Can U.S. Jews Be Enthusiastic Cheerleaders for the Iran Deal and Still Be ‘pro-Israel’?

Progressive Jewish groups like J Street have launched vigorous campaigns supporting President Obama's position on the nuclear agreement – unsettling even Israeli leftists.

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Explainer in favor of Iran deal from J Street's Twitter account.
Explainer in favor of Iran deal from J Street's Twitter account.

Immediately after the details of the nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers were unveiled and politicians and pundits began weighing in, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg published an interview with Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog, headlined “Israeli Opposition leader: Iran deal will bring chaos to the Middle East.” Goldberg then tweeted the following question: “If Israel's elected leader, and the head of the opposition, oppose the Iran deal, can J Street support it and still call itself pro-Israel?”

At the time the question seemed like a semantic debate that was marginal to the important discussion of the newly revealed agreement. Frankly, how much did it matter what a Jewish left-wing lobby called itself?

But in the days since, the enthusiastic hard sell for the agreement that progressive Jewish groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now have launched in the build-up to the anticipated congressional fight on the matter has raised eyebrows in Israel.

It is becoming a watershed moment in the life of J Street, which, in its declared core mission, states that “being pro-Israel means speaking out for policies that promote Israel’s interests and align with our values and against those that don’t, irrespective of the present government’s policies.”

That statement is clearly related to the group’s primary mission of working toward a two-state solution, curtailing settlement activity, ending the occupation and negotiating peace with the Palestinians. On this issue, it is generally in perfect ideological harmony with the mainstream Israeli left, who has come to count on it as a presence in Washington that reflects their positions at a time when the official Israeli government line strays so far from their views.

Since its creation, J Street has worked hard to carve out a niche as the go-to address for those who care deeply about Israel, yet have a progressive agenda - who see themselves as the U.S. parallels of members of Israeli parties like Meretz and the Zionist Union. They have successfully attracted liberal American Jews who feel caught between the AIPAC policy of supporting the elected Israeli government unconditionally and what they perceive as a hard left pro-Palestinian approach that, when it does not openly advocate Israel’s elimination, doesn’t seem particularly concerned about its security. The J Street line has been something of a“tough love” approach to a Netanyahu-led Israel.

But the Iran agreement has considerably less wiggle room than the Palestinian question and, at the moment, some leftist Israelis are having trouble feeling the love.

J Street has been pushing the deal hard in tandem with the Obama White House, particularly U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has appeared on every possible American news channel singing the praises of the deal and warning of the dark and dire consequences if it is defeated in Congress.

The J Street campaign includes slick and rather simplistic videos that could have been scripted by the White House - the latest one closing with an unequivocal tagline: “It’s good for Israel, good for America, and leaves both countries safer and more secure.” On its Facebook page, J Street urges members to contact their representatives in support of the deal and posts pro-agreement articles appearing in the media, adding commentary like “Turns out most critics' arguments against the Iran deal aren't really arguments at all. #DistrustAndVerify

The #IranDeal explained in clear language by a nuclear expert. #DistrustAndVerify

In an appearance on MSNBC, J Street president Jeremy Ben Ami was upbeat and seemed excited to be going “toe to toe” with AIPAC, heading to Capitol Hill to “explain that this is the best of all possible alternatives.”

It’s no surprise that groups on the Israeli and the American Jewish right slam J Street’s behavior and label them “anti-Israel” for it: it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. What is more unusual is the fact that the Iran campaign has visibly unsettled some Israeli leftists who normally sympathize with J Street. Noah Efron, a left-wing political activist and academic, sent an open letter of concern to J Streeters via Facebook. He wrote: “Your cheery support for the deal comes across to some of us here in Israel as a callous lack of concern about the real dangers that are part of this deal (from a regional nuclear arms race to Iran one day trying to destroy Israel, as it has threatened to do). The perception that the leading representatives of leftist Zionism in America is unconcerned about this danger, makes it harder for those of us trying to build support for leftist politics here, from within (and at a time when this is hard enough already).

I realize that you believe that this deal is, ultimately, in the best interest of Israel, the region and the world. But shouldn’t your position be that you will do everything in your power in the coming years to see that the weaknesses in the deal do not allow Iran to threaten Israel or anyone else. Shouldn’t your brows be furrowed and your countenances serious? Because as a (leftist) parent who is genuinely fearful for the future of his kids and theirs, I can't help but find your popping-the-champagne-bottles cheer a little chilling.”

The feisty and optimistic message coming out of J Street feels out of tune with their natural allies in Israel. This applies to those on the left who oppose - and those who support the agreement. In the Atlantic interview with Goldberg, Herzog said he was taking a “practical approach” of criticizing the deal without actively fighting it alongside Netanyahu and AIPAC.

“I think it’s a bad deal, but I’m not going to lobby, I’m not going to tell senators what to vote. I think what I need to do is explain the weak points and have them understand our concerns.”

Former Shabak head Ami Ayalon also used the word “practical” when he issued his endorsement of the deal in equally sober terms in his interview with a different Goldberg - JJ Goldberg of the Forward. You could almost hear him heaving a sigh in print when he concluded that “I’m sorry to say this, but this is the price we need to pay to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons,” adding, “there is no perfect world and no perfect agreements. The notion of forever in Judaism is not a pragmatic program. When the messiah comes, things will be wonderful. In the meanwhile we need to be practical.”

Former Head of Shin Bet Ami Ayalon comes out in support of #IranDeal. More Israeli security voices will weigh in.

And so far, J Street does not seem to have found a prominent Israeli politician - even on the left - who will publicly echo their ringing endorsement of the deal - they all essentially sound like either Herzog or Ayalon.

But in the arena of U.S. politics right now, there is no room for this grudging pragmatic middle ground. With the battle lines so clearly drawn, and with the credibility of the Obama White House and U.S. foreign policy on the line, politically aware American Jews feel required to take a stand in this showdown. It’s not only a question of the issues, but of their identity - if AIPAC, Netanyahu, and their allies in the Republican party somehow manage to kill the deal, they want it clearly on the record that they had no part of it. “It’s really important that American Jews have another voice right now,” a rank-and-file J Street member, retired Reform Rabbi Irwin Goldenberg told me when I met him at a social gathering and asked him whether Ben-Ami spoke for him.

Progressive American Jews - even those with an affinity for Israel - seem to firmly believe that with the full-on confrontation looming in Congress, there is no room for nuance, or the ambivalent sober “practical” approach of the Israeli left. Any misgivings or worries are kept behind closed doors. In public, they must sign on to the position of “worst deal ever” or “best deal possible.”

Israeli leftists like Efron may understand this - but they don’t like it. After hearing his American Facebook friends out, he wrote: “J Street must pay a great price for it in the long run: greatly diminishing its own credibility in Israel, certainly, but also weakening the Israeli left that holds the key to any future settlement with the Palestinians and end of the occupation. And, as someone who has always supported J Street, I find that disappointing and disillusioning.”

J Street, for their part, is choosing not to react to the misgivings of these Israeli leftists. “I think we're going to pass on this one,” a spokesperson for the group responded when asked by Haaretz for comment.

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