NEW YORK – It was the summer of 1946 when the first anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima coincided with Tisha B’Av, the annual Jewish commemoration of Jerusalem’s destruction. Arthur Waskow was a boy of 12 editing his camp newspaper when he wrote, “it is totally clear that we have to put an end to war.”
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Seven decades later nuclear disarmament remains one of Waskow’s primary concerns. So for Waskow, now a rabbi and director of the Shalom Center, a Philadelphia-based progressive Jewish think tank, the announcement of an agreement signed between Iran, the United States and European governments was a welcome development.
“This is a perfect case of what the Torah teaches: ‘when you besiege a city,’ which is what the sanctions are, ‘proclaim shalom to it and see if the city will meet your conditions for peace making.’ If they agree, you stop the siege and you’re at peace with the city,” Waskow told Haaretz, citing Deuteronomy.
The Shalom Center was born in 1983, in fact, to add a Jewish voice to the religious conversation about the nuclear arms race after American Catholic bishops published a pastoral letter on the subject.
Other American rabbis were far less sanguine in their response to the Iran deal. While some are adopting clear positions about the threat Iran continues to pose to Israel’s and world safety, others are deferring judgment until they have had time to scrutinize and evaluate the accord between Iran and six world powers. It runs to over 80 pages of details relating to arms manufacturing, stockpiling, monitoring and the lifting of sanctions.
“It’s a deal which is dangerous for Israel,” said Rabbi Avi Weiss, a longtime political activist and spiritual leader of the “open Orthodox” synagogue Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, who also founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an open Orthodox rabbinical seminary, and Yeshivat Maharat, which trains women for roles as Orthodox clergy.
“The world is affected by this deal, but the country most directly affected, which one of Iran’s leaders once called ‘the one-bomb state,’ is Israel, and Israel was not at that negotiating table,” Weiss said in an interview from Tel Aviv.
“While there are differences of opinion about how the prime minister handles himself in connection with the president, I hear consensus across the board here that there is tremendous concern that this deal is a terrible one.”
The Reform movement, in a statement from all major arms of the largest American Jewish denomination, essentially deferred judgment on the substance of the Iran deal while expressing appreciation for the negotiators.
Summer of discernment
In an interview Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told Haaretz that his movement has been investigating the issue closely for at least a year, including discussions with U.S. President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, top members of their administrations and governments, and outside analysts.
“Now it comes down to a summer of discernment,” Jacobs told Haaretz.
He wouldn’t say that the movement will come down definitively on one side or other of the Iran accord, or how long its process may take to conclude.
“There are certain times in Jewish tradition you have a machloket [disagreement] that ends without an eternally clear decision,” he said.
The Reform Movement’s procrastination “may lead to concerns, or defer to the official process going on in the Congress. It would be wrong to say here is the timetable. But I can say that it’s going to be civil, it’s going to be serious and it’s going to be deep.”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Conservative clergy member who heads T’ruah, a multi-denominational organization that mobilizes rabbis to advocate on behalf of human rights. The nuclear deal “is an important step,” she said, while taking pains to note that T’ruah has taken no official position on it.
“It’s important to try the peaceful mode toward protecting human rights. I am very concerned about Israel in particular, but I don’t have any reason to believe a military option would be better for Israel,” Jacobs told Haaretz.
“As rabbis it’s important to acknowledge that all of us are afraid, but that fear doesn’t mean we should pursue blunt force. The goal is always to protect the lives and human rights of the most people. In general, non-violence can accomplish that better than violence.”
Asked about Iran’s very public human rights violations – which include a commitment to wipe Israel off the map, the imprisonment of journalists who are American citizens and the execution of men suspected of being gay – Jacobs said, “the more that Iran is brought into the international community and there’s more exposure between ordinary Iranians and the rest of the world, the more demand there will be [in Iran] for those human rights and the better we’ll be able to keep a closer watch on those issues.”
For Rabbi Leonard Matanky, president of the 1,100-member centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, Iran’s oft-repeated pledge of destroying Israel is at the core of concerns about the international agreement.
“It is very frightening that the Iranian government has not backed away from any of its statements, its calls for the destruction of the State of Israel and its denial of the Holocaust, its support of terror against America and Israel, which are well documented. The fears of the Israeli leadership across all parties are shared by all those who love freedom, democracy and America and the State of Israel,” said Matanky in an interview from Ida Crown Jewish Academy, the Chicago day school where he serves as dean.
“We place great trust in our elected officials in the executive and legislative branches, but our ultimate trust is in God, and we pray that this tentative agreement will fulfill all of the hopes of those who are in favor of it. Yet we continue to be concerned,” Matanky said.
“A moral clarity” is needed to assure that the conditions of the agreement with Iran are upheld, said Yehudah Mirsky, an Orthodox-ordained rabbi who served as a special advisor to the U.S. State Department’s human rights bureau during the Clinton presidency.
“So much of the difficulty of this agreement is that the president seems to be seeing it as part of a larger restructuring of the Middle East, with Iran as a stabilizing power in the region,” said Mirsky, who currently works as an associate professor in Brandeis University’s Schusterman Center on Israel. That’s a role “Iran could conceivably play one day, but not under this regime.”
Iran’s “regime keeps saying they’re committed to your destruction, and the process of initially keeping them from having nuclear capability is now about managing that capability. It is kicking the can down the road. This is not a happy thing,” Mirsky said from Jerusalem, where he spends summers.
“Israel now has to make the best of a difficult situation. Not that Israel is incapable of committing errors and injustices of its own, but I don’t know anyone who thinks that this is great and we’re opening the door” onto a new, more peaceful era with Iran.
Meanwhile, a large rally opposed to the Iran nuclear deal is scheduled to take place in the heart of Manhattan, in Times Square on Wednesday, July 22, at 5:30 P.M. – timed to take place as theater matinee-goers are departing and patrons of evening performances are coming in among the myriad tourists who regularly clog the sidewalks in the neon-bedecked neighborhood. Rally coordinator Hillary Markowitz said that organizers expect at least 10,000 people to attend.
The event is being cosponsored primarily by right-wing groups, including the Zionist Organization of America, Americans for a Safe Israel, the One Israel Fund and Christians United for Israel, which this week held its annual Washington Summit in the American capitol, at which Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer spoke.
Waskow said that “it would be a shame if some Jewish organizations attempt to scuttle, to destroy, this agreement.”
President Obama, in his public address about the Iran deal on Tuesday morning, pledged to veto any law Congress passes to invalidate the Iran accord. A supermajority of Congress members – or two-thirds – would need to back a measure overriding a presidential veto.