Can the U.S. trust Europe to punish Iran should it violate nuclear deal?

Among his rationales for opposing the nuclear deal with Iran, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer said that he did not trust the three European Union partners to punish Iran should it violate the terms of the accord that offers the Islamic Republic sanctions relief in exchange for scaling back its nuclear activities.

The New York Democrat’s assertion served as a reminder that while Washington has been the driving force behind the deal, which was reached July 14 between Iran and six world powers, the agreement is an international one. Its implementation, therefore, will be determined in part by the foreign policies and interests of Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia.

“It is reasonable to fear that once the Europeans become entangled in lucrative economic relations with Iran, they may well be inclined not to rock the boat by voting to allow inspections” that would bring about renewed sanctions, Schumer wrote in an Aug. 6 statement.

(Russia and China are unlikely to introduce new obstacles to trade with Iran, judging by their apparent eagerness to sell arms to Tehran. Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian defense official who is still the subject of a United Nations travel ban over his country’s nuclear activities, reportedly traveled to Moscow to discuss, among other matters, the sale of air defense missiles. China, meanwhile, has agreed to provide Iran with 24 fighter jets in exchange for access to Iranian oil fields for the next 20 years, Taiwanese media reports have said.)

Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish Democrat in the Senate, has said that he would vote against the deal in Congress, where it is expected to fail. President Barack Obama has vowed to veto any bill of disapproval, for which both houses of Congress would need a two-thirds vote to override.

Schumer’s stated concern about the European Union partners echoes warnings by critics of the deal who say that Europe’s fragile economies lack the discipline to cut trade with Iran should it violate the terms of the deal. But European supporters of the agreement argue that Europe has already proven its willingness to cut trade, and that Iran’s economic dealings will work to increase compliance, not diminish it.

“The resumption of an economic cooperation with the West will boost the gradual liberalization of the Iranian regime and allow it to respond to demands for democracy from civil society,” JCall, Europe’s liberal pro-Israel lobby, similar to J Street in the United States, wrote in a statement.

Europe’s recent track record suggests it has the discipline to walk away from Iranian money. When the European Commission first imposed sanctions against Iran in 2007, it cut a booming trade of 25 billion euros (then worth some $42 billion) between Iran and EU member states to around $7 billion last year.

Promoting stricter sanctions against Iran was easier for the United States, whose trade with Tehran — just $318 million in 2007 — is in any case limited by legislation set in place in the 1980s. (U.S. trade with Iran has gradually decreased since then to less than $1 million in imports and $186.5 in exports last year.)

But the economic situation in the European Union has worsened since 2007, with the union having been badly hurt by the global financial crisis the following year and struggling to maintain the integrity of its financial bloc and currency.

European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, vowed to renew sanctions if Iran fails to comply. But with two of the three EU partners suffering from stagnant economies and rising unemployment, many share Schumer’s skepticism on whether this will actually happen.

“The sanctions are toast,” said Emanuele Ottolenghi of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a right-leaning think tank. Britain, France and Germany, he said, “are in no condition, economically speaking, to agree to implement sanctions once they are lifted.”

Even if they agree to lift such sanctions, the deal’s terms mean that such punitive steps would not apply to contracts signed before the sanctions’ re-introduction, Ottolenghi said, noting: “The result is a rush in Europe to sign contracts now, even if they are not immediately applied, just to make them sanctions-proof.

In 2007, Germany’s gross domestic product grew at a rate of 3.3 percent. It now stands at 0.1 percent. France went from a GDP growth rate of 2.4 percent in 2007 to 0.2 percent in 2014. Of the three EU partners, Britain alone has managed to restore its 2007 growth rate of 2.6 percent after the 2008 crash.

The deal does allow for the reimplementation of sanctions through the U.N. Security Council, even over the objections of other veto players. But doing so, analysts warned, could alienate allies and complicate the creation of a new coalition to impose sanctions — making the snapback option anything but snappy.

But in defense of the deal, J Street has maintained in statements that “the EU and US can snap back their own sanctions at any time if Iran does not meet its commitments.” The left-leaning pro-Israel lobby insisted that the terms of the deal mean sanctions will be snapped back “automatically” at the Security Council if Iran violates any part of the agreement and provided the United States and EU partners demand it.

We Must Condemn Heartless Bilge

“It is not in our hands to explain the prosperity of the wicked or even the sufferings of the righteous.” So said Rabbi Yannai in the Mishna some 2,000 years ago. The Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) insists “there is no reward for mitzvot in this world.” We have had a long time to read and understand the Book of Job, and we know that the calculus of reward and punishment is more perplexing and agonizing than we can know.

Than we can know, but not, apparently, than Rav Ovadiah Yosef, a former chief rabbi of Israel, can know. Rav Ovadiah is an ilui, a genius of halacha.

His memory is astonishing, his range remarkable. Unfortunately, his theology is appalling.

American citizens died in the hurricane, according to Rav Ovadiah, because President Bush supported the pullout from Gush Katif. Just in case there was a corner of decency that was left unoffended, Rav Ovadiah went on to say that the devastation of Katrina was also punishment for lack of Torah study, since after all, kushim, that is black people, don’t study Torah. To hope that he would revise his opinion of even that egregious statement in light of the Ethiopian population of Israel is apparently too much to expect.

If this were the isolated opinion of an older man, whose crotchets are overcoming his considered judgments, it would not merit comment. But such pronouncements are not new for Rav Ovadiah, and other rabbis have astonishingly concurred in this opinion. His influence is great, and so must be the reaction against such theological thuggery.

