Hagel hearings: Is Israel more important than Afghanistan?

Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel at his confirmation hearing as secretary of Defense.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

This post has been corrected, as indicated below.

Although they aren’t infallible, “word clouds” -- graphic representations of the frequency with which certain words occur in a text -- can be instructive.


Yousef Munayyer of the Jerusalem Fund has created a word cloud based on a transcript of the Senate confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense-designate Chuck Hagel. Two words dominate the cloud: “Israel” and “Iran.” You have to squint to see other words that one might think would loom large in senators’ questions, words such as “Afghanistan,” “war” and “sequestration” (the pending across-the-board cuts in defense spending).

“It’s clear,” Munayyer concludes, “that ‘Israel’ stole the show. ‘Iran,’ which was nearly as prevalent as ‘Israel,’ was discussed as an issue intertwined with Israel and contextualized through the prism of Israeli interests.”

Time magazine published a bar graph showing how many times various members of the Senate Armed Services Committee mentioned Israel and Afghanistan. With the exception of committee Chairman Carl Levin, both Republicans and Democrats obsessed about Israel and gave short shrift to a war in which 66,000 American troops are engaged and which has cost 2,177 American lives. Eleven senators didn’t mention Afghanistan at all. Never mind that one of the most pressing issues for the next secretary of Defense is the size of a U.S. military presence in that country after the end of NATO’s combat mission in 2014.

A lot of the occurrences of the word “Israel” involved the hectoring of Hagel for his past comments about Israel and the political clout of the pro-Israel lobby (which he once called the “Jewish lobby”). Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Hagel to “name one dumb thing we’ve been goaded into doing because of the so-called ‘Jewish lobby.’ ” Hagel, who was clearly under orders to be nonconfrontational, said he couldn’t.

Even if you thought there was a legitimate question about whether Hagel was anti-Israel -- and there wasn’t -- the disproportionate number of references to that country was striking. Senators may not be intimidated by the pro-Israel lobby, but they clearly believe that it’s good politics to celebrate Israel even when other issues are more relevant to the business at hand.

[For the record, 3:35 p.m., Feb. 8: The two most prevalent words in the transcript of the Senate confirmation hearings for Chuck Hagel are “Israel” and “Iran,” not “Iraq,” as previously stated.]


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