During the hearings on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense, it’s clear that the views of gay rights organizations will be heard. There the issue seems to be whether Hagel’s apology for previous remarks and beliefs was sincere, or motivated solely by self-interest. He had years to apologize publicly, but did so only when opposition from gay rights groups threatened his nomination.
But in the case of allegations of anti-Semitism, Hagel has not even apologized. He has remained silent, though one can expect the usual “perhaps I didn’t word that sentence as best I might have” excuse to emerge at his hearings. The question is, what might he have to apologize for? Why would anyone think he was an anti-Semite?
Here the testimony of the Jewish community that knew him best is most useful: Nebraskans. And the record seems unchallenged: Nebraskan Jewish activists and officials have said he was hostile, and none—including Obama supporters and Democratic party activists—have come forward to counter that allegation.
The flavor of the accounts is given in a headline in one Jewish website: “Nebraska Jews Recall Senator Chuck Hagel as ‘Unfriendly’ and ‘Unmovable’ on Israel, ‘Didn’t Give a Damn About the Jewish Community.’” The former editor of the Omaha Jewish Press recalled that “Hagel was the only one we have had in Nebraska, who basically showed the Jewish community that he didn’t give a damn about the Jewish community or any of our concerns.” Another community leader commented that “During his last year in office, we knew he was not going to run again, he never returned any of our calls.”
Hagel seems to have a thing about “the Jews,” as the story of the USO in Haifa also shows. During the 1980s, U.S. Navy ships began to dock in Haifa, ultimately reaching 40 to 50 ships and 45,000 sailors a year visiting there. The Sixth Fleet asked for a USO facility and got one in 1984, and when ships were in port 400-500 sailors a day would visit the USO there. When USO budget problems risked the closure of the facility, the Sixth Fleet fought back and kept it open—until ship visits declined sharply in the 1990s and the facility was shuttered.
Haifa was in many ways an ideal port for U.S. Navy visitors, as a 1986 USO newsletter reflected:
Commander Edward Simmons of the [USS] Eisenhower attributes "the remarkable absence of incidents" to "the response of the people here in Haifa. It's so sincere. Everything has been superb. I've never seen a more coordinated and hospitable port anywhere. The fleet landing service and the other services provided by the Israeli navy were flawless. But what I feel most strongly about is the hospitality, not just of the Israeli navy. The people here have been the warmest and most welcoming I've ever seen." Captain Philip Olson of the [USS] Mississippi agreed, adding that "being able to walk down the street and converse with anyone and to feel the response of friendliness and the desire to help and a genuine interest in your well-being - the best way to sum it up is the warmth of the people." Informal remarks made by blue-jacketed sailors with their distinctive white caps confirmed the opinions expressed at higher levels. An 18-year-old sailor from "somewhere in Alabama" grins. "Compared to other countries'? There's no comparison. This is heaven."
The Israeli who headed the USO site, Gila Gerson, was later given a prize by the U.S. Navy for her work. There seems little doubt that USO Haifa was immensely successful and valued.
It’s in that context that Hagel’s 1989 effort to shut it down, and his comments when doing so, become problematic. A meeting with officials of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), which sought to keep USO Haifa open, was described by Marsha Halteman of JINSA to the Washington Free Beacon.
“He said to me, ‘Let the Jews pay for it.’ He essentially told us that if we wanted to keep the USO [in Haifa] open—and when I say ‘we,’ he meant ‘the Jews’—he said the Jews could pay for it. I told him at the time that I found his comments to be anti-Semitic.”
That’s precisely what the Senate Armed Services Committee should be wondering, too. They ought to call as witnesses some of the Nebraska Jewish leaders who recall Hagel as a man hostile to their community and ask why they formed that conclusion. They ought to call those who attended the USO meeting where Hagel said, “Let the Jews pay for it,” and ask about his demeanor at that session. That the USO had budget problems is clear, but what other locations did Hagel seek to close? Did he ever suggest that the Japanese or Germans or Emiratis or Italians pay for a USO site? Did he ever suggest that Italian-Americans or Japanese-Americans pay for USO facilities overseas? Did he ever try, in good faith and without bigotry, to work with the American Jewish community and the government of Israel to see if, in fact, additional private support could be found for the immensely popular Haifa site—or did he just say, “Let the Jews pay for it,” with the hostility recalled by Nebraskan Jews?
Perhaps there are answers, and perhaps Mr. Hagel actually has no problem with “the Jews.” But one purpose of confirmation hearings should be to find out.