Chuck Hagel and the Ghost of AIPAC Past

AIPAC comes knocking with a pro-Israel letter, and ‘then you’ll get 80 to 90 senators on it. I don’t think I’ve ever signed one of the letters.’

When someone would accuse him of not being pro-Israel because he didn’t sign the letter, Hagel told me he responds: “‘I didn’t sign the letter because it was a stupid letter.” Few legislators talk this way on the Hill. Hagel is a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values. “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” but as he put it, “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”

–Chuck Hagel to Aaron David Miller, The Much Too Promised Land

The kerfuffle over Chuck Hagel’s use of the term “Jewish lobby” — and the implication that some members of Congress are intimidated by it — pervades the right-wing media and its echo chamber in the blogosphere. Since Hagel was floated as a possible Secretary of Defense, some American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) representatives, among them former spokesman Josh Block and former Executive Director Morris Amitay, have denounced Hagel’s characterization. Even progressives are not immune to debating its appropriateness. M. J. Rosenberg, also a veteran of the AIPAC but now one of its fiercest critics, writes:

It is true that it is impolitic to use the term “Jewish lobby” rather than “Israel lobby” although the very same people criticizing Hagel for using the former term objected just as vehemently when Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer used the latter in their book on the subject. In any case, the term Jewish lobby is accurate when one refers to organizations like the American Jewish Committee or the Anti-Defamation League, etc. They are Jewish organizations and not AIPAC, the registered Israel lobby.

AIPAC’s rebranding of itself as “America’s pro-Israel lobby” instead of  the “Jewish lobby” is also relatively recent. The critiques of AIPAC from both the right and left overlook a long paper trail of AIPAC’s self-perception and self-description, which for much of its history — from the 1950s through the 1990s — has reveled in its role as the voice of “the Jewish community.” In Israel today it still is regarded as such, as Chemi Shalev points out in Haaretz:

The most frivolous of the accusations against Hagel, from a strictly Israeli point of view, is his statement to Aaron David Miller that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” in Washington. First, because the term “Jewish lobby” in Hebrew is in common use and is a widely accepted Israeli synonym for AIPAC. Second, because Israelis take pride and comfort in the legendary prowess and influence of the lobby that supports them.

In November 1981, Wolf Blitzer, now a familiar face on CNN but back then the Washington correspondent  for the Jerusalem Post, wrote an article titled “The AIPAC Formula” for Moment magazine, then a top quality monthly journal under the editorial aegis of Leonard Fein. In it, Blitzer traced the evolution of AIPAC from its founding in 1954 to “the sexy Jewish organization” whose rising profile could be viewed as resulting largely from the heightened increase in US government assistance to Israel:

…with the exception of South Viet Nam, Israel has received more U.S. governmental assistance than any other foreign country–including all of the Western European nations during the post-World War II Marshall plan…The need to keep up with an escalating arms race in the Middle East guarantees that Israel’s foreign aid requests from the United States are going to continue for the foreseeable future.

…one reason AIPAC has become so much of a force in the American Jewish community in recent years is the fact that the Israeli government itself has come to rely on AIPAC for advice in understanding the complicated U.S. legislative process. “The Jewish lobby” [emphasis added]  has come to be a well-known phenomenon in Israel since the 1973 war. As Israelis concentrate more of their foreign policy on relations with the United States, they come to understand the critical role played by AIPAC and other supporting Jewish organizations in winning friends and influencing people on behalf of closer U.S.-Israel relations.

Blitzer pointed out that an AIPAC  mailing on Sept. 8, 1981 included a quote from the New York Times calling AIPAC “The most powerful, best-run and effective foreign policy interest group in Washington”, and another from the Washington Post that said AIPAC was “A power to be reckoned with at the White House, State and Defense Departments, and on Capitol Hill.” (Much of this was accomplished by the strategy of AIPAC’s new executive director at the time, Tom Dine, according to J.J. Goldberg’s 1996 book, Jewish Power: Inside The American Jewish Establishment. “Dine openly trumpeted AIPAC’s clout, boasting about ‘Jewish political power’ to mass audiences, in the obvious belief that an outsized reputation would intimidate the opposition.” [Emphasis added])

A month later, in the December 1981 issue of Moment, Aaron Rosenbaum deconstructed AIPAC’s unsuccessful attempt to block the Reagan administration’s sale of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia in “The AWACs Aftermath.” However, wrote Rosenbaum, who spent eight years as AIPAC’s Director of Research (1972-80), “every circumstance contains opportunities.” AIPAC had lost a battle, but it would be better prepared for the next one:

