Reflecting Deep Divisions, Reform Movement Abstains From ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on Iran Deal

Reform leaders concerned by 'day after' Iran debate, including 'tension and harsh rhetoric' between Netanyahu and Obama.

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Rick Jacobs.
Rick Jacobs. Credit: Screenshot from URJ Biennial's Twitter page.

Citing an inability to reach a consensus, the Reform Movement has decided to refrain from voicing either support or opposition for the Iran nuclear deal.

“There is simply no clarity that would support taking a position “for” or “against” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,”” Reform leaders said in a joint statement issued on Wednesday.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reformed Judaism, conceded that there were “deep divisions within the movement.” He told Haaretz, however, that the debate on the Iran deal was “serious and intense” and conducted with “deep respect.”

 “We reject the demonizing of the deal’s supporters as warmongers, just as we rebuff the characterization of those who are for it as leading Israel to the doors of Auschwitz,” he added.

Jacobs indicated that Reform leaders were no less concerned about the “day after” the Iran debate is concluded – to U.S.-Israeli relations as well as to the American Jewish community itself. He said the Movement was increasingly worried about “growing intolerance” in Israel. He specifically expressed consternation about the recent appointment of Israel’s new ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, who “reflected the most extreme right wing views in Israel.”

In a lengthy public statement issued on Wednesday, Reform leaders wrote: “Within the Movement, reasonable people — patriotic Americans and passionate Zionists — have expressed different and valid positions on this agreement, articulating the many arguments made by others as well. The JCPOA does present a way forward, there are real dangers to rejecting it, and it does not foreclose Iran’s ability to become a nuclear weapons threshold state.”

Jacobs said that Reform leaders had met with top experts in Israel and the U.S. and had been “lobbied intensively at the very highest level on both sides of the ocean.” He said that he had rebuffed a request made by Prime Minister Netanyahu in June, two weeks before the JCPOA was signed, to issue a public statement of opposition to the deal. But he added that the widespread opposition across the political spectrum in Israel had played a major role in influencing the final Reform position, indicating that a majority of Reform members in America had expressed support for the nuclear accord.

Though not specified in the statement, Jacobs said that it reflected a belief that the moves can be taken to “strengthen the weaknesses around the agreement” rather than start from scratch. Netanyahu, he added, thought that the best way forward was to scuttle the deal altogether.

The statement is signed by the leaders of the four major arms of the Movement: Jacobs and Stephen Sacks, Chair of Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Steve Fox, CEO and Rabbi Denise Eger, President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director and Jennifer Kaufman, Chair of Religious Action Centre of Reform Judaism and Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, President and Rabbi Bennett Miller, Chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. It reflects the deep divisions sparked by the Iran deal among non-Orthodox, Israel-supporting Jewish Americans, including Conservatives, Reform and secular Jews.

The statement expresses deep concern about “the tension and the harsh rhetoric between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu”. It calls on both leaders to take “concrete steps, transcending politics, to repair the rifts.”

The statement also cautions against the creation of a “a lasting rift between Israel and the U.S., between North American Jews and Israelis, or among American Jews.” It also warns of  “the possibility that some will use the debate as fuel for anti-Semitic views.”

Despite its inability to pass verdict on the nuclear deal itself, however, the statement calls on the administration to state in no uncertain terms that Iran will not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon under any circumstances. It suggests a “new defense alliance between Israel and the U.S. similar to NATO.”

The statement calls on the administration to combat Iranian support for terror and violations of human rights and to tighten the inspections regime. It stipulates that U.S. credibility in the world “has been weakened” and calls on Washington to “maintain leverage to “address future international challenges in a manner that protects and advances national interests and especially promotes peace in the Middle East.”