Why should Jewish concerns factor into President Obama's choice of former Senator Chuck Hagel to be his new Secretary of Defense? Beyond the suburbs of New York or Jerusalem, few can even understand the premise of such a question. But for too many leaders of American Jewish organizations, the answer is self-evident, as is their assumption that Israeli hardliners and U.S. Republicans are -- by default -- safer and better for Israel than any given moderate or liberal.
Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been talking down Barack Obama since before he became the Democratic nominee back in 2008. More recently, Netanyahu himself has been making statements seemingly calculated to reinforce Jewish and Israeli paranoia that a second Obama term will be bad for Israel. Reaction to the Hagel nomination indicates that Obama's resolute support for Israel's recent mini-war against Gaza rocket attacks helped burnished his pro-Israel cred but fell short of rehabilitation. And why?
Both passively and explicitly, a growing number of major Jewish organizations are letting the GOP and right-wing Israeli politicians co-opt the "pro-Israel" brand as window-dressing for their partisan agenda. This misleads the Jewish community and the broader public as to the true nature of their agenda. It is short-sighted, since it risks alienating many Americans -- including liberal Jews -- from anything to do with Israel. And it is ineffective, since -- despite investing millions in ads demonizing Obama's Israel record -- the GOP still lost Florida's Jewish vote by a 2-to-1 margin. The Jewish establishment is also increasingly irrelevant to Democratic and Republican administrations, since it appears to have little influence or ability to reward friends or punish perceived enemies.
Republicans can win some extra Jewish votes by branding Israel as their exclusive issue, but at the expense of scaring off other Jews who may think they don't belong unless they share the right-wing political agenda. If opposing expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and other Netanyahu policies is defined as anti-Israel, then many American Jews may eventually take the hint and seek out other, more forgiving causes than the Jewish State. In the end, the community organizations enabling this strategy will not have helped Israel or U.S.-Israel relations, nor even their collective mission of promoting Jewish communal cohesion, identity and continuity.
Most recently, leaders of the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and the West Coast-based Simon Wiesenthal Center have chimed in with their concerns about Hagel, and AJC launched a grassroots campaign against him without even waiting for the President's public announcement.
As far as Jewish political capital, the GOP-fueled headlines about Hagel's "Jewish" and "Israel" problems are flattering but fleeting. Just in the past few weeks, right-wing operatives and bloggers have also become oddly outraged about Hagel's onetime opposition to an openly gay nominee, a sensitivity that will last right up until the Senate confirms Hagel. Ultimately, this is not about Israel or gays, it's about Republicans punishing Hagel for breaking with Bush over Iraq and keeping our national security establishment safe for neo-conservatives.
Hagel's nomination will neither rise nor fall because Jewish organizations played into the GOP's political strategy, but their prestige and access will suffer as politicians of both parties note the lack of impact or consequences when Jewish leaders overreach and under-deliver.
Reflecting the partisan selectivity of official Jewish outrage, not one organization stood up for U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, a proven friend of Israel and of Jewish organizations, back when she was fending off right-wing attacks on her own abortive nomination. Had Rice been confirmed as Secretary of State, as the president had intended, she would have been far more relevant -- and helpful to Israel -- than any potential negatives, if any, which Hagel might present at the Pentagon.
The official "pro-Israel" brand promises little in the way of real reward or punishment. If Rice's four years of valiantly defending Israel against world leaders on First Avenue couldn't get her some public backup from the Jewish leaders on Second, Third and Madison Avenues, then what's the political incentive -- positive or negative -- for other politicians to help Israel going forward? In the 2012 election the Jewish "establishment" barely lifted a finger to reject the attacks on the president's Israel, and it didn't even matter. Policymakers who think the pro-Israel community still has real influence might at least consider it an unreliable ally.
By consistently framing the Jewish State within a partisan with-us-or-against-us formula, Netanyahu and the Republicans have delimited and diminished Israel's status. Israel risks being transformed from a bi-partisan, perennial, bedrock ally into a political and strategic problem to be solved and a weapon for politicians to use against each other. In fact, "risk" may be too optimistic a word.