An ugly fight on Iran

President Obama stands at the center of an historic debate within the Jewish American community.

US President Barack Obama casts a shadow between a pair of Torah scrolls as he delivers remarks on Jewish American History Month at the Adas Israel Congregation synagogue in Washington May 22, 2015.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama casts a shadow between a pair of Torah scrolls as he delivers remarks on Jewish American History Month at the Adas Israel Congregation synagogue in Washington May 22, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON -- In the fall of 1991, America's president found himself in a fight with Congress over Israel.
George H. W. Bush wanted to delay consideration of $10 billion in loan guarantees to the state, which at the time was swelling under the pressure of an exodus of Jewish emigrants from Russia. The deferral was part of a strategy, Bush said, to incentivize Israel to reengage the Palestinians in peace talks.
Standing in his way was the Israel lobby in Washington, he told journalists at the White House on a Thursday afternoon that September.
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"We're up against very strong and effective, sometimes, groups that go up to [Capitol] Hill," Bush said. "I heard today there was something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill working the other side of the question."
"We've got one lonely little guy down here," he added to laughs.
Three months later, Bush traveled to New York and offered a "heartfelt apology" to Jewish community leaders for "unwittingly resurrecting some ugly feelings," according to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report from the time. He was worried, he lamented, that his comments would serve to reinforce anti-Semitic stereotypes.
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"It was revealed that many anti-Semites wrote to him, and indeed, there was a whole file of letters congratulating him for standing up to the Jews," said Jonathan Sarna, author of American Judaism: A History and a leading professor of Judaic studies at Brandeis University.
Well into his seventh year at the White House, having survived countless public bouts with Israel's prime minister, US President Barack Obama has grown accustomed to charges that he and his administration are not entirely aligned with the policies of the Israeli government.
Far different are the accusations now leveled against the president over his rhetoric in selling the nuclear deal reached last month with Iran.
Past fights— over settlement activity, the rules of warfare, and how best to initially approach Tehran— have largely been waged directly between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government. Both parties are principal players in today's debate, but a third party has clamorously inserted itself: The American Jewish establishment.
As the president engages that group aggressively, with vigor and in personal terms, several of its leaders are accusing him of crossing a sacred line. But Jewish supporters of Obama are accusing his opponents of employing destructive tactics that risk tearing the community apart.
A number of major American Jewish organizations have declared opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, announced on July 14 in Vienna, and are fighting it on Capitol Hill, where Congress will hold a vote in September on whether or not to approve it.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee, B'nai B'rith International, the Orthodox Union, and several individual chapters of the Jewish Federations of North America are campaigning against the JCPOA, which the president says will verifiably prevent Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons. Their disapproval can be summarized in one sentence: Iran should never be allowed to become a "nuclear threshold" state— forever on the brink of weaponization— and yet this deal, taken in its totality, concedes precisely that fate and all of its consequences.
Their opposition, alongside but not in tandem with a unified Republican Party, has been vocal and transparent, as has been their strategy to kill the deal: Several groups have publicly revealed budgets in the tens of millions of dollars to fund lobbyists on the ground and messaging on the airwaves.
In a conference call on July 30 with activists from his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama pointed to these facts as the primary reason he needed to remobilize grassroots support.
"Right now, the opponents of this deal have been flooding congressional offices," Obama said on the call. "The lobbying that is taking place on the other side is fierce, it is well financed, it is relentless. And in the absence of your voices, you are going to see the same array of forces that got us into the Iraq War, leading to a situation in which we forgo a historic opportunity and we are back on the path of potential military conflict."
"I can't carry this myself," he added.
Similar to its effort against Bush's policy in 1991, AIPAC, indeed, sent hundreds of activists to lobby Congress that week. But the group fundamentally rejects efforts to conflate their current campaign with Republican support for the Iraq war in 2003, which it says it never lobbied for.
At a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House on August 4, a handful of Jewish leaders took issue with the president for his Iraq War references— and for their nagging sense he had cast them as warmongers.
Obama took the critique to heart, one White House official told The Jerusalem Post this week. When editing his August 5 speech on Iran delivered at American University, he took particular care to differentiate between the concerns of those with affinity and connections to Israel, and those of his political opponents, the official said.
But in conversations with the Post, several Jewish leaders say their concerns with the president's message run far deeper. They are rooted in the impression, among some, that its delivery by the president of the United States serves to reinforce a canard that Jewish money and influence is pushing US foreign policy in the Middle East.
"I have a sense that Mr. Obama has fallen into the same trap here," said Sarna, of Brandeis, in reference to the Bush case. "I think that he, and some of those around him, have not been as sensitive as they should be to the ease with which a stray comment can give aid and comfort to those who believe in Jewish power, dual loyalty, and a whole variety of other anti-Semitic tropes."
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was one of the first to raise this issue with the president in the August 4 gathering. Much of that meeting, which lasted two hours, focused on tone.
"There are things being said that are both harmful and carry with them long-term potential damage," Hoenlein said. "This will not end at the end of the debate, when you hint at dual loyalty, or that segments of the population are promoting war, when in fact we want peace. Real peace."
