Nebraska Jews’ opinions of Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be defense secretary became a talking point in the national debate, but their views are much more varied and nuanced than have been portrayed.

The former Republican senator has supporters and critics among Jews in his home state, often depending on their political leanings. President Barack Obama’s nomination of Hagel is controversial partly because of Hagel’s record on issues related to Israel and his comments about Israel and Jews.

Two prominent Nebraska Jewish friends of Hagel — Norfolk businessman Richard Robinson and Omaha Rabbi Aryeh Azriel — leapt to his defense after some of the nominee’s critics accused Hagel of being anti-Israel, even anti-Semitic. Hagel has called those attacks baseless.

Robinson called them ridiculous, as did Azriel.

“I’m Jewish, I believe in Israel, I believe in my religion,” said Robinson, president of Norfolk Iron & Metal. “To say he is any of those things, that’s just people who have their own agendas, and that’s the politics of cutting down the other side.”

Azriel, the politically liberal leader of Temple Israel, said he and Hagel talked for hours before the Republican first ran for the Senate in 1996 and have talked numerous times since. He said Hagel had spoken to the Temple Israel congregation a few times.

“Not ever for a moment did I doubt his feelings about Jews or Israel,” Azriel said.

Meanwhile, criticism of Hagel by former Jewish Press newspaper editor Carol Katzman and Omaha Jewish leader Gary Javitch entered the national debate. They were cited in a New York-based Jewish newspaper, the Algemeiner, that conservative foreign policy analyst Elliott Abrams cited as evidence the Nebraska Jewish community considered him hostile.

Katzman was editor of the Jewish Press throughout Hagel’s 1996-2008 Senate tenure. She said he treated her dismissively by not calling her or her staff back for stories, by not buying ads in the paper’s special holiday sections and by not meeting with her to be lobbied on foreign policy.

Campaign finance records show that Hagel did buy ads in the Jewish Press in at least three years, 2003, 2005 and 2007.

Tom Janssen, a former Hagel Senate staffer, said Friday that Hagel was the opposite of dismissive. Janssen did not recall specific meetings with Katzman but said the staff took pride in responding to constituents and was “very responsive” to the media.

“We worked well with various groups, including with the Jewish Press,” he said.

Katzman called her experience with Hagel troubling, especially in the context of his refusal to sign letters and resolutions from pro-Israeli groups, his views on using military force against Iran and some of his comments that have drawn national criticism.

While a senator, Hagel once said “the Jewish lobby (in the United States) intimidates a lot of people here.” He also said “I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator.”

The new conservative online news outlet Washington Free Beacon has reported that Hagel tried to close down a USO center in Haifa, Israel, in 1989. At the time, Hagel was international head of the USO, which provides entertainment and support services to U.S. troops and their families. Hagel allegedly told a supporter of the center, “Let the Jews pay for it,” the Free Beacon reported.

“I’m not going to call him an out-and-out anti-Semite, although some of his comments sound like it,” said Katzman, who now lives in Kansas.

Looking closer, news organizations, including Israeli newspapers, use the term “Jewish lobby” to refer to the pro-Israel lobby. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, used the term in December, the New York Times reported.

The Haifa story also has been called into question. Eventually, after a public outcry, Hagel and the USO board kept the center open in 1989, though it closed in 2002. The news magazine the Atlantic quoted the director of the Haifa USO center at the time and a former commander of the Israeli Navy as saying Hagel opposed closing the center. Retired Rear Adm. Ze’ev Almog told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Hagel “was always attentive and friendly toward Israel.”

Hagel, in deference to tradition for Cabinet nominees, was not granting interviews.

Officials working for Hagel in the confirmation process said Friday he is a strong supporter of Israel and has worked throughout his career to strengthen Israel’s security and the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“Hagel’s support has been well-documented in his Senate floor speeches, opinion pieces, interviews, public speeches and 2008 book,” said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “As a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hagel voted consistently to support Israel, including voting to provide nearly $40 billion in military and security assistance over the 12 years he served in the Senate.”

