Acrimony in America I

A divided Jewish community: How did it come to this?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech to US Congress on March 3, 2015, with US Speaker of the House John Boehner and President pro tempore of the US Senate Orrin Hatch applauding behind him (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech to US Congress on March 3, 2015, with US Speaker of the House John Boehner and President pro tempore of the US Senate Orrin Hatch applauding behind him
(photo credit: REUTERS)
IN THE American-Jewish community we’re used to disagreements. The old adage of two Jews producing three opinions applies. However, few can recall an issue as divisive and bitter as the fight over the Iran nuclear deal.
On one side, following the lead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, traditional establishment organizations are arrayed, led by AIPAC which is spending an unprecedented $40 million to persuade Congress not to approve the agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA.
On the other, according to several polls, are the majority of ordinary rank-and-file Jews, who seem to approve the agreement negotiated by US President Barack Obama by a clear margin. Their views have been represented by J Street and other small organizations, bolstered by a growing number of former top Israeli security officials and experts.
What’s different about this debate is its sheer intensity, venomous nature and the sense that this is a high-stakes confrontation that can’t be papered over or end with a compromise. It will end with only one set of winners and will leave profoundly bruised feelings and a deep sense of disunity in its wake.
As Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), a highly respected Jewish member of Congress whose pro-Israel credentials are unimpeachable, bemoaned in a statement supporting the agreement, “We have apparently reached the point in our public discourse where, if the stakes are high enough, if emotions run deep and opinion is sharply divided, ridicule and ad hominem attacks on the character and loyalty of those who differ become acceptable in the political dialogue.”
And taking issue with those who claim that supporting the agreement is by definition somehow anti-Israel, Nadler added, “My decision to support the JCPOA is based on my conclusion that the JCPOA makes both the United States and Israel safer.”
How did the tensions get ratcheted up to this point? We can trace it to Netanyahu’s speech to a Joint Session of Congress back on March 3 in which he all but accused Obama of negotiating a deal that would leave Israel exposed to the threat of nuclear annihilation.
The agreement then being negotiated “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb,” Netanyahu insisted.
And pointing to Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, sitting as his guest in the gallery, the prime minister declared, “I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned. I can only urge the leaders of the world not to repeat the mistakes of the past – not to sacrifice the future for the present; not to ignore aggression in the hopes of gaining an illusory peace.”
With apocalyptic words like those ringing in their ears, AIPAC and the rest of the American-Jewish establishment had little choice but to mobilize for a do-or-die effort to block the deal in Congress.
The problem, from their point of view, is that to win this fight, they had to persuade enough Democrats in the Senate and the House of Representatives to override a presidential veto. But many Democrats, including Jews, were deeply offended by Netanyahu’s behavior – as well as generally supportive of Obama’s policy of seeking diplomatic solutions rather than military action to solve problems.
For every Jewish legislator who opposed the deal, more have come out in favor. Five of the nine Jewish members of the US Senate are now on record in favor, while only one is opposed. The rest have yet to make their positions public.
The question going forward will be: What is the fallout from all of this? One possible result is that members of Congress, especially Democrats, may feel emboldened to express their true opinions on matters like the Israeli settlements and the occupation of the West Bank.
That would be a welcome wake-up call to the Israeli government and public as to where Americans really stand.
Alan Elsner is Vice President of Communications for J Street