The Jewish community emerges from the fight politically cohesive, ideologically coherent, respected, unbroken, better organized than ever. After the F-15, Jewish lobbying power [emphasis added] was materially diminished. Not this time. The AWACS campaign allowed the Jews to recapture politically what had been lost three years ago to build upon it.  The AWACS campaign  paved the way to broader ties to labor (with the coalition for strategic stability in the Middle East) and religious groups (with Christians United for American Security and the Christian Leadership Conference for Israel) as well to national security types that now have a better appreciation of the value of Israel.

Rosenbaum also outlined what would become an important  component of AIPAC’s future strategy:

…The American Jewish community has to avoid a desire for “revenge” and practice pragmatism wherever possible. Simultaneously it must start cutting definitive deals with both congressmen and candidates. Jews are increasingly sick of politicians who pledge their support for Israel yet always seem to vote the wrong way. The best way to channel good intentions is to tie them to some positive act with which the member of Congress feels comfortable. Once done, it becomes a precedent, a hook on which one can hang the encouragement that is lobbying.

One of the means AIPAC developed for “channeling good intentions” is the sign-on letter through which a member of the House or Senate reaffirms his/her support for Israel (and since the 1990’s, opposition to Iran). These letters have, as Rosenbaum foresaw, helped create a near-unanimous consensus on “support for Israel,” even today in an ideologically bifurcated Congress whose members can agree on little else. Hagel was well within his rights as a senator to abstain from signing them and considering them “stupid.”

All in all, according to Rosenbaum:

The Battle Over the AWACS was a good fight. It would have been better, to be sure, had the sale been blocked. The transaction will pose a real threat both to the United States and to Israel. But the opponents of the sale hardly come away empty handed and defeated. They defended a position consistent with the best interests and ideals of the United States.

As we now know, the sale of AWACs to Saudi Arabia was nowhere nearly as damaging to Israel, nor to the interests of the US, as Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon would prove to be. But the claim that AIPAC was defending the interests, not just of Israel, but of the US itself, would catch on and become the organization’s mantra.

“In the next confrontation,” Rosenbaum concluded, “our opponents will act as if those they are attempting to persuade have no memory and historical consciousness. The Jews, a people defined by their money and sense of historical purpose, will have an opportunity and an obligation to show how wrong they are.”

Jews, a people defined by their money…” One can only imagine Josh Block‘s response if Chuck Hagel had said that!

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. This is the most comprehensive piece yet written about the Jewish Lobby’s attempt to destroy Hagel, the group of the former senator’s critics who Obama will pay any attention to.

    But now it seems, with the Lobby having dug up some anti-gay statements by Hagel 14 years ago against gays in the military and James Hormel, the first openly gay US ambassador, views that were commonplace at the time, it has found a way to sabotage a Hagel appointment without the finger being pointed at the thugs behind the hatchet job, namely, activists and organizations that make up the Jewish Lobby. That the Jewish establishment, AKA The Lobby, doesn’t represent all Jews is irrelevant. The “establishment” speaks on behalf of the majority.

  2. When AIPAC was ascendant, it loved to call itself and be called “Jewish Lobby” and “Israel Lobby”, etc. Now that it is (or so I hope) descendant, [“The Rise and FALL of APIAC”] and its actions causing some anti-Jewish feeling among non-Zionist Americans, it seeks to make it politically illegitimate to use these terms. How can one refer to AIPAC (other than by name, of course) if “Jewish Lobby” and “Israel Lobby” are vorboten? Shall we say that “pro-Israel propaganda and political pressure is exerted by [nameless]” ?

    Pretty soon, use of the phrase “pro-Israel propaganda” will be (if it is not already) forbidden — on the claim that its use is anti-Semitic! (This should be expected to happen, actually, in line with the AIPAC/Hillel attempts to delegitimize pro-Palestinian talk on campuses as anti-Semitic.)

    Reminds me of the Japanese “thought police”, disparaged by Americans during WWII. For reference: “The Tokk? [est. 1911] was also known as the “Peace Police” (Chian Keisatsu), or more notoriously by the term “Thought Police” (Shiso Keisatsu),[2] a phrase later used in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Anyone who tries to enforce particular speech (or to enforce silence) is, to my thought, “thought police”.

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