From the point of view of those opposed to the Iran nuclear deal, the decision of the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) to sit out the battle is not the worst possible outcome. To expect a religious denomination whose very identity is inextricably tied with liberal politics to take a stand against President Obama — a man that the majority of their adherents likes and admires — was a stretch. That was especially true since the president is treating this debate as a litmus test of loyalty to the Democratic Party. Equally unlikely was the possibility that the Reform movement would align itself with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a man that most of their members dislike and distrust — on any issue. Indeed, the unwillingness of the URJ to join the ad hoc group of liberal rabbis that have endorsed the pact with Iran reflects the unease among even liberal Jews who care about Israel over what President Obama has done. Yet the eagerness of Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs to pat himself on the back for staying out of the fray merits criticism. Contrary to Jacobs’s formulation, the real problem with the debate about Iran is not the nature of the rhetoric being used by both sides but the way in which the administration is downgrading the U.S.-Israel alliance. As difficult as it may be for Reform Jews to admit it, Obama is forcing his Jewish admirers to choose between him and Israel and that is not a choice any American, let alone a Jewish supporter of the Jewish state, should be asked to make.
Jacobs is right when he says that the acrimonious nature of the debate about the Iran deal is divisive and often over the top.
President Obama is the biggest culprit here as he has used his bully pulpit in the White House to demonize opponents of the pact as being either warmongers or, offering only war as an alternative to his policy. Even worse, he has singled out Israel as the only country opposing the deal. This charge is as disingenuous as it is false; Arab nations in the Middle East are just as opposed to it as Israel since they have as much to fear from a strengthened Iran as does the Jewish state.
The president is also being dishonest when he claims Republicans have turned the issue into a partisan squabble. It was the White House, and not the GOP, that smashed the bipartisan consensus on Iran by demanding that pro-Israel Democrats back the deal out of loyalty to the president.
Just as important, the willingness of the president to bash AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups that urge Congress to oppose the deal as a special interest “lobby” that was using big money pressure tactics was deeply disturbing. Just as bad was his talk about critics pushing the country into a war in which they wouldn’t fight. When President George H.W. Bush spoke of fighting a lobby when he opposed loan guarantees to Israel in 1991, a united Jewish community slammed him for using language that was redolent of anti-Semitic slurs. When conservative commentator Pat Buchanan also spoke of Jews not fighting in a war they wanted America to fight for Israel, he was labeled an anti-Semite. Yet liberals aren’t being as tough on Obama with many of them looking for ways to rationalize or excuse his rhetoric.
But it should be admitted that some deal opponents have also gone over the top when they have termed Obama loyalists “self-hating Jews.” Like GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, there are those who have been quick to use Holocaust analogies that are inappropriate as well as inaccurate. Israel will not let its people be shoved into the ovens. Like Obama’s slurs, the purpose of such talk is to delegitimize opponents, not to reason with or persuade them.
Yet as nasty as this debate has been, mean words are not the real problem here. Nor is there any honor to be found in standing mute when bad policies are pushed through.
There are those on the right who believe most Reform Jews either don’t care about Israel or have bought into wrongheaded arguments about its faults so that they are unprepared to stand up and fight for it when its security is threatened. There is no doubt that secular and liberal American Jews are less likely to feel strongly about Israel and their political leanings have something to do with this. They perceive contemporary Israel as somehow being less praiseworthy than it used to be because of its peace policies, a profoundly misleading attitude that President Obama tried to channel when he spoke at a Washington, D.C. synagogue earlier this year to drum up support for his Iran deal. But if many American Jews are abandoning Israel it has more to do with their weakening sense of Jewish peoplehood, as reflected in the 2013 Pew Survey, than it does with Netanyahu’s policies or even concerns about the lack of religious pluralism in Israel. The same study showed that most of those who call themselves Reform still care about Israel. The problem is, their loyalty to the Democrats — or at least Obama’s conception of what a Democrat should do — is just as strong.
Though Obama’s allies have strained to put forward a defense of the deal, their lackluster arguments reflect the weak position they’ve been asked to rationalize. The deal failed to achieve the objective that the administration stated as its goal for the negotiations: an end to Iran’s nuclear project. Instead, the president’s lust for a rapprochement with the Islamist regime has led him to conclude a pact that gives international approval to that project and allows Iran to continue advanced research that will enable it to have a bomb as soon as the deal expires. Even if one ignores the flimsy inspections and optimistic projections of Iranian capabilities that are at the heart of the deal, at best, the agreement postpones an Iranian weapon for a few years. But by enriching Iran by releasing $100 billion in frozen assets and allowing sanctions to collapse, the deal is also making this anti-Semitic and aggressive regime more dangerous. Iran’s active support for Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists — factors that are ignored in the agreement — is making war against Israel more likely, not less so.
Not all supporters of the deal are backing it in an unprincipled manner. Some may actually think it is a good idea. But most of the backers of this deal aren’t really telling us that Obama has averted the Iranian threat he pledged to halt. All most of them are saying is that they don’t think it can be dealt with and please can we change the subject to something less troubing? Asking them to draw serious conclusions from the deal’s shortcomings is something that few liberal partisans (Leon Wieseltier being a prominent and surprising exception) are capable of doing.
All of which leads us back to Reform’s dilemma.
In examining the choices that the URJ and other liberal Jewish groups face, it is fair to ask how they would react if a Republican president had embraced détente with Iran and feuded with Israel. The answer is pretty obvious. In spite of the growing alienation of many of their members from Israel, even the Reform movement would have acted as American Jews did a generation earlier when the elder Bush aligned himself against a Jewish state that had yet to take the sort of risks for peace that were made in the following two decades.
Polls have showed that the majority of Americans oppose the deal with Iran. But if the deal is going to survive, it will be because partisanship is a far more potent factor in our political life than many of us are prepared to admit. If Reform Jews are incapable of choosing a side in a battle where the interests of the Jewish people and the U.S. is at stake, it is because they reflect the demographic reality of an American Jewry that sees liberal politics as being equal to if not more important than their support for Zionism. Throw in their affection for Obama and antipathy for Netanyahu and the Reform decision not to back the president must be seen as a victory of sorts for the deal’s opponents.
But Reform’s decision is no cause for celebration. If, as is likely to happen, once the deal squeaks through via a presidential veto that won’t be overridden, there will be work to be done to rebuild the U.S.-Israel alliance that Obama has done so much to undermine. But those who have backed the president or who stood on the sidelines won’t be in a position to help as much as they think. Having shown that they won’t speak up for Israel when it requires opposing a Democratic president, they will be hard-pressed to do so afterward. More important, they will be judged by history as having failed to act at a moment when courage was required. That failure will do as much to hurt the alliance and the future of American Jewry as any divisive rhetoric.