01/08/2013 09:51 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

Chuck Hagel: 'A Touch Anti-Semitic'? A 'Bugaboo Issue'

In his announcement nominating Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, the president said:

"And Chuck recognizes that American leadership is indispensable in a dangerous world. I saw this in our travels together across the Middle East. He understands that America stands strongest when we stand with allies and with friends."

I would assume that when the president refers to his travels with Hagel "across the Middle East," and mentions "allies and friends," Israel would certainly be included.

Thus, Hagel's recognition that America "stands strongest when we stand with" Israel should be a nudge for the "resisters" to question their concerns that Hagel "doesn't much like Israel" and, worse, their shameless accusation that Hagel is anti-Semitic.

This accusation -- Fred Kaplan calls it the "bugaboo issue" -- stems from the time, six years ago, when as a Senator Hagel complained to a reporter that "the Jewish lobby" intimidates many lawmakers on Capitol Hill. According to Kaplan, Hagel also "once mentioned that he was a senator from Nebraska, not a senator from Israel," to which Kaplan says, "These may have been impolitic remarks, but they weren't false -- either in strict substance or in spirit."

Kaplan maintains that "Hagel's sin," in the eyes of some, was to call it the "Jewish lobby" instead of the "Israel lobby" and as for saying that he's a senator from Nebraska, not Israel, Kaplan says:

"Had he or any other senator said this about any other country ('I'm not a senator from France... England... Canada' or wherever), no one would have batted an eye. To accuse him of anti-Semitism on these grounds is to reveal a staggeringly deep paranoia -- or a sensitivity far too acute to be allowed any role in American politics."

This week, in The Washington Post, a man who I believe is Jewish addresses this issue head-on.

While admitting that he has some qualms about the nomination, Richard Cohen blasts a Dec. 17 opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal that "implied Hagel was a touch anti-Semitic... and suggested that Hagel's statement that 'the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here' in Congress had 'the odor' of prejudice."

More specifically, the author of that attack piece, Bret Stephens, claims:

"Prejudice -- like cooking, wine-tasting and other consummations -- has an olfactory element. When Chuck Hagel, the former GOP senator from Nebraska who is now a front-runner to be the next secretary of Defense, carries on about how "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here," the odor is especially ripe.

Ripe because a "Jewish lobby," as far as I'm aware, doesn't exist. No lesser authorities on the subject than John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of The Israel Lobby, have insisted the term Jewish lobby is "inaccurate and misleading, both because the [Israel] lobby includes non-Jews like Christian Zionists and because many Jewish Americans do not support the hard-line policies favored by its most powerful elements."

Referring to the claims that Hagel's uttering of "the no-no phrase 'the Jewish lobby'" is supposedly a virtual confession of anti-Semitism, Cohen writes:

"The absurdity of this charge, leveled last month by editorial writer and columnist Bret Stephens, ought to be apparent to anyone who reads what Israelis themselves write. I direct Stephens and others to page 426 of Anita Shapira's new book, Israel: A History. She writes that when the George H.W. Bush administration in 1992 withheld $10 billion in loan guarantees, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir "enlisted the help of the Jewish lobby in the U.S. Congress, but in vain." Shapira is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University.

It is true, as Stephens writes, that Jews are not the only ones who support Israel, and it is likewise true that not all Jews support Israel -- or at least the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu... "

Calling the unremitting and underhanded attack on Hagel, especially the imputation of anti-Semitism, the most depressing aspect of Hagel's nomination, Cohen says:

"In fact, he could be the necessary corrective to the Netanyahu government's expectation that anything Israel wants from Washington it's entitled to get. Nothing Hagel has said about Israel is not said in the Israeli press on a daily basis. Trust me: By the Wall Street Journal's standards, Israeli media would be deeply anti-Semitic."

Cohen concludes:

"I thought the day had long passed when a skeptical attitude toward this or that Israeli policy would trigger charges of anti-Semitism. The accusation is so powerful -- so freighted with images of the Holocaust -- that it tends to silence all but the bravest or the most foolish. Israeli policy of late has been denounced by some steadfast champions of the Jewish state -- the New York Times' Thomas Friedman or the New Republic's Leon Wieseltier, for example -- so being caustically critical is hardly evidence of anti-Semitism. Rather, it can be a sign of good judgment, not to mention a caring regard for the aspirations of Zionism."

I would bet my bottom dollar that, along with Thomas Friedman, Leon Wieseltier and yours truly (of Jewish ancestry), Mr. Cohen is a steadfast champion of the Jewish state, too.