The Day After the Iran Deal: Vitriol Reigns as U.S. Jews Try to Move Forward

NYS Assemblyman Dov Hikind; photo courtesy NYS Assembly
NYS Assemblyman Dov Hikind; photo courtesy NYS Assembly

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

It’s “the day after” a bruising fight in the Jewish community over the Iran nuclear deal – a debate marked by vitriol and vituperation. Reactions have often been hair-trigger fast and the language painful. While Jewish federations in communities around the country have grappled with what if any position to take, some have faced pressure from major donors who wanted them to come out on one side or the other.

Politicians like Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, who backed the powers’ agreement with Tehran, have been called traitors to the Jewish people and Israel. Others like Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida, who opposed it – as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly urged – have been accused of warmongering and dual loyalty. Both men are Jews, Democrats and longtime Israel supporters.

“Many people are using very strong language like fratricide and civil war,” Rabbi Melissa Weintraub told Haaretz. Weintraub is codirector of Resetting the Table, which trains people to facilitate intra-Jewish dialogue about Israel across political divisions. “The level of escalation is unprecedented and shows the lack of communal capacity to engage effectively across those divides.”

Alan Solow is what anyone would call a macher. He’s a Chicago attorney, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a close friend of Obama. Solow has worked 35 years as a volunteer in Jewish organizations and is currently vice chairman of the board of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

While Solow felt his federation shouldn’t take a position on the Iran deal – that doing so was outside its purview – a majority of its board members voted to oppose the agreement. Now he’s worried about the backlash against those who supported it.

“It was a mistake for many of the opponents of the deal to characterize one’s position on this as a litmus test as to whether one is pro-Israel or not … It threatens to do serious damage to the Jewish community and our unity,” Solow said.

Today leaders of Jewish groups are eager to move forward and help the community coalesce around the implementation of the Iran deal, but deep differences remain about what “moving ahead” means.

That’s because the Iran debate illuminated, as well as exacerbated, a deep polarization. It “placed a temporary spotlight on longstanding differences,” said Ethan Felson, senior vice president and counsel to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella group for local Jewish community relations councils.

Jonathan Greenblatt has been on the job as the national director of the Anti-Defamation League for just a few weeks. Though he’s a beltway veteran, having served as an Obama administration official, he found the tenor of the Jewish communal conflict eye-opening.

“I was struck not just by the passion but the incivility,” he said. “Nasty ad hominem attacks. Accusations of lack of loyalty, which is troubling.”

The ADL, which came out against the Iran deal, is now “trying to articulate this look toward the day after,” Greenblatt said. “Now the day after is here. It’s where having a shared agenda is really critical to the path forward.”

Irresponsible assertions

Other Jewish groups are also beginning to look ahead.

On Monday the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations called for “focus on our shared objectives.” Executive Vice President Malcolm Hoenlein and Chairman Stephen Greenberg decried that “at times the debate was marked by irresponsible assertions.” The introduction to their statement, however, blames “the media” for “attempts to portray the Jewish community as engaged in acrimonious debates and searing divisions.”

Fifty-three organizations signed the statement, which calls on the government to find “ways to eliminate existing and anticipated vulnerabilities arising from the implementation of the [Iran deal]. The President and Congress must work together to ensure that U.S. policy prevents Iran from ever acquiring a nuclear weapon, and reinforce this message with concrete measures, unmistakable to allies and adversaries alike.”

Hoenlein, who has led the Conference for 29 years, has as long a historical memory as anyone. Other issues have stoked more internal conflict than the Iran deal, he said, like Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. That resulted in “a lot of raw feelings.”

But this time everyone is essentially on the same side – opposition to Iran obtaining a nuclear capability, so at a meeting of the membership last week focusing on the Iran issue, “people were cooperative and collaborative.” There is no current need for internal repair work, Hoenlein said. Conference members are “working together like before.”

Still, other organizations and local communities have faced a different picture.

In Jewish federations from coast to coast some major donors threatened to pull their funding if their local federation didn’t issue a statement to their liking, said several people close to the Jewish Federations of North America.

The JFNA declined to make President and CEO Jerry Silverman, or anyone else from the umbrella for 151 Jewish federations, available for an interview on the topic.

