How to talk about the Iran deal


On  June 9, the Israel Task Force of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island sponsored an interactive program titled “Can We Talk About Israel.”  According to promotional material, the purpose of the program was “to help strengthen our community ... by encouraging civil discourse, mutual respect and tolerance for our diverse points of view; to help ensure that our love for Israel unites us more than divides us; and to build more community participation on Israel-related issues.”

Almost every one of the 56 attendees – the goal had been 36 – would agree that the program achieved its goal.  Supporters of AIPAC, J Street, StandWithUs, and other national and local pro-Israel groups sat down to listen and to learn from each other.

I had the privilege of moderating one of the roundtable discussions. While the six of us at my table expressed a variety of often-conflicting opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, our give-and-take remained civil throughout. Rather than talking at each other, we continued to listen with open minds and open hearts, with concern and with compassion.  As one of the participants put it, the aim of our discussion was to “detoxify” deeply held feelings of “I am right, and you are wrong.”

Ever since President Obama announced the historic nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States – along with China, Russia, Great Britain, France and Germany – we American Jews have been engaged in a profoundly difficult and emotionally charged debate about whether or not to support the deal, despite its obvious shortcomings.  The question boils down to this: Do the risks of supporting the deal outweigh the risks of opposing it?  For those who oppose the deal, what do they consider a better, safer alternative?

We Jews in the United States are deeply divided on this issue. Like many of my fellow Rhode Islanders, I have called the Washington offices of Senator Jack Reed, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative David Cicilline in order to urge them to support the agreement.  On the other hand, I am well aware that many of my fellow Jews are urging our congressional delegation to join in an effort to nix the deal.

Of course, nobody possesses a monopoly on the truth. Because I believe kol Yisrael arayvim zeh bazeh, that all Jews are responsible for each other, I feel the need to make known my views on issues that affect my fellow Jews in Israel; but as a non-Israeli, I affirm that only Israelis should decide what is best for them.  By the same token, no Israeli – and that includes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – should claim to know what is best for the United States in general or for Jewish Americans in particular.

It seems to me that our local Community Relations Council (CRC), under the able leadership of Marty Cooper, continues to be acutely sensitive to the diversity of opinion within our Jewish community.  While the CRC’s widely distributed email of July 14 expressed concern “that today’s deal may not achieve the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring and developing nuclear weapons,” it has not – in contrast to some other CRCs – taken a stand either in support or opposition. 

I am proud to be part of a local Jewish community that, for the most part, celebrates our diversity; there are many other Jewish voices of tolerance and mutual respect throughout our land. However, some prominent Jewish supporters of Israel have chosen to adopt a far more strident stance. Toward the end of July, for example, I received in my inbox a column by Charles Jacobs and Elliot Hamilton (of with the inflammatory title, “It’s time to evict J Street from the Jewish communal tent.” 

The opening paragraph reads: “The recent announcement of the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran has sparked deep concern and even outrage in the Jewish community. In an almost unprecedented moment for American Jewry, the majority of prominent Jewish organizations have lined up to combat the deal. This includes AIPAC, the ADL, and various Jewish Federation chapters, including those in Boston and Miami.

This historic display of Jewish unity comes because of a clear belief that Israel and the Jewish people have been placed in a life-threatening situation.”

What the authors of this misleading paragraph fail to say is that the majority of American Jews support the deal, that hundreds of American rabbis support the deal and that most Jewish organizations – including the majority of Jewish Federation chapters – have withheld either a Yes or a No on the deal. They prefer to study the intricacies of this complex agreement rather than rushing to judgment. Since Jacobs and Hamilton posted their column on July 24, five U.S ambassadors to Israel have lent their support to the deal. Most significantly, on Aug. 4 the online Jewish Forward wrote that “nearly 70 former Israeli top security officials urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to treat the Iran nuclear agreement as a done deal and to repair relations with the United States.” 

The names of all of these security officials appear in an ad they placed in the Aug. 4 issue of the Jerusalem Post. Perhaps they know something that Netanyahu doesn’t know …  or doesn’t want to know.

Clearly Jacobs and Hamilton are less interested in the facts than in delegitimizing J Street.  They conclude their screed with: “Pro-Iran J Street – which is spending millions of dollars to promote a deal that threatens Jewish life, receives considerable sums of cash from anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sources to promote pro-Iran causes, and dangerously undermining the collective Jewish unity needed to block the deadly Iranian threat – should be drummed out of organized Jewish life.  It is time for J Street to go.”

Orwellian irony of ironies: Charles Jacobs is president and Elliot Hamilton is research associate of Americans for Peace and Tolerance.

Tolerance??  Those of us who have the good fortune to live in the Jewish community of greater Rhode Island still know how to demonstrate the meaning of the word.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at