Leaders worry over ‘ugly tone’ of Iran debate

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Whether it will stop Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon remains to be seen but the agreement reached between U.S. negotiators and their counterparts from Teheran is already fueling a contentious — and at times caustic — debate among American Jews.

“Our position is to support the diversity of views in our community and to recognize that we share common principles of a non-nuclear Iran and a safe and secure Israel,” said Andrew Rehfeld, President and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis. 

That was reinforced by a statement from the Federation, which urged Jews to become educated on the agreement and then make their feelings known to their elected representatives (read the full statement on page 4). It also encouraged community members to approach the debate with the belief that disagreement on the issue was primarily a difference of opinion over tactics, not over goals.

“Support for, or opposition to, the agreement should not be construed as a litmus test of love for Israel or the Jewish people, or commitment to the United States or international security,” it read.

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The local Federation expressed no opinion on the content of the agreement itself.

“We don’t believe it is our role to take a position as a Federation, as a broad community development organization,” Rehfeld said.

However, not all Jewish communal agencies have been willing to remain as circumspect in the increasingly vicious fray surrounding the matter. A number of federations and Jewish community councils from Boston to Birmingham to Baltimore have stated outright opposition to the agreement while others have expressed varying levels of wariness or apprehension. Others have pushed for a redraft of the document or simply urged Congress to scrutinize it carefully. 

According to a JTA analysis last month, no federations or Jewish Community Relations Councils were listed as endorsing the pact, while at least 22 were opposed.

But Jewish public opinion may not trend so strongly against the deal. One July poll of 501 American Jews found nearly half favored the agreement with 28 percent in opposition though a majority noted that they were not confident the deal would prevent Iran from developing a bomb.

Locally, views run the gamut.

Fresh or flawed?

At Temple Emanuel, Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh 

was cautiously behind the agreement.

“I’m a supporter of the U.S. government’s attempts to bring peace to the region,” she said.

Hersh said that, so far, nothing else seemed to work in reigning in Iranian nuclear ambitions. She was hopeful that the deal would bring a fresh and more successful approach.

“Still, I’m not naïve to think that Iran and other countries are not a worry. I’m not sure that the deal is a panacea. I’m not sure that this makes everything OK,” she said. “I think that sometimes we have to work with what we have, to move forward but to be intelligent about it.”

She also expressed concern about the frayed relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“It makes me uncomfortable that there is not a real unity between these two leaders, that there seems to be such animosity,” she said. “As an American Jew, I’m really saddened by that.”

At Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, Rabbi Ze’ev Smason was less optimistic about the deal. 

“One of the bigger issues is that the agreement legitimizes Iran as a nuclear threshold state,” he said. “The international community is essentially withdrawing its objections to Iran’s nuclear activity over the past two decades.”

Smason was among the signatories to an online petition for rabbis, which said the pact would harm the interests of both the United States and Israel. The petition had more than 1,100 signatures though sponsors had not yet verified that all the names were rabbis.

Smason expressed concerns over a wide variety of issues including Iran’s ability to quickly produce nuclear fuel, the limited duration of the agreement and the lead time for, and composition of, inspection teams that would verify the terms. He also believes Iran would cheat on any agreement and that such an arrangement would provide Iran with revenue that could be used to finance terrorism.

He thinks the Americans could get better terms.

“We’ll never know until we try,” Samson said. “But I think that there are many individuals, myself included, who feel there is ample room to negotiate with what we see as a very flawed deal.”

‘The best available deal’

By contrast, Rabbi James Bennett at Shaare Emeth was also a signatory to a rabbinic letter sent by Ameinu, a progressive Jewish group that collected 340 signatures backing the agreement. 

“I signed it because I think the deal is the best available deal for the United States and our allies — for Israel. It is the best arrangement given the realities on the ground and in the world right now,” he said.

The letter notes that international sanctions on Iran are now set to end regardless of congressional action and that other nations have already approved the accord. It acknowledges Iranian support for terrorism but notes that dealing with that issue was never the aim of the talks.

Bennett said that he felt the media’s portrayal of monolithic American Jewish opposition to the deal was inaccurate. He praised the work of the president and his negotiators for obtaining an agreement he feels may not be perfect but will prevent Iranian progress towards a bomb over the near term.

“I think the agreement provides an opportunity for international leverage on Iran,” he said. “It provides an opportunity to move forward toward peace and it provides a better alternative than war.”

Bennett said that the Torah commands Jews to pursue peace and that his backing for the pact is rooted in his rabbinic views as well as his deep love for both the United States and Israel.

“I read Jewish values as compelling us to do everything in our power to make peace, to negotiate,” he said. “I believe that this agreement is a good-faith, wise and Jewishly-supportable agreement. We ought to give a chance to see it unfold.”

Nothing to be gained

At Traditional Congregation, Rabbi Seth D. Gordon said he also favors congressional approval — though certainly not because he supports the agreement itself. He castigated it as “a very bad deal” that might allow Iran the resources to rearm Hamas and Hezbollah.

“No sensible person would ever make any significant deal with someone they didn’t trust,” he said. “There is a certain arrogance taking place to think that we are going to outsmart people who are very smart and have had a propensity to cheat in order to promote their nationalistic and ideological aspirations.”

However, Gordon said he doesn’t see anything to be gained by rejecting the pact since the international community is already dropping sanctions.

“If we were to disapprove it, it seems that Iran could gain all the benefits both from the increased economic opportunities that it will have as well as not necessarily being held to any standards,” he said. “It would have terrible repercussions in the way it could be portrayed and the way it would be understood.”

Gordon, who said that rabbis don’t have any special expertise on the technical elements of such an arrangement but that they do bring a sense of values to the conversation, was also critical of the administration’s handling of the matter.

“I think that Obama bears the burden of deciding not to do this as a treaty and to preempt Congress’s role by doing what he did with the UN,” he said. “Therein, lies the danger of a person taking on responsibility by themselves. He bears the responsibility much more individually than if he had submitted this as it should have been submitted.”

Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in St. Louis, said her organization is urging Congress to reject the deal. 

“The ADL’s position on the agreement itself is that we have profound concerns about a number of loopholes that have been discussed by a number of different groups and are not really addressed in the final agreement,” she said.

Aroesty was among those who watched a recent presidential webcast aimed at the Jewish community. She said that Obama seemed well-versed on the subject and appreciated his suggestion that people educate themselves on the agreement.

Still, she was dubious about the content of the accord, which she would like to see scrapped in favor of a “new bipartisan approach” to Iran.

“There are still plenty of unknowns even if we get ourselves educated,” she said. 

An ‘incredibly ugly’ debate

Regardless, Aroesty expressed concern over the increasingly negative tone of discourse on the matter in the Jewish community, which has sometimes turned into personal attacks.

“That’s got to stop,” she said. “The substance of the debate can be fierce but people have to be respectful of those who feel differently than they do.”

That was a sentiment echoed by a number of people from all sides of the issue.

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the JCRC, said her agency wasn’t taking a position on the agreement itself. She did, however, reiterate the view that Iran must not be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon, andstress that debate on the issue remain respectful.

“In some cases, conversation about Iran has been markedly uncivil,” she said. “It is important for members of the community who have a range of views to hear each other, to understand each other, not to necessarily come away agreeing but to have heard each other.”

Rabbi Amy Feder at Temple Israel said that she was also not taking a public position but that her congregation has tried to encourage open discussion.

“My biggest concern is not so much about the Iran deal itself but just the way that it is dividing the Jewish community,” she said. “It is really disconcerting to me that, whatever happens with the deal, so many Jews are turning against each other and it has just become incredibly ugly.”