The Debate

In 2005 Letter, Hagel Asked UN Chief to Condemn Iran’s “Anti-Semitism”

Despite being called an anti-Semite, past actions may prove otherwise.

Since before President Obama officially nominated him as his next Secretary of Defense on Monday, former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) faced a wide-ranging set of criticisms including that he is "soft" on Iran and doesn't support Israel.

More troubling,  a growing number of Hagel's critics are now going further in claiming that Hagel doesn't just not support Israel but is in fact an anti-Semite, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as  "hostility towards or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group." These charges first emerged last month with an article by the The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens entitled "Chuck Hagel's Jewish Problem." 

They have only become more frequent over the last few days however. Speaking of Hagel's coming nomination on Sunday, the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin said  "This is not merely about Israel or Iran policy or defense spending. It is about the acceptability of the worst expression of anti-Semitism." The following day when Hagel was officially nominated, AEI's Danielle Pletka wrote in USA Today that Hagel displayed "troubling hints of anti-Semitism," while the Council on Foreign Relations' Elliot Abrams told NBR that Hagel appears to be "an anti-Semite. It's not just being anti-Israel. He's got a problem with what he calls the Jews."

Interestingly, Hagel himself as a history of condemning others for anti-Semitism. While Stephens, Rubins, Pletka, and Abrams have made their allegations against a two-term Senator who, by some estimates, supported over $40 billion of U.S. aid to Israel while in the senate and visited the country regularly, Hagel has reserved his accusations for none other than the President and Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who Hagel is now charged with appeasing.

In a letter dated December 21, 2005 — a few months after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became Iran's President — Senators Hagel and Evan Bayh (D-IN) wrote to then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urging him to get the UN General Assembly to pass a resolution condemning "the anti-Semitic and hateful statements" Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and its Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had recently made."

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The letter begins: "We write you to express our outrage at the anti-Semitic and hateful statements being made both by the President and by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran threatening the United States, denying the Holocaust, and rejecting the existence of the State of Israel."

The senators next express their appreciation to Kofi for personally criticizing the Iranian leaders' statements, and to the UN Security Council also condemning them. Deeming these actions insufficient, however, Hagel and Bayh insist that Kofi demonstrate "leadership" in ensuring the UN General Assembly follows suit by passing a "strong resolution" condemning the Iranian leaders.

"We appreciate comments made by you, as well as by the Security Council, in rejection of these offensive charges, but urge your leadership in making sure the General Assembly passes a strong resolution of condemnation against these actions."

The senators also explain that they are particularly concerned about the rhetoric because of Iran's nuclear program, support for terrorism and opposition to a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians.

"These offensive statements are made much more dangerous by the regime's recent declarations to defy the world on its nuclear non-proliferation obligations…. A regime that supports terrorism, violates its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, fails to fulfill its nuclear commitments, and rejects a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine question cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons infrastructure," the letter reads.

"Words matter, Mr. Secretary-General. The United Nations, and indeed all international organizations, must not accept hateful, anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism as business as usual," the senators write in the concluding paragraph.

The tone of the letter and the fact that Hagel and Bayh were so quick in speaking out against Ahmadinejad, who had just taken office in August, seems to be at odds with the depiction of him as someone who is hostile to or discriminates against "Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group."

The fact that Hagel sent this letter indicates he felt especially strongly about this issue given his policy against writing letters to foreign dignitaries. In 1999, he was the only Senator who did not sign onto a American Jewish Committee (AJC)-drafted letter to then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin that called on the Russian leader to take stronger action against anti-Semitism in the country. When asked why he hadn't signed onto the letter, Hagel said that he did not, as a matter policy, send letters to heads of state because it is the president's job to represent the United States with foreign leaders. In light of this view, he had sent a different to then-U.S. President Bill Clinton that read, in part, "Anti-Semitism or any form of religious persecution should never be tolerated. The United States should predicate its support for democratic institutions in Russia upon unwavering opposition to anti-Semitism." Although the UN Secretary General is not a foreign head of state, he is a international leader who, at least by Hagel's reasoning, should properly be dealt with by the U.S. president or one of his delegates.

Its worth noting that not everyone takes the same view of Hagel as the critics cited above. Besides enjoying the backing of much of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, Israel's outgoing Deputy Foreign Minister appears to back the former senator. When asked about Hagel's nomination on Monday, Danny Ayalon said, "I have met him many times, and he certainly regards Israel as a true and natural U.S. ally."

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Zachary Keck is assitant edtior of The Diplomat. He can be found on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.