No Holds Barred: Did some Jewish organizations preserve political access at Israel’s expense?

The Iran deal is what we call in Jewish law “pikuah nefesh,” a matter of life and death.

Iranian military parade showcasing missiles (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian military parade showcasing missiles
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The forces arrayed against the Iran deal failed to gain enough senators to stop the deal or even prevent a filibuster. The most important foreign policy issue in a generation did not even come to a vote.
The Iran deal is what we call in Jewish law “pikuah nefesh,” a matter of life and death. Since the beginning of this catastrophic deal, many of us fought hard against it. And yet, at times it felt like a lonely effort.
Many questions remain about why some organizations did not participate in this fight. I am proudly part of Chabad, which does incalculable good for the Jewish people worldwide. The rebbe took the strongest possible position against any threats to Israel’s security.
Is there a reason Chabad did not officially join in fighting the Iran deal? I asked some of the leaders, and they told me Chabad stays out of politics. But Iran’s constant threats to annihilate Israel seems to transcend politics.
There were many other respected rabbis and Jewish lay leaders who similarly did not lend their voice to the Iran deal opposition.
The Orthodox Union, known by many as the OU, is one of the largest and most outstanding Orthodox Jewish organizations in the US, representing tens of thousands of Jews in America and commanding great respect and influence. I am a great fan of their excellent work. They were involved in the fight against the deal but were painfully cautious about never giving even the most benign offense to any public official who voted for it.
When I asked Nathan Diament, the OU’s executive director for public policy, why the organization had not appealed publicly to specific lawmakers with whom they were close to oppose the deal, nor held them publicly accountable after supporting it, he told me the OU has a policy of not calling out people or groups in public. Yet back in February, Diament himself didn’t seem to have any problems strongly condemning me and my organization’s ad about Susan Rice in The New York Times about turning a blind eye to Iran’s call for a Jewish genocide.
Now, I personally apologized to Ms. Rice for the impression the ad gave of a personal rather than a policy critique. But surely lawmakers who were seemingly putting political considerations before Israel’s security – and who had been much lauded by the OU prior to the Iran vote – deserved just even a small measure of censure.
I understand why Jewish organizations need access to powerful politicians. And I also accept that they can do a lot of good by retaining that access. But some issues are of such monumental importance that they require us to speak out in public rather than curry favor with powerful people and preserve political connections. Besides, are our elected leaders such babies that they can’t handle some public criticism? Are we really going to walk on eggshells with the most important issues facing Israel’s survival for fear that a congressman or senator will no longer take our phone call? And isn’t that kind of patronizing posture an insult to the integrity of the elected official in question? This might explain why we lost so bad with the Iran deal. We were not prepared to hold political figures who made years and years of promises to the Jewish community that they would put Israel’s security interests before political considerations accountable for acting in contravention to those promises.
The OU did a fine job of organizing a prayer rally in DC with a few hundred rabbis in attendance. Their website mentioned that Rabbi Shalom Baum stated: “When you have an opportunity to scream in dissent and you are silent, you have done wrong.”
Baum, who participated in a press conference we organized with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to call upon New Jersey lawmakers to oppose the deal, is a hero. He had no reservations of putting his political access to politicians at risk to demand they oppose a deal that threatens Israel’s survival. We needed to see more of this from rabbis, but curiously did not.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef once explained, “The Palestinian Talmud rules that if a person stops to ask a rabbi whether they are allowed to desecrate the Sabbath and Yom Kippur for the purpose of saving a life, this delay is a form of murder. While taking the time to ask the question, the endangered person may die.
When human life is at stake, one must act quickly.”
The absence of strong rabbinical voices directed at elected leaders who voted for the deal, and organizations being unafraid to name politicians with whom they are close – not as an attack, of course, but as a public call to righteous action – represents a missed opportunity and an abrogation of leadership.
On Rosh Hashana I was in Manhattan at our organization’s new headquarters on the Upper West Side. In the afternoon, I went to cast my sins into the Hudson River as part of the Tashlich ceremony.
While I was dealing with my guilt of adding further (spiritual) pollution to the already tainted river, I encountered Congressman Jerry Nadler, who had come under intense fire for supporting the Iran deal after much direct lobbying by President Barack Obama.
I sat down beside him. He told me politely that he did not much care for my column about him in The New York Observer. I responded politely that his vote was a tragic error that could still be reconsidered, and what better day than Rosh Hashana. He stood his ground and gave reasons why the deal would prevent Iran from getting a bomb. I gave all the counterarguments as to why such wishful thinking flew in the face of secret side deals and Iran’s long history of lying. A few people came by to express their gross displeasure with him. I interjected and said that we have to keep our cool and offer only pointed, factual arguments. We agreed to disagree, but as I left I asked him again to reconsider his participation in a deal that will give Iran vast sums to kill innocent people and pave a path to a nuclear bomb.
I’m glad I showed him respect and listened to his arguments. But I’m also glad that I publicly and respectfully called him out for voting for a catastrophic and historic mistake which will, in just a few years and with near certainty, lead to a nuclear- armed Iran intent on a second holocaust.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international bestselling author of 30 books including his upcoming, The Israel Warriors Handbook.