In Chicago there was “vigorous, healthy discussion” over the Iran deal, Solow said. Since publishing an article in Jewish newspapers defending Obama’s pro-Israel record, Solow’s loyalty to Israel has been questioned. In comments on that piece he was attacked as a “court Jew” and, in Yiddish, “a butt licker,” among other choice phrases. Solow said he ignores the comments.

Similar rhetoric that turns Israel into a partisan issue will take a toll over time, Solow said. “Though there weren’t resignations … [at the Chicago federation] it doesn’t mean there aren’t hard feelings and resentment over the things that have been said,” he said. Solow wants to see leaders of Jewish organizations “reach across party lines” to ensure that all people know their commitment is valued.

Virtually all leaders seem to agree that reconciliation is needed. Earlier this month, the JFNA’s Silverman emailed a strongly worded message on conflict resolution in the Jewish community to people across the federation world.

“How do we build bridges in our communities? Many places were torn by one of the most complex issues facing North American Jewry in generations,” Silverman wrote.

“After great introspection,” 39 federations expressed apprehension about the nuclear agreement and 25 opposed it, he wrote. Conflict resolution will be a focus at the umbrella group’s general assembly in November, Silverman said, and urged people to resolve conflicts in their local federations.

Fractured unity

Silverman addressed donors’ threats to pull funding, not to mention the harsh language.

“We must stand together against retribution. Withdrawing a Federation gift that feeds the hungry, sends kids to camp and provides solace to Holocaust survivors over the Iran issue? That is indeed retribution,” he said.

“And it is contrary not only to our mission as a community, but to the precepts of Jewish law upon which our existence depends. I would also add that vitriolic condemnation of Israeli and American leaders – and each other – is an imprudent way to handle situations like this one.”

Rep. Nadler of New York knows this kind of vitriol first hand. When he decided to cautiously back the Iran deal, he was attacked by members of the Orthodox community in part of his district in Brooklyn. He was called a traitor to the Jewish people and a kapo – a prisoner during the Holocaust who supervised other Jews’ slave labor.

“Jewish unity has been fractured,” Nadler told Haaretz. “There are certain parts of the community that are very angry and have an absolute moral certitude that the Iran deal can only be disastrous for Israel. There’s a great bitterness and the desire among some for vengeance.”

As Nadler put it, “There has to be some soul searching by some people. Two of the great Jewish sins in Judaism are lashon horah [slander] and sinat chinam [baseless hatred], and there was a lot of that. People whose careers are devoted to Israel-American relations are suddenly accused of being traitors – that kind of poisonous rhetoric. It’s a great sin and we need to move forward.”

New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, whose district overlaps with Nadler’s in heavily Orthodox neighborhoods Borough Park and Flatbush, has been leading the charge. Hikind bused in constituents to protest outside Nadler’s lower Manhattan office in a vehicle bearing a banner saying that the ayatollah now thanks the United States.

After Nadler told Haaretz about hurt feelings and the ADL issued a statement condemning the language of Nadler’s critics, Hikind sarcastically sent the congressman a stuffed teddy bear and sympathy card.

This week, Hikind told Haaretz that until the Iran deal came up, he and Nadler were friends. Asked if he regrets any of his attacks on Nadler, Hikind said, “I have no regrets about anything I said. I have regrets that I didn’t do more.”

Nadler’s behavior is “so preposterous and childish. The whining that has gone on from him,” Hikind said.

“I heard one major leader say ‘there are certain things you cannot forgive,’ and he was talking about Jerry Nadler. It was music to my ears,” said Hikind, who’s a Democrat but is working to get more Republicans elected to Congress and, he hopes, the White House. In any case, Nadler is “a crybaby,” Hikind said. “The kvetching, I can’t believe it.”

It’s rhetoric like this – and similar things heard in other local communities – that reflects the need for much more intensive training so that Jews can disagree on Israel-related matters without attacking each other, said Weintraub Resetting the Table. Her group, which is hosted by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, has seen “a big spike” in demand for its services since the Iran deal was announced on July 14. It’s now working to triple its staff of facilitators.

“I’ve seen a desire to get the community back on track. The intention for healing is there,” Weintraub said. But what’s happening is “fatigue and papering over divisions without thoughtfully addressing them. Many communities and institutions were torn apart by this and want to recover quickly. But the real healing and transformation won’t come without doing the work.”