President Obama’s Liaison to the American-Jewish Community: We Can Disagree – but Respect Each Other's Opinions

Despite the rancor surrounding the Iran deal, the US Jewish community enjoys a core-level consensus. The crisis lies in the rush by some to draw borders of acceptable conversation in the Jewish community along the lines of disagreement, excluding those who failed to toe what was presented as the party line.

Matt Nosanchuk
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U.S. President Barack Obama claps as he joins a classroom of singing children after his remarks on Jewish American History Month at the Adas Israel Congregation synagogue in Washington May 22, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Matt Nosanchuk

In recent months, many in the American-Jewish community have made much of the divisions laid bare by this past summer’s debate over the Iran nuclear deal. Some have deemed the situation to be a crisis. There have been calls for healing, for moving past the disagreement and focusing on the future, and for restoring unity to the community.

While moving past the debate and focusing on the future is essential now that the agreement is being implemented, from my vantage point the community already is unified in important ways. The challenge that faces the community is in the way we have chosen to characterize what divides us, rather than emphasize what brings us together.

As President Barack Obama’s liaison to the American-Jewish community, I had a front seat in the national debate over the Iran nuclear deal. When I took the job in 2013, many insiders told me “Mazal tov – and condolences.” Others said I had the hardest job in Washington, a contention that I viewed at the time as way overstated. As the summer of 2015 unfolded, I started to believe it might actually be true. The passion in our community for the issues we care about runs deep. Opinions are strongly held and effectively and forcefully conveyed, presenting an acute challenge for anyone who has the privilege to hold my position.

Those of us working on the issue in the administration – including President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry – spent months deeply engaged with the American-Jewish community as it, along with Congress and the nation, debated the Iran nuclear deal. Particularly as the deadline for the congressional review period approached, the deal prompted many sermons and thousands of difficult conversations across our community, held in synagogues, at community institutions and around Shabbat tables.

As we worked day and night to garner support for the deal during this period, Secretary Kerry, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the Treasury’s Acting Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam Szubin, I and other colleagues had the opportunity to get out of Washington and interact with members of the Jewish community, all of whom care deeply about the future of Israel and the Jewish people. I was inspired by their passion even when we disagreed on policy, and appreciated when they took the time to hear us make the president’s case for why the deal would keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and benefit Israel’s security and future.

I have been fortunate to serve a president who cares deeply about Israel and his relationship with the American-Jewish community. His commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad, illustrated in part by the unprecedented U.S. security assistance to Israel that has occurred under this administration and through his unwavering commitment to the two-state solution.

In fact, when it comes to engaging the American-Jewish community, the head of a major Jewish organization that opposed the deal told me after the congressional review period ended that the White House did more outreach to the Jewish community in the past year than other White Houses did in the previous 25 years – combined.

That effort involved reaching out and making the case – from the president’s historic visit to Adas Israel, where he was only the fourth president in American history to address our community from the bimah, to a webcast cohosted by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which was viewed by more than 15,000 American Jews. It also involved a great deal of listening, hearing directly from the community about their priorities and concerns.

Often, we spent more time answering questions after the official speaking engagements were over. I can recall one event in suburban Detroit, where I grew up. A colleague and I met with the Jewish community at a large synagogue there and, following our 90-minute presentation, we stood outside at the entrance for what seemed like just as long, answering detailed questions from deal opponents who had brought a copy of the agreement and – in the very best Jewish tradition – debated the text. That was just one of many such engagements that involved a vigorous debate, which we welcomed.

This kind of debate is not only kosher but essential to a functioning democracy. For that matter, it is essential to a functioning family. One thing I appreciate and love most about my role is that the global Jewish community is like one big family. And the president feels like he’s a part of that family. When he spoke at Adas Israel, he described himself as an “honorary member of the tribe,” and he traces his political success to the indispensable role played by his friends and mentors in Chicago’s Jewish community.

As the president has said, it’s not unusual for families to harbor strong disagreements. And in the Jewish tradition, we have a long tradition of disagreeing on essential issues. It’s almost ritualistic. If I went an entire Passover seder with my family without strong opinions being passed back and forth, I would look around the table and ask the people there who they were and what they had done to my real family.

The challenge coming out of the summer is not on how to unify the community such that everyone agrees. In fact, there is strong consensus within the community on essential issues: the vast majority of the American-Jewish community believes in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so that Israel remains both Jewish and democratic, and agrees on the importance of permanently preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Our disagreements are based in what each of those basic ideas looks like in practice. And the perception of crisis, in fact, lies in the failure to recognize that at the heart of our surface-level disagreement is a core-level consensus. The crisis lies in the rush by some to draw the borders of acceptable conversation in the Jewish community along the lines of disagreement, with the effect of excluding those who failed to toe what was presented as the party line.

Poll after poll showed that significant majorities of American Jews who cared about Israel believed the best way to protect Israel was by adopting the Iran nuclear deal, while a number of major Jewish organizations opposed it. The Israeli government opposed the deal, while dozens of eminent former senior Israeli military officials supported it. The Orthodox Union opposed the deal, but 440 rabbis from all denominations signed a letter supporting it. Senators Schumer and Cardin opposed the deal, but a majority of Jewish members of the Senate and House supported it.

To insist on unity would have the effect of accentuating division. We would end up with an organized and affiliated Jewish community that is very small and, to be honest, a little bit boring.

The strength of the Jewish community derives from our passion, our commitment to rigorous advocacy and our deep concern about important issues. It is a community whose members may disagree with each other on those issues, but who can express those differences with mutual respect and devotion to shared values. If we can do that, we can ensure that our community will remain strong l’dor v’dor – from generation to generation – and that family discussions around our dinner tables and throughout our communities will continue to be consequential and interesting.

The writer is associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and the White House liaison to the American-Jewish community.