It is painful to contemplate that a learned rabbi could be so parochial, so narrow, so besotted with our tiny people alone that he chooses to pour rhetorical venom on the victims of a hurricane half a world away. I yearn to hear repudiations, not from secular Jews, but from those who look to Rav Ovadiah as a guide and a mentor.

This is the worst kind of cruel speech in the name of God, a religious racism that forgets the words of Amos, “Are you not as the children of the Ethiopians to me, O children of Israel?” (Amos ch. 9). Apparently Rav Ovadiah knows something Amos does not, for in his remarks he used the same Hebrew word, kushim, as did the great prophet.

There is no more poisonous strain in contemporary religious life than leaders declaring “deserved” death.

Hurricanes are weapons in the hands of an angry or disappointed God? When Christian fundamentalist preachers offer up such justifications, we rise to condemn them, and ask decent Christians to do the same. It is our turn.

Imagine the victims who lost home, possessions, family — the mother bereaved of her children and the child mourning his father — who would not blanche at the callousness that attributes their anguish to the displacement of 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip? The heavens weep for that part of our tradition that could persuade a leader, a venerated rabbi, to spout this heartless bilge.

No one who quotes Rav Ovadiah as an authority or who treats his name with respect ought to be permitted to sidestep this issue. It is imperative that these statements be condemned not by those who are outside his circle, but by the community of those who learn from him and venerate him.

It strikes to the heart of our tradition to believe that God drowned citizens in New Orleans because of Divine ire over Israel’s policy of disengagement from Gaza. Where are the rabbis to rise up and say, “This is cruel, this is wrong, this must not be permitted?”

About a year ago, I received an appeal. Rav Ovadiah, whose discourses were carried on the web, had lost funding, and they were to be discontinued. Would I contribute to keep this Torah scholar’s teachings available to all? I sent in a contribution.

I wish I had it back. I’d send it to the victims of New Orleans. Judaism is not about finding reasons why God is making people suffer. Judaism is about finding ways to help them.

David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple in Westwood and the author of several books, including “Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World” (Behrman House, 2004).


Strange Fire


The Chasidic Reb Nachman of Bratslav tells of a king’s son who goes mad: he believes he is a turkey.

The boy removes all his clothes, spends all his time under a table and refuses to eat normal food. Distraught and alarmed, his father summons in all manner of experts, but none can cure the boy.

His tale of disappointment turns into a tale of revisioning and change: After a long time, a wise man arrives at the palace, and asks to see the prince. The wise man joins the boy under the table, and declares himself to be a turkey. Little by little, the two become comfortable with one another, and gradually the man encourages the turkey-prince to put on his clothes, then eat human food and finally to join the rest of the family. In this manner, the Chasidic master says, the wise man cures the prince.

I think of this story often as I meet with parents of children with special needs. Once a month, we gather to study Torah and offer each other support in the challenges of raising children with a wide variety of disorders, from autism to bipolar disorder to Tourette’s syndrome to ADD (my own middle son is a 9-year-old with autism). Parenting such children, one can easily empathize with Rabbi Nachman’s king, who is confused, saddened and desperate to help his son.

By joining the child in his world, the sage first transforms himself, ultimately paving the way for the transformation of the child. For many parents of special-needs children — often highly unusual children whose neurological, emotional or physical makeup prevent them from relating to the world in typical ways — this painstaking, exhausting approach is sometimes the only effective one. Parents who want to reach their children journey — for days, months, years — out of typical life and into their child’s orbit. They join them under the table — a powerful way to reach one’s child. But it is also difficult and often terribly isolating.

In this week’s Torah portion, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, themselves act in an unusual way. They enter the sanctuary and — as the Torah describes it — “offer strange fire” to God. (It might have been an isolated incident, but could have been the final act of years of this kind of behavior.) As a result, the two young men are punished and wiped out by God. But what was their “strange fire”? Some interpreters suggest that it was something impure, a sign of arrogance, rude behavior and crossed forbidden boundaries. But others, sympathetic to the two, argue that it was their overflowing passion for God — their uncontrollable desire to be close to the divine — that ultimately burned them.

Fire can be dangerous and harmful. But it is also the source of light and heat. The parsha is silent on the community’s response to the strange fire. What was their communal response? What if the community had seen the boys’ fire in a different way? What if they had been seen by parents, mentors and peers as warm and inspiring, instead of treacherous and out of bounds? What if their fire had been taken not as destructive to others but enlightening? A strange fire, perhaps, but an acceptable one? Different, but not deplorable?

The strange fire alight in my son is called autism. And we are not alone: One child in every 166 nationwide is now diagnosed with autism. The Jewish community is not immune to this epidemic. The children affected by autism and other disorders are challenging, unusual and, sometimes, distracting. But they are also beautiful, creative, loving and bright, and — as Jewish tradition teaches — made in God’s image.

And they are ours.

Was the turkey-prince really cured by the wise man? Probably not. He probably always retained his unusual disposition, probably always felt a little odd and might have even yearned to slide back under the table. But the sage reached the child, and this allowed the child to find his place in the community.

Perhaps, instead of seeing a dangerous, uncontrolled combustion, we can begin to perceive the holy fire of these children as precious; something divinely given and burning with a holy passion. Something for our entire community — our synagogues, schools, youth groups, camps and social circles — to warm ourselves by. Something not to for us to transform, but to transform us.

Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer is founder and facilitator of Ozreinu, a spiritual support group for parents of special-needs children. She can be reached by e-mail at