Obama, Hagel, feminism and the Middle East: A progressive’s dilemma.

Obama-hagelAs a born-and-bred Progressive and long-time advocate for both Israeli-Palestinian peace and women’s rights, I’m used to having to pick my battles. My positions are to the left of pretty much every national leader for whom I’ve ever had the opportunity to vote, in Israel or the U.S. Barack Obama was the first candidate to even come close.

Whatever the President’s opinions were and may still be regarding Israel/Palestine, though, they’ve come to seem of little importance, as his actions have thus far been little but repeats of mistakes made by past Administrations.

On the question of women’s rights, however, the record is much more to my liking: the Lily Ledbetter Act, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court, health care reform, his consistent refusal to treat rape as anything less than a crime—these policy decisions and public attitudes are making America a better place for women and girls (and men and boys), right now, today.

So the record is mixed, as far as I’m concerned. Which brings us, of course, to Chuck Hagel.

From the moment that Administration sources whispered the name “Hagel” into the ether, the neocon wing of Hagel’s own party came down like a ton of bricks, spinning anti-Israel and anti-Semitic conspiracies as fast as their words could spin. It was untrue, it was ugly, and it was never really about Israel—it was and remains about the neocon vision for American power, a vision that Chuck Hagel neither shares nor respects.

As I wrote last month, I’ve long appreciated Hagel’s approach to Israel/Palestine, and his preference for diplomacy over war more broadly. As a lifelong Illinois Democrat, I don’t expect to agree with a Republican from Nebraska on much, but I’m certainly glad that we could at least agree on that.

This week I learned, however, that Hagel and I don’t agree on a whole lot else.

Far from being a feminist, in the Senate Chuck Hagel acted to prevent servicewomen from having access to abortion (even at their own expense) if they’d been raped and impregnated, and that frankly horrifies me; the Republican Party’s willing dehumanization of women generally and callousness toward rape survivors specifically is a big part of what got me so involved in Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts this fall. Like other progressives, I’m also nervous about Hagel’s positions regarding the civil rights of LGBTQ Americans, particularly (as Rachel Maddow and my colleague Sigal Samuel have noted) when the Pentagon is poised to deal with so many LGBTQ-specific issues.

But this is where I come back to the guy who hired him: Barack Obama.

I trust the President’s feminism, which I believe has been proven time and again, and while I will agree that Obama’s dedication to LGBTQ rights is less well established, I do believe that it is solid (though it should be noted that as a straight woman, I don’t have to live with the consequences of the President’s positions on these issues, and thus my awareness of them is likely not as keen as that of Americans who do). On the other hand, I am deeply concerned about Obama’s policies in the Middle East.

It is my opinion—and I cannot stress this enough: I do not pretend to know for sure—that a Defense Secretary Hagel serving under President Obama the Feminist will find that his opportunity to oppose basic human and civil rights for women and/or LGBTQ Americans will be sharply limited by his boss’s policies and positions, whereas President Obama the Failed Two-State Facilitator might have appointed a Defense Secretary Hagel precisely in order to help create movement on the ground regarding Israel and Palestine (and Iran) that will lead to real, desperately-needed change in the region.

Do I love the pick? No, and I love it even less now that I know more about Hagel’s record. But I still like Hagel better than Michele Flourney, for reasons that speak very directly to the Defense Secretary’s primary mission, and I do think that as an official in the Obama White House, there’s greater potential for him to do good, than harm.

None of which is to say that we shouldn’t hold the President’s feet to the fire on these issues, because we should—indeed, I hope the Senate questions Hagel very closely at his confirmation hearings. In a democracy, it’s the job of citizens and our elected officials to insist that government reflect our highest values, and I’m pretty sure that “equality for all” is top of the American list.

And of course, my cautious optimism might be proven wrong. But for the time being, I remain an American-Israeli progressive feminist peacenik who is cautiously optimistic about Chuck Hagel. So it goes.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

American wars and personal responsibility.

I went to my nearest VA Hospital today, to apply as a volunteer.

As luck would have it, I arrived just as the lady who does the fingerprinting had gone on break, so I wasn’t able to actually apply. But I’ve filled out my form. I have a plan.

I admit that I’m a bit perplexed by my decision (taken the day after bin Laden was killed, and the two are very much related) to do this. As a near-pacifist who regretfully but begrudgingly accepted the war in Afghanistan and was powerfully opposed to the war in Iraq, a person who encouraged her brother never to register for the draft, and would never want her own children to serve in the armed forces of any nation, it doesn’t exactly seem like a natural fit. There are a lot of places that could use my time and my skills: women’s shelters, the food pantry, literacy programs. Why not give my handful of hours to another, equally worthy effort? One without the stink of war about it?

I keep thinking (for years now, frankly) about all these young men and women who get sent off to battle. Who are sent off by my government. Who are sent off, this being a democracy, by me.

If my country is fighting two wars (and kinda-sorta a third) — don’t I have some responsibility for that? For the people who take up arms (whether I agree with the specifics or not) and who all too often come home wounded, in body or spirit? Surely the fact that I almost literally never see any of them — in my family, in my neighborhood, or on my TV — doesn’t matter. They’re out there: fighting wars that our nation decided to fight, with weapons paid for by my tax dollars, their hopes and dreams shaped or shattered by what happens on the field of battle, or they’re out there: back home, trying on their old life for the first time in years, trying to carry all that we’ve put on their shoulders. They’re my compatriots. They’re my brothers and sisters. In some cases, in most cases, they’re my kids.

So after a decade, I think primarily because of the work done by Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury (the story arcs of BD [continued here], Melissa, Toggle, and Ray, the issues they face, the Vet Center they go to, Melissa’s experiences when she returns to duty), various reports and interviews on Rachel Maddow’s show (particularly her segments with Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iran and Afghanistan Veterans of America), and one little piece I wrote a while back for the Chicago Tribune — I have finally come to the point where I understand that I have to look that responsibility in the face. I have to look those people in the face.

I don’t know what to expect (and I think that’s a good thing — when I start down a path that makes me nervous, I’m often better off going in a little blind), but I’ve already gotten my first surprise: The men and women I saw at the hospital today were all older than I expected. It was with some shame that I was reminded that there are, of course, a lot of vets out there, only some of whom are young enough to be my children, only some of whom picked up arms in the years since 2001. We send people into battle all the time.

My one concern is that I’m not great at following through on good ideas — which is why the minute I had this one, I called the hospital, and why I’m now a little nervous that having been thwarted today, I may just allow the idea to drift away. It wouldn’t surprise me.

So that’s probably why I’m writing about it here. Volunteering with the wounded isn’t like learning carpentry, or picking up knitting, or finding some way to sing in places other than my kitchen and my synagogue — this matters more. I want to hold myself accountable. Someday I’ll do those other things (and catch up on the photo albums, and finish that art project I started seven years ago), but this one I’m going to do today.

Or, you know, tomorrow. When the lady isn’t on break.

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