The truth about how Jews in Nebraska feel about Hagel is more complicated than portrayed by Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.

For one thing, there isn’t a monolithic “Jewish community” in the state. Among religious and other differences, Jews hold a variety of political opinions. And while they generally share deep support for Israel, they don’t all agree on U.S. policy toward Israel and the Middle East, or on Israel’s own policies.

Opinions on Hagel break down along the lines of political ideology, said history professor Moshe Gershovich, a native Israeli who directs the Natan and Hannah Schwalb Center for Israel and Jewish Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“It depends on whether you are a liberal Jew or a conservative Jew,” Gershovich said.

Politically conservative Jews, he said, may have problems with Hagel because of his views regarding a preemptive U.S. war against Iran, an idea Hagel has opposed in the past.

Politically liberal Jews generally are more supportive of Hagel, he said.

There’s a legitimate debate to be had about Hagel’s policy stances, Gershovich said.

“The real debate should be about whether or not his approach to foreign policy is the correct approach,” Gershovich said. “I happen to be believe that his approach is correct, because I believe the president’s approach is correct.”

He said people would view Hagel as anti-Israel if they saw Obama as anti-Israel. Gershovich said Hagel had a solid voting record in supporting Israel as a senator. The idea that Hagel is anti-Semitic is “completely ridiculous” and “a gross misrepresentation” of Hagel’s record and comments regarding Jews and the state of Israel, he said.

“I don’t see anything in Sen. Hagel’s previous record to say that he would be anything different than any secretary of defense,” Gershovich said.

However, a number of Jewish groups, including the centrist American Jewish Committee, have raised concerns about Hagel’s record regarding Israel. Those groups include the Anti-Defamation League, which came out strongly against Hagel when his name was first floated for defense secretary but has since softened its position to saying Hagel has a lot of questions to answer, especially about Iran.

Javitch, an Omaha businessman and active volunteer leader in many Jewish and pro-Israeli organizations, noted that Jewish opposition to Hagel crosses party lines. The National Jewish Democratic Council, for example, had criticized Hagel as “anti-Israel” or “questionable” on Israel in the past. The council now says it’s confident in Obama’s choice.

Javitch said he dealt with Hagel several times while president of B’nai B’rith Omaha, a Jewish advocacy and service group. Javitch stressed that he spoke for this story as an individual, and not for the group.

He lined up a number of speeches by Hagel at B’nai B’rith “Breadbreakers” luncheons. Javitch also met with Hagel in Washington to lobby him on policy. He said Hagel dominated the conversations in those meetings, leaving Javitch little time to speak or ask questions. He said Hagel would not sign onto advocacy groups’ letters that Javitch offered, even when most other senators did.

“He was really unsupportive of the issues we presented to him that were pro-Israel,” said Javitch, who said he believes Hagel is soft on Iran and Hamas and blames Israel too much for failures of peace talks with Palestinians.

Javitch said he “would not call Hagel anti-Semitic” but said “some of his comments are suspect.”

Hagel has said he had a policy against signing letters to foreign leaders telling them what to do because he believed such letters are counterproductive.

Janssen, the former Hagel staffer, said Hagel liked to meet with constituents, including those with opposing views, and listened to those views as well as expressing his own.

“I remember more than not (Hagel’s) being behind schedule because he took more time than we had allotted (for constituent meetings),” Janssen said. “He enjoyed the give and take.”

It is a sign of how split Jews are on Hagel that Omahan Robert Eisenberg, who has been active in some of the same Jewish organizations as Javitch and Katzman, avidly supports Hagel.

Eisenberg bought a large advertisement in The World-Herald on Dec. 29 supporting Hagel before his nomination had been formally announced.

As an American Jew and the son of a Holocaust survivor, Eisenberg said he’s “very pro-Israel” but often disagrees with the Israeli government. He said Hagel is the best person for the job, not only for American interests, but also for Israel’s.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1057, christopher.burbach@owh.com

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