Obama, the Jews and the Iran Deal

The sad old pattern of embracing the indictments of haters.

The Iran deal, by President Obama’s own admission, opens the path to Iran’s acquiring a nuclear arsenal, even as Iranian leaders continue to assert their determination to annihilate Israel. While the President has claimed at times that the agreement will prevent Iran from ever developing nuclear weapons, he has on other occasions acknowledged that, in fact, after fifteen years Iran will have a clear, short path to doing so.

Israelis across the political spectrum oppose the deal, fearful of the existential threat it represents, and most American Jews share their opposition. A significant majority of non-Jewish Americans do as well, both out of sympathy for Israel and out of fear of the apocalyptic Iranian theocrats gaining the ability to act on their threats against America as well as Israel.

But while objections to his Iran deal go far beyond Israel and elements of the American Jewish community, President Obama insists Israel’s is the only government opposing the agreement - an outright lie, given, for example, the clear if less publicly and forcefully articulated opposition of such countries as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. He has also slandered American Jewish objectors with suggestions of dual loyalty, of mounting an expensive, unpatriotic campaign against the deal and in defiance of America’s best interests and of trying to push the nation to war. These hoary anti-Jewish canards have led many to call out the President for dabbling in anti-Semitism.

But, while clearly not averse to such dabbling, the President appears to be motivated less by anti-Semitism than by his immovable, and uneducable, progressivist ideology, according to which foreign hostility to the United States derives from past American transgressions in the international arena, and American apologies and concessions will end that hostility and lead to a more peaceful world. There is no evidence to support this comprehension of reality, and much evidence to the contrary, including words and deeds of the Iranian leadership, but this is Obama’s conviction.

Given the obvious risks to the nation, why would anyone in Congress go along with the President’s Iran deal? Some may share his delusional progressivist ideology. Others may support the agreement out of loyalty to the President, or to the Democrat party, or out of political calculation regarding their own career interests.

One also sees clergy of various denominations declaring support for the Iran debacle. Again, those who do so may share the President’s progressivist world-view. They may also buy into the notion that any delay in Iran acquiring nuclear weapons - a delay at any price - is worthwhile. But this ignores the many questions about whether such a delay is really in the offing, given Iran’s history of cheating on other international commitments regarding its nuclear weapons program. In addition, what is beyond refutation is that the price being paid for the deal includes immediate triggering of nuclear proliferation by states in the Middle East that fear being a target of a nuclear-armed Iran. Similarly beyond refutation is that the price also includes providing the wherewithal for Iran to very quickly start sending even more weaponry and related support to the murderous Assad government in Syria and to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, which will translate in short order into increased large-scale bloodletting.

And how should one understand Jews in Congress supporting the deal, or the hundreds of Jewish clergy who have likewise endorsed it? Iranian leaders have been declaring their determination to annihilate Israel with even more frequency and ferocity since the signing of the agreement in July, and, as noted, virtually all Israelis - whatever their politics - take the threat seriously and are appalled by the agreement. (While Jews and non-Jews alike should be concerned about the potential threats a nuclear Iran presents to both countries, Iran has been even more fixated on destroying Israel than wiping out the United States, and Iranian leaders talk of being able to tolerate the losses they would incur in a nuclear exchange with Israel but would obviously face the possibility of much more devastating retaliation in the wake of a nuclear attack on America. And, of course, while Iranian funding of terrorist groups has claimed many hundreds of American lives, those groups have focused their killing particularly on Israelis and other Jews.) In the face of all the facts that point to the deal further enabling a genocidal regime, why would Jews in Congress or the clergy close their eyes to the threat and allow other considerations to sway their support?

Broadly speaking, one can reference the centuries-old anti-Semitic indictment of Jews as being too preoccupied with Jewish interests, too particularist or parochial, and the response by many Jews of seeking to appease the bigots by demonstrating their devotion to broader causes and interests and of eschewing stances on issues of vital concern to the Jewish community. And as always when embracing the indictments of haters and seeking to accommodate those indictments - and there has virtually never been an anti-Semitic canard that did not have its Jewish supporters - the Jews who did so cast their stance not as trying to appease the haters but as embracing a more ethical, virtuous position. In this way, many Jews embraced ostensibly “universalist” causes even at the cost of Jewish lives. They did so as the defining characteristic of their Jewish identity or as an alternative to that identity. Or, in the pithy observation of Cynthia Ozick, “Universalism is the ultimate Jewish parochialism.”

