December 19, 2018

Our fight over Iran: Kishkes vs Sechel

The Jewish community is used to intense internal debates, but our fight over the Iran nuclear deal has taken us to new levels of divisiveness. Why is that?

The first and easy answer is that this is an existential issue, especially for Israel. When an anti-Semitic regime that calls for the destruction of Israel threatens to obtain the nuclear weapons to accomplish that goal, well, some hysterics are justified.

Fear of evil is the core emotion that is driving our fight. Billions of dollars have been invested over the past few decades memorializing past Jewish impotence in the face of evil. The Holocaust industry has engraved on the soul of every Jew the eleventh commandment that “never again” will we allow ourselves to march to our slaughter. And yet, here we are, eight decades later, facing a sworn enemy that could slaughter us more efficiently than ever — not with gas chambers but with nuclear weapons.

This potential horror has triggered two Jewish impulses — our kishkes and our sechel. Our kishkes impulse is our gut feel, and what drives it is an instinct to never trust our enemies. For many of us who oppose the Iran nuclear deal, this mistrust of evil dominates other sentiments.

The sechel impulse comes from our rational minds. This is the side that calmly calculates risks and trade-offs. For many who support the Iran deal, the sechel impulse has led them to conclude that, all things considered, even if the Iran deal is not ideal, it's the “least bad” alternative.

Each impulse has its vocabulary. The kishkes impulse loads up on the vocabulary of evil and danger, the sechel impulse on the vocabulary of reason.

The kishkes impulse makes it hard for many of us to endorse the Iran deal, because we see it as honoring and empowering evil. We have no doubt that Iran will rake in all the money, continue its reign of terror and take advantage of multiple loopholes to build its nuclear bomb behind our backs. In fact, Iran is the author of these many loopholes — it negotiated them. It knows that the American/Western side is not evil and will not cheat. In short, our kishkes tell us this agreement will not hold because evil holds most of the cards.

Our sechel impulse forces us to grit our teeth and consider the alternatives. This makes it easier to endorse the Iran deal, because we conclude that if the deal blows up in Congress, we'll be left with worse alternatives. These include Iran rushing to build the bomb without restrictions, the sanctions regime imploding or America being dragged into another war.

Our kishkes tell us not to trust the deal and live with the consequences; our sechel tells us to trust the deal because of the consequences.

What makes our fight over the deal even more charged is when there is crossover — when, for example, an expert uses only sechel to argue against the deal. The best example I've seen of this is from Mark Dubowitz of Foreign Policy, who makes a rational case that the best alternative is for Congress to reject the deal and push for a better one. This is how he opens his argument: 

“The Iran nuclear deal is a ticking time bomb. Its key provisions sunset too quickly, and it grants Iran too much leverage to engage in nuclear blackmail. To defuse it, Congress needs to do what it has done dozens of times in the past including during the Cold War in requiring changes to key U.S.-Soviet arms control agreements: Demand a better deal. And contrary to the President Barack Obama's threats, this doesn't have to lead to war.”

Not an ounce of kishkes.

Similarly, many on the “pro” side have expressed a genuine mistrust and fear of Iran's evil regime, and have recommended moves to mitigate and contain this evil after the deal goes through. That's their kishkes speaking.

What we're left with is an emotional, complicated and messy communal fight where each side can rationalize why it owns the truth. If your kishkes is telling you that this deal endangers the world and especially the six million Jews in Israel, and that the Iranians will cheat so much that they will make a mockery of the agreement, it's hard to engage with a fellow Jew who believes it's a good deal.

But if your sechel is telling you that the real disaster is to blow up the deal in Congress and risk an even more dangerous and uncertain outcome, it's hard to engage with a fellow Jew who doesn't share this view.

In the end, though, what will matter the most is not sechel or kishkes but outcome, and the very likely outcome is that President Obama will get the 34 percent support he needs in Congress for the deal to win the day.

That outcome will certainly upset me, and a new chapter in the drama will begin, but there's another outcome I'm worried about. I'm worried that regardless of which way the vote in Congress goes, this current fight could leave behind permanent scars and divisions within our community. As much as I'm against the Iran deal, I'm also against the idea that we can allow our ideological differences to break us apart.

And that's my kishkes and my sechel speaking.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at