Some of the president's critics have gone much further: They have begun impugning his motives. An editorial in the Jewish journal Tablet, op-eds by Eliot Abrams in The Weekly Standard and Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal, and a tweet by David Frum of The Atlantic all charged Obama with sounding a "dog whistle" to attack Jewish opponents of the accord based on identity politics.
"There has been an effort by some supporters to chill the discussion," said AJC executive director David Harris. "By repeatedly claiming that 'war' is the only alternative to the accord, invoking the power of money as if only one side had it and it was something brand new in American politics, and making less-than-subtle references to the ‘Jewish’ identity of some opponents, as if this was germane, i.e., dual loyalty, what should be a serious discussion has at times become anything but."
Leadership from the Anti-Defamation League, both retired and current, has expressed similar worries.
"The administration has not conducted itself in the most edifying way," said Kenneth Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who called the American University speech "provocative" for singling out Israel's opposition to the deal. Several Gulf nations, and Saudi Arabia, have issued statements of support, but the president has since acknowledged their private concerns.
"Whatever [the administration] intended to do, they've played into a number of tropes in line with anti-Semitism," Jacobson said. "To me, they have used provocative language that plays into the hands of those that believe that Jews are warmongers with dual loyalties."
Over the course of a month since the JCPOA was announced, in delivering five speeches and granting over a dozen interviews on the subject of Iran, Obama has not once uttered the term "dual-loyalty" or referred to the identities of the deal's Jewish opponents. But he has openly questioned their motives and logic in fighting it, suggested they are driven by politics, and has repeatedly singled out Israel for its vocal opposition.
"I'm bothered by the way that the White House has handled this, although I'm not sure I would raise the anti-Semitism flag quite yet," said Maurice Samuels, director of the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism. "Obama is certainly not the only one to be making this a 'Jewish issue.'"
As an example, Samuels pointed to August 7 coverage in the New York Times of the decision by Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) to oppose the deal. The article notes the Jewish identities of each member that had thus far announced their disapproval of the accord.
A week earlier, the Times ran an editorial characterizing the debate on Capitol Hill as an "unseemly spectacle of lawmakers siding with a foreign leader against their own commander in chief."
"We don't agree with the position that Schumer has taken, but it certainly doesn't make him a traitor, or make us question his commitment to the United States," said Alan Elsner, vice president of communications at J Street.
Elsner's organization strongly supports the JCPOA and is spending roughly $5 million on advertisements to counter the AIPAC campaign. J Street also believes that American Jews are on their side: One poll, released in late July and considered trustworthy by the White House, found that 60 percent of American Jews support the deal and want their member of Congress to do the same.
"Dog whistle" charges, Elsner added, are "devaluing the term anti-Semitism, and demonizing the president instead." He put blame on both sides for employing overheated rhetoric.
Alongside J Street, supporters of the deal believe the president has simply been stating a series of incontrovertible facts. And a sizable number of those advocates and surrogates are Jewish.
They are loyalists, lobbyists, members of Congress, senior White House officials and, in some instances, the diplomats who actually negotiated the deal.
Several top officials in the president's communications team, responsible for the administration's public sale of the deal, are Jewish. Wendy Sherman, the top US negotiator with Iran during the talks, as well as Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew— both top policymakers on Iran— are Jewish.
And several Jewish members of Congress — all of whom are Democrats, with one exception in the House — have declared support for the agreement. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-California), Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Al Franken (D-Minnesota), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), as well as Representatives Sandy Levin (D-Michigan), Adam Schiff (D-California) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) are all enthusiastically backing the deal.
"This president has always been fighting the notion that he is not pro-Israel, that he doesn't have it in his kishkes, that he doesn't understand," Schakowsky said in a phone call from her district. "I just feel like this is a longstanding argument against this president who— in my view, as a Jew, and as a member of Congress and as a supporter of Israel— has been the greatest supporter for Israel, by far. And you can go down the line on that."
Schakowsky was offended by the notion that the president, or his staff, did not seriously consider the concerns of Jewish Americans, and recalled several briefings in the White House Situation Room in which she and her colleagues exhausted senior officials with questions.
"When he talks about neocons that stampeded the United States into war, that is true— and when I think of that, I think of Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice talking about a mushroom cloud," she said. "AIPAC did not take a position— I remember that very well. But frankly, it is also true that the prime minister came and testified before Congress in favor of that war."
"Can I not say I disagree with AIPAC? I do disagree with AIPAC," she continued, passionately pushing back against references to anti-Semitism as an "unfortunate" and "illegitimate" byproduct of the debate. "It's just a fact that AIPAC is spending $25 million on television ads."
Privately, White House officials are expressing outrage over the accusations. Several stressed deep belief in the merits of the president's argument, and conviction that the president will win over his party on that basis alone.
"We have engaged in extensive outreach with members of the Jewish community," one official said. "It is also important to be clear that we believe that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is an outcome in the national security interest of the United States and Israel."
