Shai Franklin
Partner with Gotham Government Relations

On Iran, U.S. Jews should take a deep breath

Today, President Obama is lobbying Jewish community representatives and VIPs to give the Iran framework a chance. Given the existential drama being promoted by most of Israel’s politicians – but by very few of its military and intelligence professionals – it’s unlikely to assuage many organizations who fittingly see Israel’s security as their prime directive. But by lowering the volume of their alarm bells, these organizations will be helping themselves, their American Jewish constituents, and the State of Israel.

These are momentous days for the Jewish people, though not because of Iran’s nuclear program. Current and past Mossad chiefs have strongly discounted Iran as the main existential threat. The very premise of American Jewish advocacy is now in peril.

Since the 1950s, when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations were founded, never has there been a scenario where Israeli leaders objected so forcefully and openly to the actions of a U.S. administration. Rarely have Jewish community leaders rallied so broadly to a cause championed by one major political party against the other.

President Obama insists that U.S. national interests, and Israel’s, will best be served by pursuing the nuclear deal currently being negotiated for final approval. Prime Minister Netanyahu warns this course will threaten Israel with imminent destruction, and each week he adds a new demand to satisfy his concerns. Last week, he said Iran must recognize Israel’s right to exist.

In the midst of this supreme showdown between Israel and its longtime superpower patron, the United States, American Jewish organizations have seemingly cast their lot with Israel’s newly re-elected Prime Minister. They hastened to criticize or outright denounce the six-country deal on the day it was announced, even as nuclear and diplomatic experts were still figuring out its implications. Desperate action alerts to support Congressional opposition to the deal are swamping inboxes.

Community groups are using Netanyahu’s blunt rejection of any negotiations or any deal as a reflection of Israel’s objective national interest, while also conflating this with what’s best for America. Why is this harmful?

Credibility: Organizations have literally been jumping to conclusions. Yes, they were quick to condemn freelancer Shmuley Boteach’s ad campaign demonizing National Security Adviser Susan Rice as a genocide supporter. But ever since, they’ve been broadcasting a more polite version of Netanyahu’s a priori condemnations of Iran talks. (Recall his warnings 16 months ago, that the talks themselves would destroy Israel and the Middle East, though Iran has since honored its obligations during the negotiations.) If you’re going to say the sky is falling, it had better be falling.

Effectiveness: As Americans, our community’s influence is predicated on being a homegrown source of alternative analysis and perspective, not a conduit for Israeli political vendettas or a tool for a President’s domestic opposition. Dual loyalty is the norm for many Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Indian Americans and Russian Americans, and there’s nothing wrong with American Jews caring 100 percent about Israel’s future. But when the Administration and many experts suggest this support is risking U.S. interests where thousands of U.S. service members have already died, the appearance of “choosing sides” is a risky venture into uncharted territory.

Earlier this year, Netanyahu openly undermined AIPAC’s legislative strategy for blocking Obama’s Iran diplomacy, and there’s no reason to think he won’t do it again. American Jews rightly hesitate to assert ourselves on Israel’s policy decisions, but there’s no reason to allow Israeli leaders to commandeer our own political choices and methods.

American Jews: The Federation movement predates the State of Israel, and it continues to provide vital services in America and around the world. Much of this work depends on government support far beyond the crucial tax-exempt status and deductions for donors. Staking all political credibility, in order to stop what is arguably shaping up as a decent agreement, may not be the best investment for the future.

Alarms have been ringing on Iran’s nuclear program since the 1980s. The idea that this latest dramatic breakthrough will somehow enable Iran as never before is, to be generous, counter-intuitive. In all likelihood, Israel will continue to rely on American Jewish advocacy long after the details of this year’s diplomacy have been archived. And then who will be in position to defend Israel on the merits? Campaign contributions aside, who will be trusted by both parties as an honest broker?

What are the alternatives for American Jews who want to continue being supportive of both countries’ interests?

  1. Reflection and dialogue trump uninformed or premature declarations. There is no need for local community councils and Federations to issue their own statements that are indistinguishable in substance from those of Israel’s Prime Minister. The target audience for American Jews is not Israeli voters, it’s Americans living mostly outside New York State who haven’t already been ‘converted’.
  1. Reclaim the authority of expertise. Convene town hall meetings, where American and Israeli experts – not politicians – are free to share their competing analysis of the possibilities and pitfalls of any deal. Disseminate the proceedings as “backgrounders” along with “fact sheets” that provide actual facts, not anti-diplomacy talking points.
  1. Don’t judge a Democratic U.S. President exclusively, while giving Republican and Israeli politicians a free pass. Consider that, if Obama might be easily taken in by Iran, so Israeli leaders can also succumb ever so slightly to political ambition and tunnel vision.

When Israelis or Republicans cross a line, say so just as publicly. The Reform and Conservative movements did so when Netanyahu issued a racially tinged campaign video on Israeli Election Day, and the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman warned that Netanyahu’s one-sided address to Congress was a bad idea.

Unless I’ve missed it, no major community leader has called on Netanyahu and others to withhold judgment and apply critical thinking to the details and risks. Nor has anyone sought to sit down with the Administration to share concerns and suggestions, without first concluding that the negotiations are wrongheaded at their core.

  1. Highlight any positives in the process, and focus on achievables. Welcome the President’s own call for Congressional review, without demanding legislation to tie the President’s hands and openly undermine a deal involving the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council. State concerns and objections with dispassionate logic and evidence, or don’t state them at all. Eschew emotion-laden terms like “Holocaust”, “Munich”, “weak”, “historic mistake”…
  1. Emphasize that reasonable friends of Israel may disagree on specific measures, and that pro-Israel voters should not judge Members of Congress for backing the President’s approach.

When the Federation movement and the national Jewish appeal were formed, the entire world was engulfed in inferno, and the Jewish people were being decimated by the Holocaust. Israel’s own security assessments refute the notion that Israel faces such destruction at Iran’s hands, or that better options are available. As American Jews, we need not accept apocalyptic and Holocaust rhetoric from Israel’s Prime Minister regarding Iran. But lately, we seem to be embracing it.

American Jews have an important role to play as Americans, not as Republicans or Democrats, and not as ersatz Israelis. Shirking that duty does a disservice to both countries and to ourselves – and to the Holocaust – now and in the future.

About the Author
Shai Franklin, a consultant and lobbyist with U.S. and overseas clients, has served as an executive with American and international Jewish organizations.
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