Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel’s most vocal anti-Zionist supporters questioned the sincerity of his recent foreign policy statements during a Wednesday panel at the National Press Club.
Hagel has renounced his prior opposition to imposing sanctions and using military force against Iran during the run-up to his nomination for defense secretary. However, his defenders at the panel, titled "Christian Zionism and American Islamaphobia," said Hagel is likely just echoing President Barack Obama’s stated policies.
"None of us were presumably present in the room when he was doing this walk-back. He was with a group of leaders of major Jewish organizations at the White House," said Phillip Giraldi, executive director of the Council for National Interest.
"I would prefer to think that he probably made the case that he doesn’t set the policies, he works for the White House, that the White House policy would be X-Y-Z. I would think if he’s an honorable man, which I have every reason to think he is, that was the way he packaged it."
Hagel was mentioned several times during the anti-Zionist panel discussion. But at no point did his supporters acknowledge any genuine shift in his foreign policy views.
"The attack on him is the neoconservative, the evangelical, and the military industrial complex, that sees him as a threat to the establishment," said John Basil Utley, associate publisher of the American Conservative.
According to Syrian professor Fuad Sha’ban, the objection to Hagel is based on religious support for Israel.
"You see objections to the nomination of Hagel. And I think the main reason is this religious issue," said Sha’ban. "In the [United] States, democracy guarantees that everyone can practice his religion, that everyone is free, that there is a separation between church and state. As a person looking from the outside, I see this working very well, except when it comes to the relations with Israel and the relations with Arabs and Muslims."
While Giraldi suggested he didn’t believe Hagel actually walked back his foreign policy positions, he had a different view on Sen. Rand Paul’s (R., Ky.) recent outreach to the pro-Israel community.
"I was a strong supporter of Ron Paul, and I somehow feel betrayed by Rand," said Giraldi. "I think Rand is giving every indication of being a politician who wants to be elected president and is figuring out how to do that."
A spokesperson for Hagel declined to comment.
The panelists said U.S. political support for Israel is due largely to the pernicious influence of the pro-Israel lobby, which they said sways the public and politicians through money and propaganda. According to Sha’ban—who grew up in Syria in the 1940s—this "propaganda" includes revisionism of Middle Eastern history.
"Jews were so prosperous [in Syria] that when we as children were taken to a doctor, the Jewish doctor was preferred by our parents," said Sha’ban. "Now in 1947, I remember that very clearly, some of my friends at the high school, Jewish, they were saying ‘We are now threatened if we do not leave for Israel.’ … They personally told me ‘We have to leave, we can’t stay. We’re threatened not by you and Syrians. We’re threatened by those who tell us if we don’t leave for Israel, that we will be subject to their attacks.’"
"Now the propaganda is that [Jews] were driven out of Syria and of the Arab world, that their lands, their property were confiscated and they had to leave," Sha’ban continued. "That did not happen."
Sha’ban did not mention that thousands of Syrian Jews fled to Israel after the "Aleppo pogrom," which occurred after the U.N. voted to partition Israel in 1947. Arab mobs attacked the Jewish quarter of Aleppo, killing 75 and burning hundreds of Jewish-owned stores, homes, and synagogues.