The Jewish Lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. . . . I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator. I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States—not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that.
Much has been made of why Senator Hagel’s now-infamous words are so offensive to American Jews. The statement, it has been noted, conjures images of dual loyalty, and implies that Washington politicians are in the pocket of a Jewish cabal that does not truly seek the interests of the United States. These criticisms are certainly true, but it is important that American Jews also articulate another profound problem with Senator Hagel’s statement: that it both ignores the existence of the many millions of non-Jewish Americans who care deeply about Israel’s security, and reflects disregard for why they do so.
This devotion to Israel’s well-being was made most manifest to me when I was privileged to deliver an invocation at the Republican National Convention last August. In my prayer, I spoke of the American belief that our liberties were the gift of God, and that in enunciating this principle America had been called to serve as a “beacon of freedom to the world, and an ally of free countries like the State of Israel, an island of liberty, democracy, and hope.” The audience, composed almost entirely of non-Jews, broke into applause at these words, an unusual reaction to an invocation. Most overwhelming was the warm reaction I received from the delegates throughout the day, thanking me for my prayer, and expressing their concern for, and blessings on, Israel.
This expression of love for Israel was not, as is often unfairly suggested, founded on apocalyptic expectations, but rather on the conviction that Israel is indeed an island of liberty in a region that is an ocean of hostility to America and the American idea. As such, Israel’s endurance represents a triumph of the American vision—a vision that was, in part, inspired by the Bible, the book bequeathed to the world by Ancient Israel. The depth of this American conviction was most eloquently expressed not in a rabbinic invocation, but rather in a speech made by a non-Jewish former governor of Texas, who never served as a senator from Israel, but did spend eight years as president of the United States:
The alliance between our governments is unbreakable, yet the source of our friendship runs deeper than any treaty. It is grounded in the shared spirit of our people, the bonds of the Book, the ties of the soul. . . . In spite of the violence, in defiance of the threats, Israel has built a thriving democracy in the heart of the Holy Land. You have welcomed immigrants from the four corners of the Earth. You have forged a free and modern society based on a love of liberty, a passion for justice, and a respect for human dignity. You have worked tirelessly for peace. And you have fought valiantly for freedom.
These words were spoken by President George W. Bush in celebration of the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding. If someone had lived his entire life in Israel and never met an American, he might have been surprised by the profound love for the Jewish state expressed by this non-Jewish president. Yet Americans understand that the president was giving voice not only to his own views but also to those of so many other citizens of the United States. It is because of these Americans that the United States has stood steadfastly with Israel. If anyone ought to understand this, it is a certain former “United States senator”—and a Nebraskan, representiing Middle America, no less.
Before the 2012 election, one editor of a prominent American Jewish newspaper mused that in contrast to President Obama, Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush scored high on what he called “the kishka factor,” a Yiddish way of saying that these two presidents embodied a love for Israel in their gut, an “emotional kinship to the Jewish State.” Senator Hagel has, in the past decade, made the state of his own kishkes quite clear.