I talked over the weekend with a longtime friend – a committed Jew, active in Jewish communal life, and a strong supporter of Israel. He calls himself an independent but votes mostly Republican. On U.S. President Barack Obama, he is wary and reserved; he voted for him once but for his opponent the other time. And my friend is very, very worried about the threat that Iran poses to Israel’s security.
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When I asked for his thoughts on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech, I was taken aback by his reaction. He was angry; furious, in fact. He saw the speech as a wildly inappropriate orgy of Obama-bashing. As an American, he was offended – and worried. Had it ever happened before, he asked, that a foreign leader spoke to our Congress and launched a direct attack on the American administration? I told him that, to the best of my knowledge, it had not.
A couple I know with more or less the same Jewish commitments and political views responded similarly. They had watched the speech and felt that members of Congress were being bullied by a foreign leader. True, the leader in this instance was from a place they love dearly, have visited often, and advocate for vigorously. And yes, they are concerned about the dangers posed by an Iranian bomb. But Netanyahu’s high-handed reprimand seemed out-of-place to them and the adoring responses more political than sincere. They saw the whole spectacle as an affront to American dignity. An American Congress with any self-respect, they said, should not tolerate being lectured in this manner.
And these were the Republicans. The Jewish activists who are Democrats that I spoke to – and most Jews are Democrats – were much tougher. While all are Israel supporters, they had a range of views about Iran. Some shared the fears of Netanyahu, some backed the position of the Obama administration, and some were simply unsure or undecided. But no one was happy with Netanyahu's speech. “Look at what Nancy Pelosi said,” one friend told me. “That’s what Democrats really think.” Pelosi, who possesses an impeccable pro-Israel record, had referred to the speech as “an insult to the intelligence of the United States.”
Several people worried about the impact the speech would have on African-American support for Israel. Jews on the left side of the political spectrum have worked with African-Americans on Israel issues for decades, with significant success. But the decision of Civil Rights hero John Lewis and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus to skip the speech was widely noted, and some Jewish activists are wondering if the task of drawing minorities to the pro-Israel flag has now become a good deal more difficult.
The organized Jewish community is desperate to move beyond the speech and the divisions it generated. As noted by the Forward, Jewish organizations now want to unite the community by focusing on the substance of the Iran deal, rather than the breach of protocol that marred Netanyahu's visit.
But, from all that I have seen and heard, American Jews are not yet ready to move on. They are unsettled, uneasy and personally distressed. They are worried that the speech will generate repercussions that have yet to be felt and that could be severe. They are especially concerned that the partisan atmosphere that the speech has sparked and legitimized will drive away Democrats and progressives who have always been a mainstay of the pro-Israel coalition.
None of this means that the prime minister should not have dealt with the terrible, existential threat posed by Iran. But it does mean that he should not have given that speech. Instead, he should have declared a three-day election moratorium and arrived in Washington together with Isaac Herzog, his main election rival. They could have jointly addressed AIPAC, conferred with senior members of Congress and the State Department, and forcefully delivered the message that preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon is not a partisan issue for anyone but a concern for all Israelis, whatever the outcome of Israel’s election. And had they done so, they would have made their points without turning into enemies those very people whose support they require if Iran’s march to the bomb is to be thwarted.
But Mr. Netanyahu chose another course, one that may have advanced his personal political interests but did not advance the security interests of Israel. And in doing he so made American Jews' efforts to support Israel in taking on Iran much harder than it was before.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey.