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Chuck Hagel and the definition of a ‘true friend’

by Shmuel Rosner

January 7, 2013 | 11:33 am

President Barack Obama's nominee for Secretary of Defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel at the White House on Jan. 7. Photo by Jason Reed/Reuters

There’s a “friend” of Israel, and there’s a “true friend.”

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, soon to be Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, is a true friend. He is entitled to this title for refusing to “go along with Israel's lunatic, self-destructive drift into settling the West Bank and obviating a two-state solution.” A true friend, you see, is someone insistent of doing the opposite of what a regular friend would do.

Differentiating the truly “true” friends from the false “true” friends can be tricky. But luckily, smart people are on the case. Roger Cohen, for example, makes it a habit to distinguish between the “[s]elf-styled ‘true friends' of Israel” – easily recognizable, as these are the people “lining up against the Hagel nomination” – and the other “true” friends – “the quieter ones.” People like Cohen the quiet, and Hagel the quiet and, of course, President Obama the quiet. “Deciding who Israel’s real friends are” is “difficult,” admits Cohen, but apparently he has it all figured out.

Of course, Cohen isn’t the only one attempting to identify the true friends of Israel. Ken Schechtman is “a freelance writer living in St. Louis, and a professor at the Washington University School of Medicine,” which might well make him the real expert to teach us that “reflexive agreement is the antithesis of genuine friendship”. Schechtman’s litmus test: if you’re “a mouthpiece for Israel’s government” you “will not be friends.”

So we already have two definitions to work with. The true friend of Israel is:

A. One who is quiet.
B. One who disagrees with Israel’s government.

Of course, it doesn’t end with these two definitions. The quiet Stephen Walt - also happy to disagree with Israel’s government – once added another definition that we should add to our true-friend detector. Walt also made it much easier to identify the “false friends of Israel.” These are AIPAC and “the other groups supporting the status quo.” A true friend, he wrote, is one that is “showing real backbone” in “explaining to the American people why his approach is the right one” (and not Israel’s).

President Obama is one such friend, argued Jeff Barak, former editor of the Jerusalem Post, not long before American Election Day. Adding to our accumulated line of definitions, Barak explained that “a true friend is someone who will always look out for you, will protect your best interests and, when the situation demands it, tell you straight to your face a truth you might not particularly want to hear.” Nothing to disagree with there. So we have A. quiet, B. in opposition, C. backbone, D. look out, protect, tell the truth.

Note that not very long ago, many critics of Israel’s policies used to complain – well, some of them still do – about an alleged silencing of Israel criticism. Whenever someone disagrees with Israel, they said, he is instinctively labeled an enemy, or anti-Israel, or, worse, anti-Semitic. Apparently, a remedy was found: instead of making the case that criticism is good for Israel, that an open debate is healthy for everyone, the critics changed their tactics and moved to one of trading a label for a label. Call me anti-Israel – and I will call you a false friend.

One problem remains, though: what is the “truth” (Barak’s definition) that the true friend should be bluntly sharing with Israel? What’s the “right approach” (Walt) that the true friend should doggedly pursue in spite of Israel’s objections? Clearly, these quiet champions of friendship would not think a real friend is one who opposes the right policies. Surely, they would not think highly of someone mistakenly pushing his friend toward the wrong path. Obviously, they would not advocate telling a friend he is wrong when in fact he is right.

So – come to think of it – what “true friend” really means for all of the aforementioned friends, and to the many others supporting their ideas, is “a person agreeing with our policy positions.” And a false friend is “a person disagreeing with our policy positions.” Thus, Chuck Hagel is indeed a true friend – if one agrees with him. And it should also be acceptable for one to doubt Hagel’s true friendship if one doesn’t agree. 

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