Archive for August, 2015

Both emails hit my computer within hours of each other. First was an email from the same rabbis who, in 2008, organized “Rabbis for Obama.” This email extolled the virtues of the JCPOA (proposed deal with Iran on nuclear weapons). They called it a great diplomatic achievement and asked me (along with dozens of other recipients) to sign on in support of the agreement. Shortly after I received an email stating the position of our local Jewish Federation – or at least the position of the majority of its board – urging us to pressure our elected representatives to oppose the deal. The talking points listed in the email, it turns out, are almost verbatim the talking points being circulated by many Federations around the country. They condemn the deal as bad for our country and a disaster for Israel.

On Facebook I watched the posting of the request for rabbis to sign on in support of the Iran agreement on the CCAR Facebook page. The reaction was diverse and indicative of one of my problems with the Iran deal. Everyone becomes an expert in a field in which they know nothing, giving profound pronouncements on how this is a monumental achievement on the path towards peace – a game changer in the Middle East or how this creates a doomsday scenario for Israel. But the rabbis on the CCAR Facebook page at least pretend to be polite and tolerant of each other. For me, the most disturbing part of the JCPOA is the spotlight it shines on the stridency within the Jewish community.

There are legitimate arguments to support the JCPOA. There are legitimate reasons to oppose the JCPOA. I cannot think of one legitimate reason for anyone on either side of this issue to accuse their opponents of being a warmonger (if you oppose the deal) or disloyal to Israel (if you support the deal). I am tired, now more than ever, of litmus tests raised by both ends of the political spectrum. Israel and the world wide Jewish community face some serious problems, and some serious questions as to what our future is going to look like. We are a small people and very vulnerable. The tone of interactions between Jews regarding the deal with Iran is hurting us. No, we do not need to agree on a particular policy. But we need to accept there is wide diversity of opinion among Jews (and Israelis) and accept that we hold those views, whichever side they fall, because of our concern for both America and Israel. Can we not put aside our self-righteousness concerning Israel, concerning politics, and listen and accept each other? Our Jewish community will be better for that.

I know that you want to know where I stand, what are my thoughts on the agreement. I will share them, bluntly, knowing that some of you will just tune out the minute I state something in disagreement with your perspective. I preface this by stating I want peace, I love the state of Israel, and I try hard to be a realist. So here is my position: I do not like this agreement. It is a disappointment. I am concerned about many of its provisions and I question its ultimate impact. I do, however, accept it as current reality, and the best of a range of limited, pretty bad options. In short, I am in alignment with 70 Israeli experts on military and intelligence affairs who, while wary of this agreement, feel it is workable and Israel can live with it. Their, and my feelings, are typified by Ami Ayalon, former head of Shin Bet, who says the deal is “hard to defend.” But he says it is “the best possible alternative from Israel’s point of view, given the other available alternatives.”

The source of my dislike for this deal is the flow of money that will go to Iran as the sanctions are lifted and Iranian assets, frozen for decades, are released. Iran has been funding Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations while dealing with a devastated economy. Once it receives an infusion of somewhere over 100 billion dollars, I do not know what prevents Iran from greatly increasing funding for terrorist activities. No one supporting the agreement has given an adequate response to this reality. What the P5 plus 1 countries did, was to separate the nuclear issue from other issues, and create an agreement that only addresses nuclear concerns. While I believe this is useful, I also know it is not adequate given Iran’s past actions in supporting bad actors in the Middle East.

But as I said, I accept the agreement, as I do not see a viable alternative. Believe me, I have read countless articles and position papers, from across the political spectrum. I have listened to the statements by Senators Schumer and Menendez and spoken to my own well-placed source in the media who has covered these issues for 20 plus years. Those opposed to the JCPOA keep saying there is a better deal to be had, or that we must maintain sanctions until Iran folds. I see this as unrealistic, wishful thinking, based on the false premise that just because the United States or its congress declares something, the world follows suit.

I know that some of the opposition to the JCPOA is from the political opposition to Obama. These folks are the worst flamethrowers for sure, as there is nothing the president can do they will support. However, much of the opposition is also from principled, caring people, who have supported the President on other issues but cannot support this. This opposition to the agreement, I believe, is well intentioned, motivated by patriotism as well as serious concerns for Israel’s safety, but from my perspective, these folks are substituting an emotional response (fear for safety of Israel) for acceptance of political reality.

