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The Iran deal brings liberal Jews out of the closet



Geoff Sifrin


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.



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  1. nat cheiman

    Aug 26, 2015 at 11:54 am

    ‘A speedy solution to the Iranian problem is that if they want nukes, then let Israel give it to them.

    Short and sweet. NUKE Iran’

  2. adam levy

    Aug 27, 2015 at 8:26 am

    ‘Well said Geoff.

    It’s time to ditch the conservatives. they supported apartheid and now stifle criticism of Israel.


  3. Choni

    Aug 27, 2015 at 8:59 am

    ‘Easy answer! Let them remain in the closet.’

  4. Kushmeir

    Aug 27, 2015 at 10:29 am

    ‘Whatever the perceived reasons for left wing diaspora voice stifling, they have zero relevance to the Iranian issue. Wanting your non Jewish friends to understand that you don’t support everything Israel does is one issue. Conflating that desire with Israeli’s opinion on the Iranian issue is another issue. As a diaspora Jew, it seems that the opinions of your non Jewish friends have a far higher priority and are far more important that what the entire Israeli political spectrum feels about the Iranian deal. Perhaps living in Israel, serving 3 years yourself, plus an average of 7 years service among your kids would better qualify what you have written. Lastly, directly bearing the consequences and all costs of this disastrous deal, would move your \”liberal left\” back to the realities that Israelis face.’

  5. Mike

    Aug 27, 2015 at 10:52 am

    ‘Is this just Geoff waiting to also \”Come out of the closet\”?

    The sense of home and security that you enjoy due to Israel’s existence and flourishing, has been taken for granted. The guaranteed refuge you and all of us in the diaspora have, being protected by the bravest soldiers gives the \”out of the closet\” lefties a sense of security which they abuse by calling on Israel to act in ways that would endanger that very refuge and our homeland.  A lot of fearless people put a lot of work, sweat and tears into that. And in return, you have a liberal Jewish left jumping at anything to condemn Israel? There are those who say much and do little. It’s far more credible, respected and honourable to do much and say little.

  6. Choni

    Aug 28, 2015 at 7:23 am

    ‘If anyone is more than 100% correct it is you Mike.

    Well said.’

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