The Iran deal brings liberal Jews out of the closet
But the issue is tearing apart the large American Jewish community and the heat will ultimately also find its way to South Africa. If the deal is ratified, Iran will be released from the punishing sanctions imposed on it since a United Nations resolution in September 2008, censuring it for non-compliance with nuclear non-proliferation regulations.
It will re-engage openly with the world, and will likely also become a more visible and vocal presence in the South African context. If it continues to promote its rejection of Israel’s right to exist, its denial of the Holocaust, its financial and moral support for anti-Israel organisations and for radical streams of Islam, how will South African Jews respond? The South African political landscape is, sadly, very fertile territory for such ideas.
US President Barack Obama claims the proposed agreement is fully sufficient to stifle Iran’s nuclear ambitions, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says it is disastrous and poses an existential danger for Israel. He is leading a campaign to convince the US Congress to vote on a resolution of disapproval of the deal, which would eliminate Obama’s ability to waive sanctions imposed on Iran by the US Congress, a key component of the agreement.
Huge arguments are raging among American Jews about the matter, between conservatives and liberals, hawks and doves, Republicans and Democrats, even rabbis and their congregations. Jewish organisations, community centres and synagogues have become battlegrounds.
On the national level, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti Defamation League have criticised the deal; the liberal J-Street and other, smaller Jewish organisations are supporting it.
American Jewry is structured around the 151 local Jewish federations, which have traditionally had a policy not to engage with divisive political matters – much like the SA Jewish Board of Deputies tried to do during apartheid, when it emphasised its “non-political” mandate – while focusing on unifying aspects like fundraising for Israel, Jewish education and community social services.
But now, 18 federations have broken with this “safe” stance and have come out against the Iran deal, albeit accompanied by fierce internal debate among their members. Some of them have urged Jews to lobby members of Congress to vote against the deal – and by implication, against Obama.
These federations include some of the most powerful, such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Miami and Philadelphia. Many Jewish supporters of Obama are outraged at this. In contrast, the largest of the federations – the New York UJA-Federation – is remaining neutral.
Not everyone sees the American Jewish furore as a bad thing, however. This is typified by a letter-writer to Haaretz, who describes the open split among American Jews as a benefit which is allowing more liberal Jews a voice they have long been denied.
“Finally, the actual splits among American Jews are ‘out of the closet’. For the first time, some leaders of the liberal American-Jewish community are feeling brave enough to speak their mind, to say publicly what they really believe… Until now, whenever a Jew spoke publicly against Netanyahu or against Israeli policy, others in the American-Jewish community would accuse the speaker of being anti-Semitic and a ‘self-hating Jew’.
“That kind of accusation, and the fear of it, kept liberal Jewish leaders quiet for a long time – on a host of issues… Our non-Jewish friends can no longer assume (as most do) that we, as Jews, support everything Israel does. We do not!!”
There are echoes of this sentiment among liberal members of South African Jewry, many of whom also feel they have been marginalised and effectively silenced by a conservative mainstream Jewish leadership, particularly when it comes to criticism of Israel. What will it take to bring them also out of the closet?
Geoff Sifrin is former editor of the SAJR. He writes this column in his personal capacity.