First, Russia, China and EU are all anxious for trade with Iran. Russia already has deals in place that will be executed once the JCPOA goes into effect. The EU, Russia and China will move forward in lifting sanctions and beginning trade with or without the United States. The deal, I believe, contains the compromises it has, not just because of Iran’s negotiating position, but the political and economic desires of the other members of the P5 plus 1. To state that the United States will cut off trade with the EU or somehow economically punish those who trade with Iran is naïve, as it would mean disrupting our own economy, which no American politician would do. We will just not risk relationships with close allies over trade with Iran. Solutions like selling oil to allies to convince them not to buy from Iran only weakens our own strategic position regarding energy independence.

Second, given that the EU, Russia and China are ready and able to open relations with Iran, whether we like it or not, I believe it is better for us to be part of the agreement so we can still talk to the Iranians. If Iran conforms and if sanctions gets lifted, and if trade goes forward; we need to be part of this, not standing aside because of ideological rigidity. We are powerful but not unlimited in our power and less influential than we think. The last 13 years of disastrous US military involvement in the area should at least teach us the limits of our military power.

Third, I hear very few people speaking about the real, overall conflict in the region – the maneuvering for power and influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia. How public is the fact that our purported ally, Saudi Arabia, is funding ISIS? We cannot resolve nor should we place ourselves in the middle of this conflict. Rather, we need to be in some kind of relationship with the actors on both sides of this. In addition, if this agreement removes nuclear weapons from the table as a consideration, even for just 15 years, I have to think that is a positive, even if limited step. My media source, who is talking to players on all sides of this issue, spoke to a nuclear expert very familiar with the inspection protocols. He said the worst case scenario, if Iran ends the agreement in 10 or 15 years, is that we will have very accurate information of where to bomb.

Finally, too much of the opposition centers around the figure and influence of Benjamin Netanyahu. Americans are duped by his command of English and the impressive figure he cuts. We tend to forget that this he is a nasty political animal, who has been under investigation two times for corruption, once just barely escaping indictment for influence peddling. His election tactics this past spring, including his use of our Congress to help in his reelection, make me suspicious of any initiative he takes, particularly when there are knowledgeable, intelligent Israelis from high military and government positions who tell a different story than the one Netanyahu tells. I will point out that he has been crying about Iran for over 2 decades, and has never done a thing to alleviate the problem. It has just been a political ploy for him to rally support.

Despite what I have just stated, I must reiterate that I accept the agreement, but I am not an advocate for it. I did NOT sign the letter of rabbis stating support as I saw their position as naïve as those in extreme opposition to it. Further, I keep reading, and I keep listening. I am willing to learn and I have complete respect for everyone who comes to this out of concern for our country and for Israel.

More important, even if I accept the deal as reality, there are numerous things we can and must do the day after it goes into effect. We cannot lose our vigilance regarding our concern for Israel. We must, for example, lobby for a ramped up commitment to Israel, perhaps giving them access to the bunker busting bomb. We must urge the administration to search for other means to keep pressure on Iran regarding funding of terrorist groups. And, we need to pressure the President and Netanyahu to get past their bitter personal differences and start to operate in a way that is beneficial to both countries.

Most important, we need to maintain some sense of Jewish unity, overcoming our differences to stand together in the face of rising European anti-Semitism, combatting the BDS movement (those who advocate a boycott of Israel), and teaching the upcoming generations the importance of strong support for Israel. We cannot do this if we are at each other’s throats. Israel is a strong, vibrant place. It will survive. It is our task to help it flourish.

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, is known for a very famous phrase, tzedek, tzedek tirdof. We often translate that as “justice, justice you shall pursue.” Many will say that justice is served by following their particular stand on the Iran deal. That is only conceit. I prefer the translation of “righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue,” where our measure of righteousness is how we judge and treat each other. If we can respect each other as Jews, as humans, we will build a better Jewish future. Kein yehi ratzon, may it be God’s will.

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