Will Partisan Fight Over Iran Deal Permanently Polarize Jewish Americans?

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I was on an AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel on the day the world powers announced their deal with Iran over the latter's nuclear program. With the American Israel Public Affairs Committee declaring its opposition to the deal early on, I, together with the other progressive American rabbis on the trip, took advantage of the opportunity to ask members of their staff about its position.

For many of us, the primary concern was not whether we supported or opposed the deal itself. Rather, we fretted over what might ultimately happen to the American Jewish community as a result of AIPAC’s uncharacteristically partisan strategy of lobbying Congress to reject the deal and override the veto of a president that American Jews overwhelmingly support. Exacerbating this concern was J Street’s equally as swift and strong public support for the deal, along with its pledge to mobilize congressional approval.

Many of us agonized over whether these political strategies – legitimate though may be in a free society – might create an irreparable fault line in the American Jewish community. True, our community has never been monolithic. But historically, even as we have been divided, primarily along the lines of religious ideology, we have for the most part maintained an underlying sense of our filial relationship. This has been true among American Jews themselves and between American Jews and Israeli Jews.

Would rallying Jews to engage on either side of a fierce partisan fight permanently polarize us along partisan lines (a process that, some believe, is already happening), causing us to cast those with whom we disagree on the Iran issue as somehow no longer part of the people? And would that disable us from maintaining the unity that has been, and will continue to be, critical for our communal interests – both for American and Israeli Jews?

In private conversations, AIPAC’s staff acknowledged with sadness that possibility. To mitigate the potential of rupturing the Jewish community beyond repair through their campaign, they insisted AIPAC would make the debate "about policy, not personality.” They seemed to believe that if AIPAC refrains from leveling personal attacks or invective at any person, party or group and frames the debate as an honest, respectful and substantive policy disagreement, then the long-term detriment to the Jewish community would be minimized.

But as the weeks pass, the divisive conversation stretches far beyond AIPAC and J Street. Both within the Jewish community and outside of it, and on both sides of the divide, the debate is devolving into hysterical hyperbole and vilification of the opposition.

Opponents of the deal have characterized it in apocalyptic terms, with Economy Minister Naftali Bennett saying it gave birth to “a terrorist nuclear superpower" and U.S. presidential candidates Lindsey Graham and Mike Huckabee comparing U.S. President Barack Obama to Nazi-appeaser Neville Chamberlain. Their statements cast those who support the deal as Nazi-sympathizers and everyone who is as yet undecided as indifferent to evil.

Supporters of the deal have been no less guilty of conducting an unproductive and disrespectful debate. Obama equated opposing the deal with advocating for war, and his administration officials have effectively suggested Netanyahu is being disingenuous in campaigning for a better deal, by positing “there isn’t any deal that would be acceptable” to him. Thus, they suggest that opposing the deal inherently means endorsing war. It is particularly troublesome to characterize the Israeli prime minister, Israelis or Jews as a whole as warmongers, seeing as though Jewish bloodthirstiness is a favored anti-Semitic trope.

As The Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt wisely pointed out, characterizing one side as jingoists and the other side as genocide-enablers is an ineffective rhetorical strategy, as it is unlikely to persuade one’s ideological opponents, or even those on the fence, to one’s point of view. It is also, as Chemi Shalev argued, potentially dangerous.

More worrisome is that it makes partisan reconciliation much more difficult after the dust of this political battle has settled. Can partisans casting each other as war-mongers and genocide-enablers later consider one another part of the same community, or will they be left with the scars of an irreconcilable schism? And what will that mean for the future of the American Jewish community, American support for Israel, and the relationship between Israeli Jews and those in the Diaspora? These questions are especially prescient following Tisha B’Av. Ideological divisions in ancient Judea bred irreconcilable hatred, leaving the Jewish community fragmented, quarreling, and vulnerable to external threats.

The Jewish tradition intuited the communal danger posed by ideological division. That’s why it insists  a person should begin with a profound sense of intellectual humility when forming an opinion (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 4a: “Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know’”), learn with curiosity and openness about an issue before forming a position on it (especially when it comes to complex issues like this one, about which most of us have limited information and expertise), and then debate the issue in a spirit of kindness, modesty, and extreme respect for and understanding of the other side's view (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 11a).

There are good, substantive reasons to support or oppose the Iran deal, and reasonable people can disagree. But as the debate over it grows increasingly heated, especially in the Jewish community, we must be careful not to disagree in a way that vilifies our opponents. At some point, the Iran debate will end, and we will eventually need erstwhile opponents to be partners again.

Rabbi Michael Knopf is rabbi of Temple Beth-el in Richmond, Virginia, and a Rabbis Without Borders fellow. Named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis" by The Jewish Daily Forward, he enjoys movies, traveling, and pizza. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiKnopf.

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