The neoconservative decison to charge that Chuck Hagel is an anti-Semite strikes me as a tactical blunder–a decision grounded in the idea that since they can’t defeat the nominee on the issues, their better option was to try to assassinate Hagel’s character, presumed to be one of his greatest strengths. Such accusations raise the temperature around the nomination, with consequences  difficult to foresee. But just as anti-Semitism is a blight, so are false accusations of it. Peter Beinart has perceptively noted that no one in America ever pays a penalty for falsely maligning someone as an anti-Semite. This may be true today, but like all social rules, it is subject to renegotiation.

Ali Gharib at Open Zion has done a superb job deconstructing the evidence, or, I should say, “evidence,” on which the charge is based: leaders of the Nebraska Jewish community  who are alleged to think that Hagel has a Jewish problem deny there is anything of the sort. Hagel may not always have acted like Alfonse D’Amato in his attending to them, but really, why should he?

Since we know that genuine anti-Semitism has deep social and psychic roots in Western societies, it shouldn’t be surprising that the leveling of false anti-Semitism charges for political ends also has contours worth exploring. Quite unexpectedly, the Hagel nomination is opening a rich vein for their study. One thing one finds is that those who are quick to deploy false charges of anti-Semitism have begun to take on traits historically associated with bigoted paranoia.

Take for example the Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens, the first to play the anti-Semitism card against Hagel. Last month he notoriously wrote, “Prejudice—like cooking, winetasting, and other consummations has an olfactory element. [With] Chuck Hagel…the odor is especially ripe.” Beinart and others have deconstructed Stephens’s charge, the centerpiece of which is that Hagel, in an interview, used the term “Jewish lobby” instead of “Israel lobby.” But connoisseurs of literary criticism may notice an eerie parallel to Stephens’ toxic paragraph. If evidence of Hagel’s anti-Semitism cannot be substantiated by facts or logic, it can nonetheless be smelled. It’s as if Stephens is seeking to transport us back to the world of Marcel Proust and the Dreyfus Affair, where the anti-Dreyfusards (the anti-Semitic precursors of French fascism, and, via Theodore Herzl, a propellant fuel for the birth of Zionism) were confident they could smell the Jew, an outsider even when an habitué of the best salons of Paris.* Only, of course, Stephens has reversed the roles, as it is he who smells Hagel.

The charge has been raised not only by Stephens, but by Elliott Abrams, trumpeted repeatedly in Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard, and echoed by the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka.

But despite the axiom that false charges of anti-Semitism are cost-free for those who make them, there may be risks here. The neocons don’t argue that Hagel suddenly became an anti-Semite at age 60, when his split with the Republican Party’s foreign-policy direction became too obvious to overlook. It was always there. According to them, it is deeply rooted in his Nebraska past, evident as long ago as the mid-1980s, if not before, when he supposedly was less than enthusiastic about securing funding for a USO facility at Haifa, Israel.

But what does this charge then say, not about Hagel, but about his best friend in the Senate, John McCain? On Saturday the Times ran a lengthy piece reviewing that friendship and its eventual fading out over differences on the Iraq War. According to the account, Hagel, who was co-chair of McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, at one point more or less lived in McCain’s Senate office, and vice versa. As veterans who both had tough wars, they shared much in temperament and spirit—an extraordinary “bromance”—almost to the point where they completed one another’s sentences. If Hagel is, as Kristol, Abrams, Stephens, and Pletka now charge, an “especially ripe” anti-Semite, what do the neocons really think of John McCain (who is, not so coincidentally, one of the foremost advocates for neoconservative foreign policies in the Senate)?

Of course Hagel is not an anti-Semite and neither is McCain, but it is telling that Kristol, Abrams, and company are ready to slander (implicitly to be sure) one of their best friends in the Senate to impugn Chuck Hagel’s character. And who is to say there won’t be some costs to this nest-fouling behavior down the road.

An early sign of the pushback against all this is the cold reaction to Elliott Abrams from the Council of Foreign Relations, where he is a senior fellow. Council President Richard Haas called Abrams’s remarks charging Hagel as an anti-Semite “over the line”—probably the first time in history the Council has felt the need to rebuke publicly one its senior fellows. Abrams is an uberhawk who has been convicted of perjury, so he seems an odd fit for the once centrist and highly respected Council. But he is a darling of the neocons, married to one of Midge Decter’s daughters. Rachel Abrams herself attracted considerable recent attention when the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin retweeted one of her blog posts calling for Israeli genocide against the Palestinians. No difficulty whatsoever imagining her braying for blood as part of a fascist mob. We might well wonder to what extent Abrams’s reckless charges and the sensibility which produced them are influenced by his wife’s genocidal sentiments. Indeed, it is something of a puzzlement why Abrams even seeks a role in American foreign policymaking, as he has written that unless they live in Israel, Jews are “to stand apart from the nation in which they live,” though perhaps his views on this question have evolved.

In short, we are in for a wild ride. By raising charges against Hagel that those who know the man find bizarre and disgraceful, the neocons have succeeded in turning a spotlight on themselves–not only on their history of warmongering, but on their political tactics and on their character. They may regret it.

*I am indebted to the discussion of the olfactory tropes of anti-Semitism in Jacqueline Rose’s Proust Among the Nations.