WASHINGTON -- An Israeli-born, Omaha-based rabbi who has known Chuck Hagel for many years said charges that the former Nebraska senator, and potential nominee for secretary of defense, is somehow anti-Israel or anti-Semitic are "extremely stupid."
"I thought we were done with this," said Aryeh Azriel, the rabbi at Temple Israel in Omaha, Neb., where Hagel has been a longtime regular presence, in an interview Friday with The Huffington Post. "I though we were done already with the [childishness] of being Jewish where everyone who says something critical about Israel needs to be labeled an anti-Semite. I find this extremely stupid, and definitely not helpful."
Azriel, who also penned a letter published Friday in the Omaha World-Herald defending Hagel's pro-Israel bona fides, told The Huffington Post he has known the former senator for many years, and has been "completely astonished by the attacks on his character, on his identity and his ability."
Hagel's pro-Israel credentials have been called into question over the past week after he emerged as a leading contender for secretary of defense. Pointing to a sparse selection of votes in which Hagel had not supported the most stringent sanction against Iran, and one instance in which he made pejorative reference to the "Jewish lobby," critics have suggested that Hagel harbored secret anti-Israel or even anti-Jewish sentiment.
"I think that remark is troublesome, it's problematic," said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), a pro-Israel congressman, during an interview on C-Span in which he also accused Hagel of having an "endemic hostility towards Israel." "It shows at the very best a lack of sensitivity, at the very worst perhaps a prejudice. And I'm concerned about it, I'm concerned about the nomination."
In response, allies of Hagel have circulated a fact sheet outlining Hagel's many votes and statements of support for Israel, and noted that on the whole, he has been extremely supportive of funding for Israel, and tough sanctions on Iran.
Azriel said that in numerous one-on-one meetings with Hagel over the years, as well as several appearances by the senator before Azriel's congregation, he has emerged with a similar sense of Hagel's personal attachment and support for Israel.
"We developed a very close relationship," Azriel said. "I cannot tell you how many times we spent talking, with him wanting to know about my childhood in Israel, what it was like having to go to the basement in apartment building I lived with my parents to hide from bombings. He was deeply interested in my personal experiences."
The fact that Hagel has at times spoken out against a monolithic view of what it means to be pro-Israel, Azriel said, was something that had endeared him to the Midwestern community of Jews.
"He represents the best in the way people are brought up here," said Azriel, who moved to Omaha from Israel 25 years ago. "This is what I like about him and it is part of the Nebraska piece: He's definitely independent in his thinking, and people want truthful politicians, people who speak their minds, people who are not moved as marionettes on strings."