Hagel And The Neo-McCarthyites
by Bernard Avishai
I am just old enough to remember grown-up disquiet when speaking of McCarthyism—the first thick book I read was Louis Nizer's My Life in Court, which was largely about the libel case of Quentin Reynolds against Westbrook Pegler, the impresario of the scurrilous Red Channels—and I remember feeling a certain pride in the very large number of Jewish liberals who, like Nizer, helped bring America back to its senses.
Let the galoots disgrace themselves attacking war-heroes like General Marshall. Let weird groups like the John Birchers and Daughters of the American Revolution and Republican Tafters impugn a man's integrity, then repeat each others' insinuations, then spread them to widening circles in captive media (where sympathetic pens were waiting). Let them point to the public doubts they themselves manufactured "out of whole cloth," as my father used to say. Jews, and Jewish organizations, knew where they stood in the face of such smears. They stood for fairness, patience, sanity. We knew for whom an unfair, impatient, insane America would not "be good for."
There was Fred Friendly, who collaborated with Edward R. Murrow in challenging McCarthy on CBS. There was Arthur Miller, whose 1953 play, "The Crucible," about the Salem witch trials, was a thinly veiled attack on the House Un-American Activities Committee. There was I.F. Stone who, forced to strike out on his own, proved the grandeur of the first amendment. There was Commentary Magazine before Norman Podhoretz lost his mind. In the America I knew, which only grew more so during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, American Jews—with their worldly souls and experience of the social margins—were the natural opponents (because potential victims) of the fear, flocking, and fanaticism that produced political libels.
Which brings me to Sen. Hagel. I think it is time to acknowledge, bluntly, that certain major Jewish organizations, indeed, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations—also, the ADL, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, political groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition, along with their various columnists, pundits, and list-serves—are among the most consistent purveyors of McCarthyite-style outrages in America today. Are there greater serial defamers of public officials in fake campaigns against defamation? Starting with Andrew Young and the late Charles Percy, and on to Chas. Freeman and (now) Chuck Hagel, the game has been to keep Congresspeople and civil servants who might be skeptical of Israel's occupation and apologetics in a posture that can only be called exaggerated tact.
Fault Israel and you are accused of faulting Jews in our collective state, or, the same thing, overlooking the venality of our enemies—things only an anti-Semite would do and, of all times, in the wake of the Holocaust. This is not a charge anyone in public life wants to suffer or try to deny. My Israeli friends love that old Borsch-belt joke, that anti-Semitism means disliking Jews more than necessary. For American Jewish organizations, the very idea that dislike is ever warranted is proof of bigotry, like Philip Roth's early novels were proof of "self-hatred."
AIPAC et al know that if American politicians—and especially those fighting routinely for Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio—are not cowed by the fear of being branded as anti-Semitic they may not be embarrassed into backing Israeli actions ritualistically. Where is the shame and who is our Murrow?
I won't presume to go through the credentials that make Chuck Hagel fit for appointment as Defense Secretary; I saw and heard him in person only once. I also won't repeat, or defend him against, all the fatuous charges leveled against him. Others have done this better than I could. (If you want a comprehensive list of the AIPAC-inspired letters Hagel refused to sign, you can find it here.)
Will no one put an end to this? I don't mean someone who will simply speak in Hagel's defense (like the Omaha rabbi whose synagogue Hagel regularly visited). I mean reveal and condemn this obnoxious system of moral extortion. Where is the American Jewish figure with the necessary gravitas and credibility to expose the Jewish organizations in question and tell them that their defamations have to stop; someone who, like Murrow, will go on the offense specifically against this disgusting, AIPAC-inspired method of vetting politicians on some "pro-Israel" scale—someone who'll denounce the lobby's ways of creating buzz in destroying the reputations of honorable public servants?
Where is Morley Safer or Bob Simon on "60 Minutes"? Come to think of it, where is John Stewart, our real Murrow nowadays, who'll take on the methods of Fox News, and even imply peacenik positions on the conflict, but otherwise cannot seem to get beyond Joseph Lieberman impersonations?
The exposure of AIPAC et al must rather come from American Jews of the old school who have conservative credentials and something of a bully pulpit. This is their moment. The sigh of relief will be loud. And I know a great many Israelis who will join in.