American Jews offered mixed responses to President Barack Obama's nomination of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, with many concerned that his past remarks on Israel, Iran sanctions, and homosexuality made him the wrong choice for the jobs.
The National Jewish Democratic Council expressed confidence Hagel would follow what it called President Obama's "unprecedented" pro-Israel record.
The statement Monday morning came before Obama's formal announcement expected later Monday nominating Hagel, a former Republican senator, for defense secretary.
"President Barack Obama's unprecedented pro-Israel credentials are unquestionable, and setting policy starts and stops with the president," said the statement, which was not attached to the name of an NJDC official.
"While we have expressed concerns in the past, we trust that when confirmed, former Senator Chuck Hagel will follow the President's lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel -- on strategic cooperation, missile defense programs, and leading the world against Iran's nuclear program."
The pro-Israel lobby J Street welcomed the nomination, adding that it too was "confident [Hagel] will be a great addition to President Obama's cabinet."
In a letter to Senator Car Levin, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami defended Hagel as the right man for the job, adding that it found it "troubling that some claiming to represent the pro-Israel community have tried to impugn Senator Hagel’s commitment to the U.S.-Israel special relationship and our countries’ shared security interests.
"Senator Hagel brings to the job a long record of accomplishment and service to the nation, informed by a deep understanding of the appropriate uses and limitations of the exercise of U.S. military power. Hagel's personal experiences as a decorated war hero in Vietnam and his deep involvement in the debates over the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan taught him that resort to military force must always be a last resort," wrote Ben-Ami. "This record inspires confidence that he will be a trusted adviser to the president as the country faces its many challenges."
"That is why it is particularly troubling that some claiming to represent the pro-Israel community have tried to impugn Senator Hagel’s commitment to the U.S.-Israel special relationship and our countries’ shared security interests," he added. "A fact-based analysis of Senator Hagel’s record shows that he has been a staunch friend, standing with our community on the critical issues."
"Senator Hagel has demonstrated that he is committed to Israel's security and its future as a democratic state with a Jewish majority living in peace with its neighbors," wrote Ben-Ami. "The fact that he has insisted on independent thinking, weighing each issue on its merits instead of blindly following along with the herd, we regard as an asset."
The American Jewish Committee, however, said it was concerned about the choice of Hagel, adding that it was anticipating a "full Senate examination of Hagel's record".
"The president, of course, has the prerogative to select members of his Cabinet, but the Senate is obligated to probe the record and vision of every nominee. We look forward to Senator Chuck Hagel’s responses to Senators’ questions to determine whether he is the best choice for secretary of defense," said AJC Executive Director David Harris.
"There are serious concerns about Hagel’s commitments to the efficacy of sanctions and a credible military option against Iran, on pressing the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, on sustaining the U.S. policy on the terrorist Hamas regime in Gaza, on the special nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship and Israel’s quest for peace and security, and on gay rights," Harris added.
"All of these issues have been central to the Obama Administration's agenda, but Hagel's voting record during his Senate career, his many interviews and speeches, and his published op-eds suggest a discrepancy on many key policy questions that requires careful Senate examination."
Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League's national director, also had reservations about the nomination stating that Hagel would not be his first choice. "I trust that the confirmation process will provide an opportunity for Senator Hagel to address concerns about his positions, which seem so out of sync with President Obama’s clear commitment on issues like Iran sanctions, isolating Hamas and Hezbollah and the president’s strong support for a deepening of U.S. Israel strategic cooperation," Foxman's statement said.
In 2007, when Hagel was considering a presidential run, the NJDC distributed an attack sheet on Hagel, noting his equivocation on such issues such as Iran sanctions and his criticism of some Israeli policies.
Hagel, after quitting politics in 2008, drew closer to his then-fellow senator, Barack Obama, over a shared opposition to intensifying the U.S. presence in Iraq.
In 2009, NJDC's then-executive director, Ira Forman, said it would be problematic for the group if newly elected President Obama, as it was then rumored, would nominate Hagel for a top Cabinet post. Forman's successor as NJDC's top official, David Harris, had until Monday refused to weigh in on the matter.
A number of prominent Jewish Democrats, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), have suggested they would support Hagel, but others like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have expressed reservations and still others have been outright opposed, including Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee; former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a contender to replace Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for an interim should Kerry be confirmed as expected as secretary of state; and Susan Turnbull, a former vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, who is active in the NJDC.
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