Punditry With Prudence

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“According to you,” a reader wrote me privately about a recent column that appeared in this space, “we can’t make any conclusions, because of the unknowns.”

The column, titled “Unknown Unknowns,” pointed out how, particularly in political affairs (like the current American administration’s relationship with Israel) we don’t always have the whole picture.  I noted as an example, how, at the very same time that many Jewish media were attacking President Obama for his ostensible hostility toward Israel, the president was determinedly working hand in glove with Israel in a secret cyber-project to undermine the Iranian nuclear program. As pundits huffed and puffed, Stuxnet was silently destroying centrifuges.

The reader was chagrined that I, as he read it, was counseling a moratorium on commentary about all political affairs.  I wrote back to explain that no, I didn’t mean that at all.  We can, and even should, express our concerns openly in the free country in which we’re privileged to live. But we must do so with reason and civility (maybe even fairness), not the sort of ranting that passes for dialectic on talk radio these days. I meant only (and perhaps should have written more clearly) that a degree of modesty when voicing our assumptions and opinions is in order, and is all too often in absentia.

Serendipitously, shortly after I wrote the piece, a bit of news arrived that well illustrated its point.

Back at the start of 2013, when Chuck Hagel was nominated to serve as Secretary of Defense, the reaction from various corners, including some in our community, ranged from deeply suspicious to apoplectic.  Several artless statements Mr. Hagel had made were fanned into four-alarm fires; taken in the worst possible way, they were waved around as evidence of the man’s disdain for Israel.  (That his nomination was made by the man in the White House made things, to the alarmists, even more distressing.

Elliott Abrams labelled Mr. Hagel an anti-Semite.  Abe Foxman insinuated that the nominee believed that the “the Jewish lobby controls foreign policy.” Charles Krauthammer blasted the new Defense Secretary for “pernicious blindness” when it came to Israel.  Magazines, newspapers and pundits in our own community readily hopped on the berating-bandwagon – and looked with pity (at best) upon those of us who, weighing the evidence objectively, just couldn’t work up a good panic.

Fast-forward to several weeks ago, when Mr. Hagel’s retirement was announced.  Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who had no reason to say anything at all about the transition, took the initiative to describe Mr. Hagel as a “true friend of Israel” whose “dedication to ensuring Israel’s security has been unwavering.”

“It is a real shame Hagel is leaving – he was great with us,” another Israeli official told Israeli reporter Barak Ravid.  Reporter Udi Sagal wrote that Hagel’s departure is “is bad news for Israel,” citing Hagel’s close personal relationship with Israel’s Defense Ministry.

The Jerusalem Post, no slouch when it comes to Israel’s security concerns, editorialized that Mr. Hagel “proved to be highly supportive of Israel” and imagined (likely unrealistically) that “some of the organizations that originally attacked Hagel quite viciously must now be embarrassed by their behavior.”

At least one erstwhile critic, Mr. Foxman, to his credit, seemed to come around to the realization that his fears had proven unfounded.  “Secretary Hagel’s energetic stewardship of America’s commitment to Israel’s security in a dangerous region,” he said, “has been vital.”

“His hands-on engagement,” the ADL leader added, “to ensure that our ally Israel can live in safety and security and maintain its rightful place in the community of nations will have a lasting impact.”

Yes, we can wax critical of political leaders.  But before we call them Israel-haters (and certainly Jew-haters), before we dump gobs of cynicism on their heads, or accuse them of flouting the law or the Constitution (when no court has rendered any such judgment), or pronounce them traitorous or stupid or evil, we need to pause, take a deep breath, remember a few things.  That there are at least two reasonable perspectives on most issues.  That there are things we can’t know with certitude.  And that, as Shlomo HaMelech observed and taught, “the words of the wise are heard” only when expressed “in calm” (Koheles 9:17).

The state of Israel, and Klal Yisrael, have all too many all too real enemies in today’s world.  We really don’t do ourselves any favor imagining, or, chalilah, creating, new ones.

© 2014 Hamodia