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Chuck Hagel is a friend to Israel

By Aryeh Azriel, Special to CNN
January 14, 2013 -- Updated 1230 GMT (2030 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chuck Hagel's nomination has been criticized on issue of support for Israel
  • Nebraska Rabbi Aryeh Azriel says he's long seen Hagel's backing for Israel
  • He says critics of Hagel are grasping at straws to question his views
  • Azriel: Critics are wrong to hurl charges of anti-Semitism against Hagel

Editor's note: Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, born and raised in Tel Aviv, has been the senior rabbi at Temple Israel in Omaha, Nebraska, since 1988.

(CNN) -- It's clear from the coverage of the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel for the 24th secretary of defense that many of those opposing him do not know him personally, as I do. The facts speak for themselves: His record shows strong support for Israel.

As a person who grew up in Israel and now as a rabbi in our home state of Nebraska for the past 25 years, I have found a great love in Chuck's heart for the Israeli people and their desire to live in peace and security. In numerous encounters, I was enthralled with the depth of his knowledge, the strength of his convictions, the integrity of his character and the honesty in his search for peace.

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel
Rabbi Aryeh Azriel

Take the matter of recent accusations against him, which say that as president of the United Services Organization in the late 1980s, Chuck went on a crusade to close a USO post in the Israeli port city of Haifa. An organization most associated with Bob Hope, the USO is a private, nonprofit whose mission is to support American troops by providing morale, welfare and recreation-type services.

Chuck's tenure there is remembered for turning around a financially troubled organization and bringing it back to fiscal health in the lead up to Operation Desert Storm. When Atlantic magazine recently conducted an investigative report, both the longtime director of the USO mission in Haifa and a former commander in chief of the Israeli Navy came to his defense.

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Reversing the fortunes of a near-bankrupt organization requires making tough choices, and there may have been some logic in closing that outpost, but in this case, the Haifa operation was kept open and 10 other operations were closed in the Mediterranean. In fact, it was not until 2002, near the end of Chuck's first term in the U.S. Senate, that the USO's Haifa office was closed.

Ari Fleischer: Hagel is wrong on why U.S. supports Israel

Others have pointed out that as a U.S. senator, he opposed sanctions against Iran, an example frequently used to show that he was not being supportive of Israel.

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Chuck Hagel's controversial nomination

Iran has been on my mind for a long time. The danger is clear for the security of Israel and the entire Middle East. But I know Chuck's preference is for multilateral sanctions over unilateral sanctions, and what's wrong with that?

Cuba is a prime example of decades of unilateral sanctions not working. Americans need only go to cities on or near the Canadian border such as Windsor, Niagara Falls and Vancouver to purchase the famed Cuban cigars.

But when dealing with Iran, we do not have decades to wait the regime out. The danger is real. The consequences are overwhelming. Like Chuck, I would rather have the world powers behind a united effort to stop and reverse the nuclear ambitions of Iran's leadership.

I use these two examples to show that accusations against him of being anti-Semitic and not being supportive of Israel are groundless.

As a student of world history in general and Jewish history in particular and as one who knows and abhors anti-Semitism, I think it cheapens the lives and the memories of my people when the label is attached and used on someone who may not share the same policy views as those opposing his nomination.

It is despicable and revolting when name-calling becomes more important than the substance at hand. We, all children created in God's image, need to be extremely careful in uttering words that hurt and make sure to introduce only words that heal.

Indeed, a real friend of anyone, including Israel, is supposed to be frank and offer counsel, especially when there is so much at stake.

Finally, American support for Israel is best when it is bipartisan, as it has been historically. Recent efforts to smear Chuck get us further away from support for Israel being a bipartisan issue, and ultimately that hurts the long-term security of the state of Israel.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rabbi Aryeh Azriel.

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