NEW YORK – It took what seemed like mere moments after the Iran deal was announced on July 14 for American Jewish organizations — some predictable, others surprising — to stake out public positions on the agreement. Many now worry that the crusading on both sides of the issue will drive a wedge in a Jewish community already fractured over anything to do with Israel.
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As soon as the Iran agreement was announced, the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC unveiled a spin-off, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, which is reportedly spending as much as $20 million to persuade members of Congress to vote against the accord. For its part, the liberal J Street organization launched a smaller campaign, also costing millions, to get people to lobby their members of Congress in support of the nuclear weapons deal.
More surprisingly, perhaps, in Boston and Miami, the Jewish federations — intended to be the widest tents in American Jewish life — asked constituents to lobby their Congressmen and women to vote against the Iran deal. The alumni organization of Taglit-Birthright Israel, which arranges free trips to Israel for young Jewish adults, did the same as soon as the agreement was announced.
In addition, 20 out of a total of 125 Jewish Community Relations Councils, which constitute the representative voice of organized American Jewry, issued statements inside of a week, with most saying they would study the issue further – although some, like the New York JCRC, stated that they are “deeply concerned” about the deal.
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made crystal clear his unalloyed opposition to any agreement with Iran, observers say that American Jews are far more divided on whether the complex matter is worth supporting or opposing — and that for people committed to both America and Israel, it is difficult terrain to navigate.
“The underlying land-mine question is, ‘If American and Israeli interests diverge, how do we navigate that as American Jews?," said one longtime observer, who asked not to be named.
“When you have the [U.S.] administration and an Israeli government with fundamentally different positions, it makes things very difficult and uncomfortable for the Jewish community,” said Martin Raffel, a consultant on Israel to Jewish groups including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Hillel and the Israel Policy Forum.
'Barometer of loyalty'
The Iran agreement has come up at a time when tectonic plates underneath the American Jewish community are shifting. On one hand, there is unparalleled influence by members of the community on the national stage. On the other, Jewish communal discourse around Israel is increasingly fractured. The accord brings both to the fore.
Jeremy Burton of Boston JCRC: "We’re going through a transformation about what it means to assert our influence." (Photo courtesy JCRC of Greater Boston)
“We’re going through a transformation in the American Jewish community, about what it means to assert our strength and our influence as a community, at a time when we are the most confident we have ever been about Jewish power,” said Jeremy Burton, executive director of the JCRC of Greater Boston.
“There is a massive multilayered Venn [diagram of overlapping areas] happening about American Jewish psychology, our internal psychology,” he added.
There is also mounting concern that the debate around Iran will exacerbate the polarized nature of nearly every discussion about Israel in the American Jewish community today.
“There are some within our community who will advance the proposition that this is a barometer of loyalty to Israel,” said Raffel. “This issue is so fraught with existential considerations."
“There is a stridency around the debate on Israel which has crept in in recent years which I’m afraid has the potential to break out on this issue as well,” Raffel noted. “I hope that doesn’t happen. It is the responsibility of leadership to remind people that supporting this agreement doesn’t make you anti-Israel – that has to be pronounced from the leadership loud and clear.”
So far, those pronouncements haven’t been audible.
Currently, “every conflict and debate is being used to advance pre-existing agendas,” Burton told Haaretz. He bemoaned a “lack of open-hearted curiosity” among people on both sides of the issue about the others’ hopes and worries. “It’s of a piece with a broader breakdown in how we talk to each other as Jews about issues of common concern,” he said.
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub works on just that issue, as co-director of the JCPA project Resetting the Table, which teaches Jewish groups to dialogue about Israel across political divides.
“Differences of opinion over the deal will likely fuel underlying divisions, though in fact it is an outgrowth of them,” Weintraub told Haaretz. “The conversation around the deal is the latest manifestation of entrenched patterns. But many other debates have been more vitriolic and hateful,” she said. On this issue, unlike some others, “behind the scenes there’s more confusion than explosiveness about the deal.”
The public “certitude” of Jewish organizations on both sides of the Iran agreement precludes those in what Burton calls “the muddled middle” from being able to explore their concerns. “There is discomfort with complexity in this country. We want things to be black and white. That’s broader than the Jewish community. It taints this kind of conversation. Because this is complicated,” he explained.
Several long-time insiders in the American Jewish community said they welcome vociferous differences of opinion, as long as they don’t develop into accusations of being anti-Israel.
Nancy Kaufman of National Council of Jewish Women: "You can say anything as long as it’s not telling someone they're anti-Israel or a self-hating Jew.” (Photo courtesy of NCJW)
“I am not concerned about acrimony in the Jewish community,” said Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, which has 90,000 members in 70 chapters around the country. She spoke with Haaretz immediately after getting off an hour-long call with Vice President Joseph Biden, who held a phone meeting with leaders of Jewish organizations to respond to skepticism about the deal.
“When it manifests as disrespect, that’s when I’m concerned. You can say anything as long as it’s not telling someone that they are anti-Israel or a self-hating Jew. That kind of rhetoric has increased dramatically, to the detriment of our community,” Kaufman explained.
Israel consultant Martin Raffel: When there's a rift between Israel and Washington, "things are very uncomfortable for the Jewish community.” (Photo courtesy of Martin Raffel)
It isn’t just in the Jewish community that the Iran agreement is being ardently discussed.
“This debate is being played out in the broader American sphere, not just the Jewish communal echo chamber,” said Shaul Kelner, associate professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University. “Part of what will bear on American Jewish reactions is what happens in Congress, and what the tenor of the debate is in general.”
According to Prof. Steven M. Cohen, however, Iran probably isn’t a riveting concern for most Americans, Jewish or otherwise.
“I don’t know if the person in the street is all that focused on the question,” said Cohen, a sociologist and scholar of Jewish social policy at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “My suspicion is that elites always overestimate interest in these inside-the-beltway questions.”