The Iran Deal – a View from the Trenches

view from the trenchesBy Keith Krivitzky

I want to share with you some troubling aspects of this Iran deal that don’t primarily have to do with the deal itself, but with some of the reactions and ramifications I have been seeing from my perch at a Jewish Federation.

1. There is increasing vitriol in our discourse, and a lack of respect and tolerance for diverse viewpoints. In response to the approach our Federation has taken (which I think is smart and strategic, but did not consist of telling people simply to vote yes or no), here are some of the epithets shared with me:

  • Dirty Traitor
  • Shame on you (several times)
  • You are worse than the enemies of the Jewish people
  • You are responsible (in part) for the deaths of 4000 Americans in the Iraq war
  • You are spineless
  • You are just as bad as those who stood by while Jews were marched into the Holocaust

These may be some of the extreme reactions – and you might be surprised which came from the left and the right – but the degree of judgment and insult characterizing many responses has been both disheartening and somewhat frightening. I recognize that a family fights and bickers, but this degree of discord makes me nervous about finding common ground for a collective future.

2. I fear that this battle, as with many elements of Jewish life, is being fought on the margins. It’s not the vast majority of Jews who are engaged and invested in this issue; it’s the minority. And many in that minority tend to project their views and issues onto others, often loudly. My bigger concern, in a way, is for the majority in the middle who often don’t know where they stand, don’t know why they should care, and when they see tension … tune out. That’s the biggest issue, on many fronts, our community faces.

3. Not only is this issue highlighting fault lines within the American Jewish community, it is also highlighting a gap between perceptions and understandings between much of American Jewry and Jews in Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu and many Israelis misread the commitment and mindset of the Jewish community in America, assuming that most are stalwart supporters whose loyalty and financial support are not in question. That is perhaps one reason why the Prime Minister’s involvement in lobbying on this Iran deal is triggering such negative reactions in the Jewish community. At the same time many, if not most, Jews in America have no idea what life and everyday concerns are in Israel. This potential rift in the family and disconnect in understandings is something we need to take more seriously and address.

4. There is a misguided and misleading notion of balance being promoted in this (and many) debates. If you have left, you have to have right … if AIPAC, you need J Street. And if you don’t offer this simple – and over-simplistic – dichotomy, then you are biased and automatically on the other side of whomever is engaging with you to insist on better balance (as well as possibly subject to the attacks and complaints indicated above). What gets lost in this superficial tallying or matching up of ideological check-boxes is a more constructive definition of balance, embodied in sharing a wide variety of viewpoints and examining multiple sides of an issue, as well as embracing critical review and questioning of positions. If an argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, we should recognize that rather than confuse the issue with calls for more balance.

5. While organizations need to multitask to be effective, often people can’t or don’t want to. So, for many who care about this Iran issue, that’s all they want to focus on with us as well. Other priorities, such as helping those Jews most in need, delivering compelling educational strategies to engage young Jews, assisting other organizations dealing with sustainability and effectiveness challenges – continuing the vital work we do every day – are difficult to focus on. Sometimes it makes it hard to keep our eyes on the prize, when the prize for so many differs.

6. It used to be that we could have respectful disagreements, recognizing the other party’s right to be wrong. Now, partisans just want to project their view onto others without regard for their unique perspectives or aims – or whether they feel comfortable or think they should be taking a stance at all. As an organization, we’ve been lobbied by many to take a stand on one side or another of this deal without any consideration for what our core mission is or the role we need to play in the community above and beyond this issue; we are just one more endorsement to line up in a for or against column – and that’s disheartening.

7. There have been a number of articles and essays arguing that Federations should remain neutral, because a) it isn’t their place to weigh in on political issues, b) there is no consensus on this issue, or c) they are primarily philanthropic organizations and can’t risk alienating donors. I take issue with all 3 excuses and believe they reflect a dated view of what Federations are and the role they need to play to strengthen Jewish life in our communities today. While Federations need to do their utmost to be inclusive, at the same time they need to set an agenda and make choices about priorities in order to address the critical challenges facing the Jewish people. To lead and maximize impact, this will often and necessarily mean making distinctions or disagreeing with some people or groups. While that may – or may not – mean taking a specific stand in this case, unless Federations come to terms with this shift in their requirements and value proposition, many will continue to dwindle into irrelevance.

In facing these 7 complications stemming from the tumult of this Iran deal, I and many of my colleagues have been frustrated because we believe this is a no-win situation. Jewish Federations (and others) will be blamed by many no matter what kind of statement we make or actions we take. And I don’t see how we, as a community, end this situation in a stronger place than before it started.

That said, leading isn’t necessarily smooth or easy, and I am proud to share some of the approaches our Federation has taken in addressing this Iran issue. We have taken a lead role in engaging and educating about the considerations surrounding this Iran deal, including organizing and promoting conference calls with Senators Menendez and Booker, David Makovsky of the Washington Institute, AIPAC, Ambassador Dan Kurtzer, The Israel Project (forthcoming) … and, with our national partners at Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents, webcasts with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Secretary of Energy Moniz, Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute, and soon President Obama. We have issued a statement cautioning against inappropriate rhetoric and stereotyping of Jews in this debate. And, after our initial statement expressing concern about the deal, our leadership just issued another statement reiterating that concern and highlighting ways this deal needs to be fixed before it should be finalized and implemented.

Throughout the 60 days of consideration of this deal so far, our board has addressed key questions about when we need to stand united as a community and take a stand, as well as how best to exemplify a leading role in the community. While this kind of assessment always evolves, we believe we have been an effective convener and catalyst for debate, discussion and action in our community. We have reached and engaged hundreds of people in our community, many for the first time. Together, we need to look ahead to how we continue leading and delivering on our core mission after these 60 days are up.

Keith Krivitzky is CEO of The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey.