but everyone else’s as well; or among the déclassé, the classic carriers of resentments large and small. But resentment of Jewish success, to the modest extent it exists, isn’t the same as genuine anti-Semitism, which is very scarce in the United States today. The ADL, however, does not agree. In 1992, for example, the ADL claimed, on the basis of what it called a nationwide survey, that nearly forty million Americans—one in five adults—expressed strong anti-Semitic views (See Sue Fishkoff, “Survey Finds One in Five Americans holds ‘Strongly Antisemitic Opinions’”, Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, November 17, 1992). This was and remains utter nonsense.

Even more bizarre, Foxman claimed in his 2003 book Never Again? that high rates of Jewish assimilation were being caused by anti-Semitic discrimination, not by the faux-Judaism that substitutes the State of Israel for God and Holocaust memorials for the siddur (i.e., the traditional Jewish prayer book). If ADL leaders really believe this stuff, they are paranoid. If they don’t believe it, but find it useful to say anyway, they are dishonest. No other construction for such views is possible.

Of course, no organization, Jewish or otherwise, wants to close up shop even if its raison d’être has disappeared. That’s as true of the World Bank as it is of the ADL. What the ADL was originally set up to do no longer requires doing; the ADL, however, does it anyway. It often fundraises for what has been recently an annual $50 million budget through what can only be described as anti-Semitism scaremongering. It finds anti-Semitism where it does not exist because it needs to. As an organization it is an anti-anti-Semitic hammer, and so it sees, or chooses to see, only anti-Semitic nails.

Any American Jew who is honest about the community’s problems knows that anti-Semitism is not the number one issue; extraordinary and accelerating rates of assimilation are. The reasons for those rates have nothing to do with anti-Semitism, but plenty to do with the dwindling of religious education and observance in American Jewish families and the substitution of a kind of Jewish ideology based on the Holocaust and an ideal, dreamlike image of Israel for Judaism. That ideology is simply not transmissible generation to generation in the same way that genuine Judaism has been, particularly insofar as it focuses on tragedy, mass murder and presumptions of widespread anti-Jewish hatred. What healthy kid would embrace such a nightmarish vision?

But the ADL and other, similarly oriented organizations, feel something between uncomfortable and ambivalent trying to raise money on behalf of Jewish education, say, despite the fact that American Jewish fundraising for Israel has long since become kind of ridiculous. Just as Israel became more important for American Jews as a symbol of their identity—and here were talking about the period from the late 1960s and forward—the objective importance of American Jewish help for Israel declined. Israel today is far more important to American Jewry than American Jewry is to Israel. Hence the shock to the system of secular Jewish-Americans working on behalf of Israel when, twenty years after the Six-Day War, some prominent Israelis—Yossi Beilin among them—told them to keep their money at home and use it instead to educate their own children.

And it fell in part to Hirsh Goodman, then editor of The Jerusalem Report, to explain to American Jews how paltry their UJA contributions were in the context of Israel’s thriving economy. When American Jews buy Israeli bonds, he explained, they cost Israel in bureaucratic expenses more than the investment is worth. Goodman quoted a senior official of the Israeli Treasury Ministry, “If these people really love Israel, they should know that probably the last thing they should do is buy Israeli bonds.” When Goodman tried to suggest that American Jewish organizations raise money instead for Jewish education to stem the tide of assimilation and intermarriage, here is what he was told: “Do you really think we could raise a dime for Jewish education? . . . Go tell Haim Shmerl that you want a pledge for Jewish continuity and you’ll see the money go to the local golf course. We need Israel, even if Israel does not need us” (Hirsh Goodman, “The Real Threat”, Jerusalem Report, September 23, 1993).

Alas, there’s another reason, too. Dealing with assimilation means being forthright about its causes, but many of the elite within secular Jewish advocacy organizations are themselves implicated in those causes. It’s awkward for those who have not done what is necessary to educate and be good Jewish role models for their children to lecture or try to raise money from others on those grounds. Such people heaved private sighs of relief over the supposed recrudescence of anti-Semitism because that, anyway, is a problem they know something about, and a problem that doesn’t roil their kishkes (a Slavic-origin Yiddish word meaning “guts”, for those in need of a translation).


I wonder if Chuck Hagel understands all this, really grasps the dense, dank and convoluted backstory behind Abe Foxman’s most recent fulmination. It would be extraordinary if he did. In my few personal encounters with the Senator, he has seemed to be a reasonably normal fellow from Nebraska, hence not someone you would expect to be expert or even much interested in the historical neuroses of a certain long-wandering Near Eastern tribe.

Aaron David Miller understands it, however. When I saw Aaron’s name taken in vain the other day over the Hagel business, I pointed it out to him. He seemed mildly irritated, which may account for the way yesterday’s New York Times read, with Aaron quoted about those old interviews, explaining that he has no beef whatsoever with Senator Hagel’s understanding of Israel and the Middle East.

Do I? Well, I don’t share Senator Hagel’s views on certain subjects, but that’s not the point. The point is actually twofold.

First, the President deserves to have in his service whatever advisers he prefers. If the President is wrongheaded about strategy or policy, he deserves to have advisers who are similarly wrongheaded. The reason could hardly be simpler: It’s the President’s policy because he is the senior ranking one of only two members of the entire Executive Branch who are elected. Everyone else serves at his pleasure. That’s the democratic system we have, and that’s how it needs to work.

