The Only 'Leader’ Who Speaks for American Jews on Iran Is Barack Obama

Most American Jews support Obama’s policies on Iran - so in whose name are their so-called 'leaders’ sabotaging his nuclear diplomacy?

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Over the years, I’ve compiled an informal list of the journalistic phrases that make me cringe. “International community” is one. “Community” implies intimate knowledge and shared values. If anything is not a community, it’s the nations of the world. “American Jewish leader” is another. “Leader” implies followers and “American Jewish leader” implies a significant following among American Jews. Yet if you asked American Jews to name the men (and they are almost all men) who run America’s major Jewish groups, you’d get mostly blank stares.

Why does this matter? Because in recent months, the press has been filled with headlines like: “White House Briefs Jewish Leaders on Iran Nuclear Deal,” “American Jewish Leaders Censure Nuclear Deal,” and “Obama Urges Jewish Leaders Not to Back Iran Sanctions.”

The implication is that there’s a conflict between the White House, which want a softer line on Iran, and American Jews who - represented by their “leaders” - want a tougher one. It’s an influential storyline. And it’s utter nonsense.

In truth, the only person who can legitimately claim to speak for American Jews on the subject of Iran is the very guy American Jewish “leaders” oppose: Barack Obama. Look at the evidence. In 2012, Mitt Romney slammed Obama for not supporting tougher sanctions against Iran and for not more explicitly pledging that, if sanctions fail to curb Tehran’s nuclear program, the U.S. will attack.  In so doing, Romney road-tested the critique leveled by Benjamin Netanyahu and many American Jewish “leaders.”

The result? Obama won 69 percent of the Jewish vote. According to an exit poll by J Street (the only organization to ask such a question), Jewish voters preferred Obama to Romney on Iran by a margin of 58 to 26 percent.

More recent surveys reveal basically the same thing. A Pew Research Center poll last October found that 52 percent of American Jews approve of Obama’s Iran policy while 35 percent disapprove.

An American Jewish Committee survey that same month found that American Jews support Obama’s “handling [of] Iran’s Nuclear Program” 62-36 percent. 

Despite this, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations all support a sanctions bill that Obama insists will wreck his chances of achieving a nuclear deal. In fact, “support” may be too weak a word. The new Iran sanctions effort, claims a well-placed congressional aide, is “totally and completely Jewish-community run.”

That may be an exaggeration. And American Jewish “leaders” might argue that they’re not obligated to represent American Jews as a whole, only the ones in their organizations. Still, it’s extraordinary to watch American Jewish “leaders” play such a prominent role in undermining an Iran policy that, according to all the evidence, most American Jews support.

How can this be? Partly, it’s because American Jewish “leaders” are older, wealthier and more religiously observant than other American Jews, demographic characteristics that correlate with hawkishness. Partly, it’s because American Jewish “leaders” are more responsive than other American Jews to the concerns of Benjamin Netanyahu, who clearly hates Obama’s nuclear diplomacy.

But most importantly, it’s because American Jewish “leaders”—more than most American Jews—see Jew-hatred as a pervasive force in world affairs, as powerful today as it was in the early twentieth century. In 2009, the ADL’s Abraham Foxman, declared that “global anti-Semitism [is] . . . reaching a peak this year that we haven’t seen since the tragic days of World War II.” In 2010, Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations gave a speech entitled, “Is It 1939?” 

In claiming that the gentile world’s view of Jews has not fundamentally changed, American Jewish “leaders” have made Iran exhibit A. For two decades, they have described it as the Nazi Germany of our time, motivated primarily by a hunger for world conquest and a thirst for Jewish blood. Such a regime, the argument goes, is impervious to the normal calculations of national self-interest and the normal dynamics of diplomatic compromise. It will respond only to unrelenting economic and military pressure.

As it happens, this is not the view held by top security experts in either America or Israel. In 2012, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that “Iran’s nuclear decision making is guided by a cost-benefit approach.”

That same year, the chief of the staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Benny Gantz, while warning that an Iranian nuclear weapon would prove dangerous, told Haaretz that “the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.” 

It is this basic assumption: that the Iranian regime - although brutal and despotic - has legitimate national interests and the capacity for rational judgment, which informs Obama’s diplomacy. It is this basic assumption that inclines him to believe that a final nuclear deal can only be reached via compromise, not the unilateral dictates codified in the new Iran sanctions bill. And it is precisely this assumption that American Jewish “leaders” cannot accept, because if Iran is not Nazi Germany, then 2014 is nothing like 1939. And if 2014 is nothing like 1939, then American Jews need Jewish organizations that recognize that today, many of the key challenges facing the Jewish people stem not from our weakness but from our power.

That’s what’s at stake in the struggle over Iran policy currently roiling Washington, a struggle that has the potential to reshape not just American foreign policy, but the landscape of institutional American Jewish life. 

President Barack Obama speaks at the Saban Forum at the Willard Hotel in Washington, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. Credit: AP