Local Jewish leaders find common ground on Iran

 Karen Aroesty


Last week’s high-level meetings and speeches about Iran’s possible nuclear weapons quest have reassured Jewish leaders here that Washington and Israel now have common cause on this grave international issue.

Apparent differences between the United States and Israel in their efforts to halt Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons that could strike Israel, as well as Europe, the Middle East and Asia, have generally been put to rest, these leaders said in interviews with the Jewish Light.

Anat Cohen at The Sheldon

At the same time, several decried the overheated election-year rhetoric and media hype that President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced when they met at the White House and addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

“I am frustrated and disappointed with the vitriolic nature of the attacks on President Obama,” said Rabbi James Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth. “He’s not betraying Israel…Everyone should cease and desist and let the process work.”

He also warned that Americans of all political persuasions should “be very cautious about jumping to conclusions – false conclusions – about the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu.”

Bennett called “vicious” and “counterproductive” the language politicians and commentators have used against Obama to allege his lack of support of Israel.

Barry Rosenberg, President and CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Federation, ticked off three “very important clarifications” that came from the meeting between Obama and Netanyahu at the White House and their respective speeches before the AIPAC audience.

“There was recognition by Obama of Israel’s right of sovereignty to deal with its own security,” Rosenberg said. “Second, the United States sees Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb as unacceptable and, third, the policy of containment is not sufficient.”

He added that the Jewish community and Americans generally “can be grateful for these clarifications and Obama’s strong support for Israel.”

“They remain very, very focused on Iran’s situation,” Rosenberg said. “And it’s important for the St. Louis Jewish community to recognize the depth and complexity of the situation.”

There is so much most Americans cannot know about the discussions between Obama and Netanyahu. Those discussions may deal with strategy, so-called red lines that Iran must not cross in developing nuclear weapons, the logistics of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and other top-secret matters.

“It was a good visit by Netanyahu,” said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “Too often it’s forgotten that when we’re talking about issues as important as these, the president of the United States is not going to put his game plan on the table. In fact, we’d be appalled if he did.”

She said she got the impression that after the two leaders met and talked privately at the White House, there was “unanimity on the game plan,” which is to stop Iran’s effort to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon that could hit Israel or a number of other countries in the Middle East, Asia and Western Europe.

However, some academic and think-tank game theorists argue that national leaders act rationally. Therefore, Iran’s acquiring a nuclear weapon is not the threat it’s being made out to be. National leaders, even in Iran, would not risk the destruction by retaliation of their own cities and deaths of their people by using a nuclear weapon on Israel. If Israel did not strike back, the United States would – and Iranian leaders presumably would add that to their calculations.

But that argument did not mollify Abramson-Goldstein.

“Irrational people and irrational regimes do irrational things,” she said. “This is a gamble the Israelis don’t want to take.”

Some commentators and political leaders have said there is too much distance between Obama and Netanyahu.

Scholars have noted that these two men have not shown much warmth for each other, particularly when discussing Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and how to effect a two-state solution.

But they then caution that President George W. Bush once declared how well he understood Russian Prime Minister Vladamir Putin. Then basic differences on substantive policy issues like Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon became apparent.

Rabbi Seth Gordon of Traditional Congregation said he’s not worried about the relationship between Obama and the Israeli prime minister.

“On a personal level, they are not warm with each other,” Gordon said. “But they have compelling shared interests. I’m not overly concerned. The behavior of Iran will narrow any gaps between the two. I don’t think this is a time to accentuate the differences. No one knows how this is going to play out.”

Regardless of how things go in the next several months or years, Gordon and others see higher fuel prices as one possible result that will touch virtually every American. At a minimum, crude oil prices are likely to go up because of the uncertainty in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries that produce oil.

“I think we could see $8 gas” before the Iran situation is resolved, Gordon said, referring to the retail price of a gallon of regular gasoline.

Such a pocketbook impact could cause a backlash against Israel and its Jewish and non-Jewish supporters in the United States, said Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and southern Illinois.

“When people perceive this situation, it will be through their own lens, which will be at the gas pump,” she said.

And the repercussions could be strong, if the American public is not well informed about the potential Iranian threat to peace and security in the Middle East and much of the rest of the world. The chances for misunderstandings of the causes of an Iranian crisis are great and will take a lot of work and patience to mitigate, Aroesty said.