It’s not easy being a free thinker these days.
Everywhere you go, someone is trying to tell you what to conclude, what opinion you should have. Television networks do it, newspapers and websites do it, and interest groups do it.
Sometimes it must seem that resistance is futile. After being bombarded ceaselessly with insistent voices demanding your loyalty, it is a wonder that you have the will to turn it all off, take a deep breath, and ponder the issues of the day on your own terms and in the matter that best suits you.
Wait, you say. There’s nothing wrong with advocacy or presenting ideas for public consumption and consideration. Of course not: Our nation and system of government are based upon – depend upon, in fact – the presentation of countervailing arguments.
It’s when the persuasion is crafted in such as way as to brand you disloyal to the cause if you demur, that things get messy and unproductive. Statements that imply all right-minded people must think or act a certain way are anathema to the notion of thinking for oneself.
We’re currently seeing this same phenomenon play out with respect to a potential Cabinet-level nominee of President Barack Obama. Recently the opinion pages have been flush with news about former United States Sen. Chuck Hagel. He can’t possibly make an effective Secretary of Defense, we’re informed, because he told the scholar Aaron David Miller six years ago that the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” in Congress. From this single comment, several surrogates for the Hagel opposition took to labeling the former legislator as anti-Semitic, thereby seeking to dismiss his legitimacy out of hand.
Using this slur based on an isolated statement when historical evidence appears to be lacking is offensive, bordering on defamatory – even Miller himself, last week in a thoughtful Foreign Policy piece on Hagel, called such accusations “shameful and scurrilous.” But it’s a shorthand way of trying to choke off substantive discussion and analysis of views that Hagel’s critics might find distasteful.
Let’s get one thing clear: We have little inkling if Hagel would make a great, a good or an awful Cabinet member, and in fact, he hasn’t even been yet nominated, let alone testified. We don’t know if he would contribute to making the Middle East a better place, Israel a safer place or Iran a less dangerous place.
We can surely draw inferences from his background, and we would have many penetrating questions for him as a nominee for forging and implementing our nation’s foreign policy. Why has he opposed sanctions on Iran? Why has he advocated for dialogue with Hamas, who has sworn to eradicate Israel, and for de-listing Hezbollah as a terrorist organization so that similar engagement can ensure? What do his historic statements of support for Israel mean, how do they translate into policies, and how do his views overlap with or diverge from those that are proffered by the current administration both here and in Israel?
We’ve said time and again that there are myriad ways of supporting Israel, and those ways are themselves expressed in myriad ways by various and sundry groups whose stated purpose is the safety, security and prosperity of the nation. Trying to quash effective dialogue about how we achieve those aims, or contending there is only one right way and everyone else is an enemy of the state, is a dangerous and counterproductive game.
Such a stance can preclude the introduction of voices who can be extremely helpful to the defense of Israel. Many in the organized pro-Israel lobby, for instance, opposed the nomination of George P. Shultz as Secretary of State in 1982. But P. Shultz turned out to be a strong and ardent partner of Israel under President Ronald Reagan, and produced these words eschewing the supposed indomitable force of the Israel lobby in an introduction to Abraham Foxman’s book The Deadliest Lies:
The United States supports Israel not because of favoritism based on political pressure or influence but because the American people, and their leaders, say that supporting Israel is politically sound and morally just.
Hagel is a pragmatic internationalist who happens to embrace tactics apart from those of the current Israeli government and its proponents. That in and of itself is not emblematic of anything other than a difference of opinion about what might be effective in achieving the ultimate goal of a two-state solution and a peaceful Middle East. To dismiss the legitimacy of such difference out of hand, without an informed and meaningful discussion, robs us all of what we so sorely need – broad, reasonable and open-minded dialogue. That would be a refreshing substitution for the same old intransigent branding that got us here in the first place.