Since the signing of the Iran nuclear agreement, American Jews — like Americans as a whole — have been debating whether it’s a good or bad deal. But they’ve also been debating something different, and more sensitive: Can we disagree with Israelis on something this important? In the words of Jeremy Burton, who runs Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council: “If all across Israel they are crying out against the Iran deal, who are we as pro-Israel American Jews to ignore them?”
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Or as my Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg put it, “If Israel’s elected leader, and the head of the opposition, oppose the Iran deal, can J Street support it and still call itself pro-Israel?” Although related, Burton and Goldberg’s questions are distinct. Implicitly, Burton’s is directed at those American Jews who think the Iran deal is good for the United States. If you believe the deal is bad for the United States, after all, then the fact that Israelis “are crying out against it” is superfluous. Burton’s question only really matters for those American Jews torn between what they believe is best for our country and what most Israelis believe is best for theirs.
It says something remarkable about the United States in 2015 that Burton can even publicly raise the question. By essentially asking whether American Jews should put the Jewish state’s fortunes ahead of America’s, he’s raising the very dual loyalty question that made prior generations of American Jews tremble. Today, however, American Jewish concern for Israel is so assumed, and so embraced by America’s leaders, that Burton can raise the question without fear. That’s a wonderful thing.
But fact that America lets us raise the question doesn’t mean we should equivocate about the answer: Of course American Jews can put our country’s interests above Israel’s. When foreigners become American citizens, they are required to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty.” That doesn’t mean American Jews can’t care deeply about Israel. That care, however, never justifies harming the United States. If it did, Jonathan Pollard would have been justified in spying on his own government on Israel’s behalf. Some might argue that Israeli opinions about the Iran deal matter more than American ones because for Israel, the stakes in an Iran deal are higher. But the stakes are high for the United States too: Without a deal, America’s stated willingness to use any means necessary to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon puts the U.S. and Iran on the path to war.
Goldberg’s question is somewhat different. He’s not asking whether American Jews can legitimately oppose the majority of Israelis. He’s asking whether they can do so while still claiming the mantle “pro-Israel.” But if J Street can’t be “pro-Israel” because it disagrees with most Israelis, then neither can former Mossad Ephraim Halevy or former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon, since they support the nuclear deal too.
Supporting a country, whether or not it’s one’s own, means supporting a certain vision of its interests and ideals, whether the majority of people in that country agree with that vision or not. Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening were not being anti-American when they became the only two senators to oppose the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that authorized force in Vietnam. U.S. President Ronald Reagan was not being anti-British when he refused to support the overwhelming majority of Brits who backed their country’s war in the Falklands. And French President Jacques Chirac was not being anti-American when he opposed the majority of Americans who supported invading Iraq.
It is precisely when nationalist passions are strongest that it is most important to defend people’s right to dissent from the majority without impugning their love of country. In Israel today, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is furiously fanning those nationalist passions. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is pushing legislation that would restrict the ability of left-leaning NGOs to function.
Culture Minister Miri Regev wants to deny state funds to artists whose political expression she dislikes. In every recent election, right-wing politicians have tried to use Israel’s Central Elections Committee to disqualify Palestinian Arab parties from running. J Street plays a similar role in the American Jewish community to the one these Israeli dissidents play in Israel. Its views on the Iran deal may or may not be correct. But its ability to hold them without having its love of Israel impugned is critical to a free and open debate among American Jews. Majorities are sometimes right and sometimes wrong. But it is in their treatment of minority views, especially on matters of war and peace, that one gauges a country, and a community’s, democratic health.