Second, Chuck Hagel’s views on how to deal with Iran or Arab-Israeli conflicts would not be especially relevant were he to become Secretary of Defense. Any Secretary of Defense necessarily has his hands full managing American military assets––their creation, their husbanding, their management, and above all their use. Cabinet Secretaries do not make, or certainly should not be making, policy all by themselves. If the President decides when all is said and done that U.S. military force should be used to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons breakout, Chuck Hagel’s former (necessarily unevolved) statements on the matter won’t stop him.

Insofar as Senator Hagel has said things in the past relevant to defense, he did say that he thought that the Defense Department was bloated from many successive years of large budget hikes. Amazingly, some people took umbrage at that remark, but anyone who thinks it’s not true can’t possibly have his or her head screwed on straight. Spending on defense and intelligence has about doubled in real terms in the past decade. No organization can spend that much onrushing money wisely.

Obviously, there are intelligent and not-so-intelligent ways to deal with the bloat, and a massive and sudden $500 billion sequestration is definitely the wrong way to go about this sort of thing. We must get stronger even as we get leaner, and we can do that with strong leadership that knows to head off parochial bureaucratic selfishness among the uniformed services. Here, too, Hagel is not alone. When I talked with Brent Scowcroft a few years ago about the coming age of austerity for foreign and defense policy, he said more or less the same thing. Were he a few years younger, does anybody think that General Scowcroft couldn’t be an effective Secretary of Defense, just because he once said that the Defense Department needs to learn to do more with less?

Is Chuck Hagel the best choice to run the Pentagon? Maybe, maybe not. He has successful business experience, and he served in uniform in Vietnam. But he has no experience running an organization as massive as Defense. Nor has he served in any other senior capacity in the department (as has, for example, Ashton Carter), an experience that at least would have given him a valuable intuitive sense of how the place works. But there is usually no perfect candidate for this job.

Again, all of this is somewhat beside the point. If the President nominates him, the Senate should confirm him. If his nomination hearings were to become contentious on the basis of Senator Hagel’s policy views that have little to do with his prospective responsibilities, it would be a Jewcentric shame. We’re already in a situation ripe with harm. If the President now declines to nominate Senator Hagel, it will appear to many that his nomination was derailed by the so-called Jewish Lobby, a euphemism for what is construed to be a more or less monolithic Jewish view—this despite the fact that the American Jewish community in no way elected or endorsed the leadership of any secular Jewish advocacy organization. That will only embolden the tactics we’ve seen again in recent days, as, perhaps, the derailment of Chas Freeman’s nomination to head the National Intelligence Council back in March 2009 may have encouraged the current anti-Hagel effort.

Worse, whether contentious hearings derail or fail to derail Chuck Hagel’s route to the Pentagon, it would add to an unfortunate pattern that, one day, could backfire on both American Jewry and Israel. As Ben Shahn once said, “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.” It is one thing to state a case, offer a point of view, deign to speak truth to power; doing so is both commendable and a right in a free society. (I’m availing myself of that right now.) But coordinated campaigns of verbal intimidation breed resentment, and resentment accumulated within men can break forth as spite in forms of payback that are by no means limited to the merely verbal.

show comments
  • John Barker

    Why not reinvigorate authentic Judiasm with an increased effort at attracting non- believers to the faith? Many Americans(especially the educated upper middle class) live in a spiritual desert. Intellectuals could find a home in Judaism if they were educated about its wonders and learned that Judiasm was far more than Israel and the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

  • B

    Prescient as always.
    One typo, presumably: “Grating [SHOULD BE “GRANTING”, I believe. (Fixed. -eds.)] that his comparison with Hitler and even Stalin was pretty over the top…”
    One statement causing indredulity: Israelis give more money to charity per capita than the US. Source?

  • Martin Kramer

    “If the President now declines to nominate Senator Hagel, it will appear to many that his nomination was derailed by the so-called Jewish Lobby…” Oh, I doubt that. Most Republicans seem to view Hagel as some kind of fringe outlier, whose nomination won’t satisfy the criterion of bipartisanship. At the most, the so-called Jewish Lobby emboldened others to overcome their reticence and say what they really think. That includes Republicans who think Hagel is Republican in name only; Democrats who wonder why Defense isn’t finally entrusted to one of their own; gays who think Hagel is some sort of anti-gay bigot; and women who think Obama owes them a top cabinet spot now that Rice is out and Hillary is gone. In short, Hagel’s demise, if it happens, will have been over-determined (as we say in the social sciences). If a few bigots want to blame the Jews–well, what’s new? As Adam argues persuasively in this very same post, they’re few in number anyway, so who cares?

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  • Haim

    Jews are persecuted and despised when they are weak, feared and hated when they are strong. I prefer to be strong. Your diatribe has got nothing to refute the impression that Hagel has it in for the Jews, not only Israel. The most significant evidence of this problem comes from Nebraska, where he refused to meet with Jewish groups. As for Israel – great, he wants to talk to Hamas and doesn’t consider Iran a threat. This will fill our security relations with Israel with a new confidence for sure. Add to this our new State Secretary, who promised to Gulf sheikhs to force Israel to give “back” Temple Mount and the Golan Hights, and the picture becomes clear.

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  • mel kreitzer

    “Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the under dog. Put an underdog on top..”

    I mostly agree with you, Adam, but this part from Truman is a little strong, as you partly acknowledge. Besides the invocation of Stalin and Hitler, when, exactly, in 1947 were the Jews finally “on top”? And what cruelty to what under dog were the Jews guilty of? To the extent of exceeding the horrors of the Holocaust or the Gulag? I think that Hamas or Hezbollah would be delighted to quote this passage. Truman gets a deserved demerit in my book.

  • Bill Pearlman

    Personally, I think we would have been better off with Dewey in 1948

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