But among some in the White House, there is a growing sense that the Iran debate resembles a holiday dinner table full of Jewish relatives— representing the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations— in the midst of a political family feud, to which Obama is an invited guest.
Greg Rosenbaum, chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council, agrees with that assessment: That the Iran debate today is, ultimately, an argument about Judaism, among Jews, and emblematic of longstanding rifts within the American Jewish community— or lack thereof.
"This is a situation that pits part of the Jewish community against another part of the Jewish community," Rosenbaum stated. "The more that we behave like this toward each other, the more we risk doing irreparable damage."
Rosenbaum even raised the prospect of "fratricide," warning of an indeterminable breaking point.
"The opposition picked a fight with the president of the United States. And their statements on how they would run the fight included lots of money, and lobbying members in their home districts," Rosenbaum continued. "It's not only true, its what they said they were going to do."
But Harris of AJC, Howard Kohr of AIPAC, and other architects of the battle against the deal refuse to be the exception to what they consider legitimate rules of the game.
"This is the system we have in this country to make our feelings known," said Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B'nai B'rith International. Opposition to a government policy, he said, "responds through newspaper ads. It responds through advertisements, just as we would on environmental issues and all other issues."
Mariaschin said that, from putting his "ear to the ground" on the road across the country, he believes the majority of American Jews are against the agreement. He, too, lamented over the tone and tenor of the debate, but declined to draw motives from the administration's rhetoric.
"I don't know what the intention here is, but we do know the result," Mariaschin added. "And we know how we feel about it."
John Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and author of the best-selling book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, said there is no basis to charges of anti-Semitism, and that the current debate over Iran reinforces the core argument of his book.
"What is going on here is that the Israeli government and the White House disagree about the merits of the Iran deal. That impasse puts the Israel lobby in an especially difficult situation, because it has to choose sides, and do so in a very public way," Mearsheimer said.
AIPAC's decision to fight the agreement surprised Mearsheimer, he said, because "the cases it is most likely to lose are ones where it is pushing policies that might get the United States into a war it does not want."
"There is no question AIPAC and most of the lobby are siding with Israel against the United States," he continued. "In fact, in virtually every case I know of where there has been a showdown between an Israeli prime minister and an American president, the lobby has sided with Israel."
AIPAC is the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States and, with resolve, has spearheaded the fight for undecided votes in Congress. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also called on American Jews to reject the "dangerous" deal, delivering a statement to the community via live telecast on August 4.
Before Netanyahu's address to Congress last spring, warning of the pending agreement, AIPAC did not take a stand on the wisdom of his delivering the speech. But the White House and State Department refused to receive him, and accused him of politicizing the US-Israel relationship.
"Netanyahu has been extraordinarily reckless, in my opinion, in his cultivation of the Republican right," Samuels, of Yale, said. "If support for Israel becomes a partisan issue in this country— and I think we are headed in that direction— we (and by 'we,' I mean American Jews and Israel) are in big trouble."
Netanyahu's speech to Congress was delivered in the middle of his reelection campaign, and was opposed by his primary rival, Isaac Herzog of the Labor Party. Herzog still questions the tactics Netanyahu has utilized in his fight against the deal but agrees with him on the substance of his criticism.
So, too, does AIPAC. And as sincerely as the White House stands in its conviction on the strengths of the deal, so too does AIPAC stand against them. They are engaging in this uphill battle, their officials say, because their passing on this fight would mean not standing for anything at all.
With caution and in private conversation, multiple leaders within the Jewish community have expressed the suspicion that, in fact, the administration hopes to break the power of the Israel lobby in a forceful and decisive confrontation over Iran.
Accusations against the White House are also coming from those under the most pressure: Undeclared congressional Democrats. Some, according to sources on the Hill, have been bullied by administration officials, who have apparently referenced the sources of money behind the anti-deal lobbying efforts.
Back in 1991, at that New York gathering where President Bush chose to apologize, attendees of the event left largely satisfied with his overtures. But Bush stood firm on loan guarantees; He got his delay, and continued linking the issue with Israel's continued settlement activity.
One Jewish leader who attended the event with Bush, Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, also met with Obama on Iran after a framework agreement was reached in Lausanne on April 2.
"I think the criticism has crossed a line— casting aspersions on American citizens, many of them Jews," Hier said in a phone call from Los Angeles. "President Bush went too far. He admitted it. And the current administration should be careful not to cross that line of no return."
If a line could smoothly be drawn, or a definition clearly articulated, that would dictate where the president's rhetoric can and cannot fairly go; if one classification could decode all historic anti-Semitic tropes; if one could capture the consensus of the Jewish community, at home and abroad; then a standard may be set, and the president would not likely cross that line. But asked by the Post, few of the country's most respected Jewish leaders, heading centuries-old institutions, were able to cleanly define it. Fewer still agreed on precisely where it falls.
"I don't come away from this, as his critics do, that he has somehow shown his true colors. But I think he has been incautious," says Sarna, of Brandeis.
"He's not just engaging in political debate to win," Sarna added. "He is, at the end of the day, the president of the United States, and his words carry lasting weight."