Iran deal may transform American Jewry


One of the significant elements to this story involves American Jews opposing the president of the United States that they had helped to elect. One can define this moment as transformational, as it may lead to the redefining of how Jews understand and employ their political power. This contest has in many ways demonstrated the maturation of the Jewish political mindset and the changing social environment, namely that Jewish voters are making choices independent of their historic political and party loyalties.

With each political/military crisis facing the State of Israel, the political divisions among American Jewry seem more pronounced. The Iranian nuclear question has demonstrated the depth and intensity of the Jewish political controversy. Two American-Jewish identities are in conflict with one another over this question. For many, this conversation is defined in terms of seeing themselves as “American Jews,” where their liberal political values and Jewish prophetic ideals inform their civic engagement. They enter this particular debate holding a number of competing concerns but are prepared in the end to place their trust in the president. For others, whom we might identify as “Jewish Americans,” their political framework and identity are constructed around their Zionist passions. For these individuals, Israel and its security concerns inform their perspective on this agreement and shape their general political antennae around the centrality of the Jewish story as it intersects with their American citizenship.

What is profoundly evident is that no Jew is expected to remain “neutral” as the political battlegrounds have been drawn. National organizations, community institutions and rabbinical leaders are all being called upon to declare themselves in this test of Jewish political activism. It is estimated that this mobilization may be one of the most expansive and expensive political organizing initiatives in modern Jewish history. This issue has triggered new avenues of political expression, including the formation of Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran and other forms of political activism involving high-level meetings, public debates, ads and petitions reflecting both perspectives within this debate.

This is a contest that has implications for the entire Middle East and, more directly, the place of Iran in the nuclear club. For Israel and the Jewish people, the political outcome in this matter may well reshape the nature of the Israel-United States relationship and the future role of the U.S. in this region.

Israel’s leadership has directly entered the American domestic arena as political actors, seeking to mobilize the Congress, the general populace and, more directly, American Jewry to act on a matter that has a specific impact on the future of the Jewish political enterprise. What are the longer-term implications of such intervention into the internal affairs of one nation by another?

In their efforts to identify with this cause, politicians and journalists have adopted various historical comparisons. One such scenario aligns this moment with Munich in 1938 and the act of appeasement, but is this a brilliant diplomatic maneuver designed to ultimately move Iran away from its current policies and lead to the unseating of its radical political base? Yet in the 1930s, Jewish organizations and their national leaders were at loggerheads over the best strategy to combat the rise of Hitler and to manage the case to defend and protect European Jewry. A divided community in that setting would fail to make its case with the Roosevelt administration. What are the contemporary as well as historical implications surrounding this policy debate?

In studying the tenor of this debate, we are likely to experience various forms of anti-Semitic/anti-Israel fallout, as well as an internal Jewish backlash, as the rhetoric accelerates and intensifies in connection with the forthcoming congressional vote. In the aftermath of this vote, will Jews be identified as “undermining” the administration’s foreign policy objectives? Will there likely be internal Jewish recrimination that follows this intense political contest?

What will be the impact of this issue on the 2016 elections and beyond, and what might be the spillover effect? Who will be seen as the political “winners” and “losers” in the aftermath of this battle?


Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. This article is reprinted from 

Discussing Israel, Zionism and Peace


As American Jews join in marking the 50th birthday of the State of Israel and the 100 years of the Zionist movement, there is cause for both celebration and concern.

“As we rejoice in the accomplishments of Israel, Zionism and American Jewry, they each face their own, though interrelated, crises,” says Yoav Ben-Horin, senior fellow at the Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies and former RAND Corp. strategic analyst.

Ben-Horin will explore both the triumphs and challenges in a series of five Sunday-morning lectures, sponsored by the Labor Zionist Alliance.

The first lecture, on Jan. 18, will examine “The Modern Middle East: Where From? What About?” with tickets available at the door. This and the following four monthly lectures and discussions will start at 9:30 a.m. at the Institute of Jewish Education, 8339 W. Third St.

Subsequent talks will deal with Zionism, Israel’s middle-age crisis, the peace process and American Jewry’s relationship to Israel.

“Each of these areas is in a state of flux and facing crucial crossroads,” says Ben-Horin. “One purpose of this series is to relate the topics to each other and see where they fit together. For instance, Israel’s struggle intersects with the evolution of American Jewry.”

Tickets are $40 for the entire series, and $10 per individual lecture. For information, call (213) 655-2842.

Organizers of the series are Bernard Weisberg, president of the regional Labor Zionist Alliance chapter, and Ethel Taft. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor