Jewish Light Editorial

The Iran debate in the Jewish community is all over the board.

Many American Jewish organizations are opposing the Iran deal, while some polls show a significant plurality of American Jews supporting it. Those polls are in contravention to those in which Israeli Jews far and away oppose the agreement, a position shared by almost all politicians in that country.

Jewish politicians in the United States, on the other hand, are heavily divided as President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry try to line up support to prevent an override of a presumed presidential veto that would issue after Congress’ probable vote against the agreement.

As you can readily see, it’s a big, hot mess of attitudes out there among Jewish voices, institutions and politicians.

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While we expect differences of opinion on issues of consequence, a lot of the public rhetoric has grown inflammatory. Accusations of warmongering and hyperbole have been hurled from some supporters of the deal toward their opponents, and charges of naïveté and selling out Israel have issued from the other side.

That’s why when the Washington Institute’s David Makovsky, a native of St. Louis and a Middle East expert extraordinaire, spoke at B’nai Amoona last week, he worried about the tone of the debate over the agreement and its  potential to rip the Jewish world asunder. (See related news story on p. 3.)

The program, co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis’ Sh’ma Listen Series and the Can We Talk? partnership of the Jewish Light, the J and Jewish Community Relations Council, offered Makovsky’s universally respected voice as a countermeasure to the virulent rhetoric out there.

In his talk, Makovsky engaged in an imaginary private discussion between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a construct that helped the audience understand the debate from varying perspectives. This back and forth has been sorely lacking in public pronouncements by advocates both within and outside the Jewish community.

The splits are real and meaningful. For instance, Steven Cohen and Todd Gitlin in the Washington Post last week alluded to underlying disconnects within the national Jewish community. In referring to those normally associated with Jewish leadership and influence, they wrote: 

“These leaders and groups are not, in fact, leading American Jewish opinion on the Iran deal. They are defying it. They doubtless represent the views of their board members, but those views are at odds with the majority of rank-and-file American Jews who, in fact, support the deal more than Americans generally.”

It’s easy to see how the discourse has gotten so pointed. The stakes are high, involving the safety and security of Israel, the Middle East, America and the world. The agreement is far from perfect, leaving the debate confused and complicated; some people are comparing the deal with some hypothetical pact that might have been available, others to the threats that might issue with no agreement in place, and so on.

Key elements unfortunately lacking in much of the public discussion, however, are commonality and nuance. As to the former, rarely do we hear those on opposite sides acknowledge that virtually all voices accept the need for Israel’s well-being and recognize Iran’s ill intentions. 

This debate is largely over tactics, not desires, and this basic distinction is lost in most of the discourse.

As for nuance, broad brushes seem the theme of the day. Many of those against the deal unduly magnify its weaknesses, while a number of those for it tend to overstate its strengths. And much of the noise turns on either flawed historical examples or predictions of uncertain outcomes, which zealots cite with the utmost certainty and in derogation of their opponents’ viewpoints.

The angry dichotomies have been the subject of a number of articles in recent days. Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of the Jewish Week, wrote Aug. 14  that the tone is not healthy: 

“For now the debate goes on and gets more personal, nastier, uglier. We long for it to be over, one way or another, and to begin the vital effort of healing the wounds and mending Washington-Jerusalem ties.”

When the congressional debate ends, there will be a need for constructive engagement in support of actions against Iran and in support of Israel. If the parties on opposite sides of this debate don’t show more mutual respect, the chasm in moving forward on this and other issues of import to Jews could widen. 

For the future of our people, that would be unfortunate indeed.