The impulse to stick to this tack is no doubt, if anything, enhanced when a President characterizes the Jewish state’s government and its Jewish supporters in America as the chief opponents to an Iran agreement that serves the interests of America and the world.

One can also look at specific historical precedent in trying to comprehend the stances of some Jewish clergy and many Jewish members of Congress in support of the President’s Iran agreement. Consider, for example, these precedents drawn from World War II:

With regard to Jewish clergy, the dominating figure in Jewish communal life during the war was Rabbi Stephen Wise. Wise worked to promote rescue of those European Jews for whom rescue was possible, and his efforts increased after the Nazi policy of pursuing the extermination of all of European Jewry was officially acknowledged by the government and reported in the media in late 1942. But the Roosevelt Administration refused to take steps readily available to it to save lives, and Roosevelt’s State Department consistently obstructed rescue efforts, even keeping out Jews with American visas. So unconscionable was State Department policy that four senior Treasury Department officials who had direct exposure to it - all non-Jews - on their own initiative prepared and presented to the Treasury Secretary a memorandum entitled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.”

The State Department’s opposition to rescue was matched by the stance of Britain’s Foreign Office. But for the Foreign Office, the objective was not simply to prevent the entry of more Jews into Britain. Britain, of course, controlled Mandate Palestine and was obliged under the terms of its League of Nations mandate to promote the immigration of Jews into the Mandate territory and foster “close settlement” of the land by Jewish immigrants. (The Mandate was part of the post-World War I establishment of many new states, from lands of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires, for peoples previously without sovereignty, a process that included, for example, mandates for establishment of Arab states in Iraq and Syria.) But, ignoring its Mandate commitments, and protests from the League of Nations, Britain had repeatedly - in the service of what it construed to be its own imperial interests - reneged on its obligations to foster Jewish admission to the Mandate territories. In 1939, despite the Nazi menace to European Jews, and again despite protests from the League of Nations, it had virtually ended Jewish entry to the Mandate.

In the context of the war, the position of the Foreign Office was essentially to prevent the escape of Jews from the Nazi killing machine, viewing survivors as potentially increasing future pressures for a change in Britain’s Mandate policy. Thus, while the Foreign Office and the State Department might publicly refer to the difficulty of rescuing Jews from Europe, cables from the Foreign Office to the State Department conveyed a different message. One, arguing against rescue efforts, spoke of “the difficulties of disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be rescued.” Another, elaborating on the same theme in the spring of 1943, expressed the concern that: “There is a possibility that the Germans or their satellites may change over from the policy of extermination to one of extrusion, and aim as they did before the war of embarrassing other countries by flooding them with alien immigrants.”

This was the background to the Republican National Convention, in June, 1944, inserting into its platform for the upcoming election a strong pro-Zionist plank criticizing Roosevelt for not pressing Britain - then totally dependent on the United States - to open Mandate Palestine to Jews capable of being rescued from Europe.

But Rabbi Wise, instead of welcoming the Republican stance and urging Roosevelt to intervene with the British, wrote to Roosevelt criticizing the Republicans’ indictment and conveying his support for the President. Even in the face of the worst of tragedies befalling Jews, the nation’s leading rabbi compromised the fight for rescue in the service of a catastrophically misplaced obeisance to “non-particularist” political loyalty.

As to Jewish members of Congress at the time, historian David Wyman, in "The Abandonment of the Jews," notes that, “Only Emanuel Celler persistently urged government rescue actions. Samuel Dickstein joined the struggle from time to time. Four others [out of the total of seven] seldom raised the issue. Sol Bloom [as Wyman documents] sided with the State Department throughout.” Bloom was chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and in a particularly good position to exert some pressure to promote rescue. But he appears to have been most concerned with overcoming whatever prejudice there might be toward him as a Jew, especially in the State Department, by demonstrating his capacity to rise above “particularist” issues like the fate of European Jewry.

In view of the threat Iran presents to the United States and its allies, all members of Congress, and of the clergy who choose to take a stance on the agreement, ought to oppose it. With Israel being the object of the most explicit and obsessive genocidal threats from Iran, those interested in Israel’s well-being ought to be leading the fight against the deal. Many non-Jews in and out of Congress are doing so. That Jewish members of Congress slouch towards endorsing the agreement, and hundreds of Jewish clergy provide a supporting chorus for that endorsement, are sad if all too familiar reprises of an old, morally bankrupt pattern.

Kenneth Levin is a psychiatrist and historian and author of "The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege."

Tags: Deal, Iran, Jews

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