August 17, 2019

After the Iran vote, now what?

Is it over?

Recently, during a KPCC radio talk show about the Iran deal, the host, Patt Morrison, asked me whether, now that President Barack Obama has the 34 votes he needs to support the Iran nuclear agreement, the rancor and vitriol within the Jewish community that marked the debate over it would subside. 

Honestly, I wish I knew the answer.

The truth is, the debate has opened up some wounds that are going to take some time to heal, assuming they will heal. We knew this day of reckoning would come, and the vote would go down one way or the other, but we acted as if the only thing that mattered was winning the fight, not how we’d live together after it ended.

“We were so busy fighting about days one through 60,” Rabbi Aaron Panken, the head of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion told me — referring to the number of days before the congressional vote — “we haven’t really thought about what happens on day 61.”

I suggest that on day 61, in the spirit of the Jewish New Year, we take a breath and take stock. This, it seems to me, is where we are:

First, we are divided. Right after the deal was announced in July, Jewish leaders, here and in Israel, proclaimed that the Jewish world stood united against it. This moment, they said, was a rare instance of 13 million Jews, one opinion. But shortly after that pronouncement, the Jewish Journal conducted a national poll that revealed a majority of American Jews favored congressional support for the deal by a wide margin — 53 percent to 35 percent. That revelation changed the conversation. It showed a significant political and ideological rift among American Jewry.

Second, it is now clear no single voice represents the Jews. As the debate intensified, mainstream American-Jewish organizations lined up against the deal in concert with the Israeli government. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee led the charge. The Anti-Defamation League also said no, albeit with a slightly more nuanced approach, as did the American Jewish Committee, and numerous local Jewish Federations all weighed in against it. Dueling petitions from hundreds of rabbis, competing op-eds and those pesky scientific polls showed there is a disconnect between the organized and, for lack of a better word, the disorganized Jewish worlds.

Third, a critical aspect of this schism is age. The Jewish Journal poll reported that Jewish adults under 40 supported congressional approval of the deal 59 to 25 percent. This next generation is going to take a long, hard look at organizations and leaders that speak in their name, and spend their donations, but don’t share their views.

Fourth, it is important to be clear who crossed the lines of civility and who didn’t. On Aug. 28, The New York Times ran a misleading article headlined, “Iran Deal Opens a Vitriolic Divide Among American Jews.” The reporters listed numerous examples of vitriol from those who oppose the deal. They wrote that longtime Israel supporter Rep. Jerrold Nadler had been called a “kapo” for siding with the president. The deal’s opponents, they wrote, also held rallies denouncing the pro-deal lobbying group J Street as traitors, and Obama as a terrorist. 

As for the other side, the reporters found that they … appealed for civility. There has been no equivalence to the meanness of tone and foulness of language expressed by what is, to be sure, a minority of the deal’s Jewish opponents. We have a vitriol problem, but the name-calling comes largely from one side. 

Fifth, our divisions are nothing new. Let’s not treat this like it’s the beginning of the end of Jewish unity. It is more like the continuing expression of historic Jewish disunity. We fought bitter internecine fights over how to react to the Holocaust as it was happening, over the formation of the State of Israel and over the Oslo accords. Those ideological divisions have transferred neatly to Iran. Once this debate is over, we won’t leave the ring, we’ll just go to our corners.  

Sixth, here’s the good news: We tend to fight with our mouths. There have been some anguished exceptions throughout history, but, most of the time, we seem to understand that words may hurt us, but sticks and stones are a lot worse.

Seventh, another thing The New York Times misunderstood is that the debate did not create two sides, but three — and that is a crucial point going forward. Some Jews hate the deal and oppose it. Some like the deal and support it. The third group doesn’t like the deal, but thinks it’s the best of all realistic options. In the Jewish Journal poll, even though a majority of Jews interviewed supported the deal, only 42 percent said they believe it would prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon over the next 10 years. This group views the deal with low expectations, raised suspicions and eyes wide open. 

If there is a way to go forward with some kind of unity, this third group, I believe, holds the key. Those who oppose the deal can stop fighting the reality of it and start pushing, pragmatically, for arrangements to improve security in America, Israel and among our other Mideast allies in the face of it. We need to learn from the Obamacare debate that, at some point, the fight’s just over. 

Or, at least, I hope it is. 

Shanah Tovah.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.