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The Vienna Accords on Iran: Making Room to Disagree

By Rabbi Michael Berk

About 1,950 years ago the Jewish community was not very united. There was terrible infighting and even hatred between different groups that formed around their own ideologies. Everyone thought they were right and so there was no yielding, no respecting, and little love. The result was devastating: according to the rabbis, this inability of the Jews to civilly disagree with one another and the polarization into rigid ideological camps resulted in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the dispersion of our people to the four corners of the world.

Against all odds we survived, but we Jews are attacking each other again and it has me worried. Today the issue is the Vienna Accords on Iran’s nuclear program, and the camps are formed, symbolized by two emails I received yesterday. From JStreet at 7:37 a.m. – Subject line: Urgent Message: Encourage Congress to Accept Vienna Accords. One minute later, from AIPAC: Urgent Message: Encourage Congress to Reject Vienna Accords.

I don’t mind that there’s disagreement – as I said last summer when we welcomed Peter Beinart here, I’m convinced God chose the Jews because God loves a good argument. It’s who we are. But today there’s a horrible polarization in our community and a demonization of those with whom we disagree. And that’s not good.

It seems to me that everyone has already made up their mind about the deal the Administration has negotiated. I am not one of them. Frankly, I’m a little bit put off by the level of certainty of those who love the deal as well as those who hate it. From all that I’ve heard, it’s a very complicated agreement and it needs to be examined carefully. Over the next 60 days, more details will come out concerning this issue. Sources we know and trust will be examining it and reporting on it. Given the stakes, it would be worthwhile for all of us to suspend judgment for the time being and to learn as much as we can before reaching conclusions. That’s the position the Reform Movement has taken. Here’s an excerpt from a statement issued by the Reform Movement leadership after the Accords were announced:

“During the last several months, leaders of our Reform Movement have consulted with experts and heard from advocates who both oppose and favor the framework outlined in March by the P5 +1 and Iran. We have conferred with our fellow Jewish organizations and met privately with the White House, the Secretary of State, and representatives of the State of Israel. Right now, we are continuing our ongoing dialogue with the U.S. administration, key members of Congress, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and other prominent Israeli leaders including leaders of the opposition. One helpful touchstone for our analysis of this agreement is the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Public Statement on U.S. Policy Toward the Iran Nuclear Negotiations, which was endorsed by a panel of bipartisan diplomats and calls for a five-point program ensuring that Iran will not become a nuclear threshold state.

“In the coming days and weeks, we will go back to our trusted experts and continue to consult with our constituencies to better understand the consequences of this proposed agreement. We urge all committed parties to take similar, carefully considered approaches before rushing to conclusions.”

And let’s keep the stakes in mind. I for one am very interested in hearing from Israelis. When I posted on Facebook about the emails I received from JStreet and AIPAC the Israelis that saw my post tended to side with AIPAC. But, I’ve also noted that even the Israeli left is conflicted. Ari Shavit, for example, whom we welcomed here last August, has written an article about the serious flaws in the agreement, but questioning the opposition being articulated so vociferously by the Netanyahu government and even some of the liberals in the Knesset like Isaac Herzog.

Sadly, issues that seemed to be so significant for the well-being of Israel used to unite the Jewish world. But now, as Yossi Klein Halevy has remarked, that’s no longer true. He wrote shortly before the Accords were agreed upon but after we knew most of the details that now, perceptions of existential threats “deeply divide” the Jewish community. That’s something to worry about. He wrote: “For Israelis, preventing a nuclear Iran is a matter of life and death; and most of them agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that President Obama’s Iranian deal will ultimately lead to a nuclear Iran. The deal has been denounced almost across the Israeli political spectrum… Yet many liberal American Jews are siding with Obama…”

Halevy sits solidly just to the right of center in Israeli politics; so I am quite compelled by his observations. He wrote of the agreement: “My own existential fears are mainstream Israeli. I regard Obama’s Iranian deal as the single greatest threat facing Israel today.”

This is not the only issue that for Israel is a life and death issue. Let’s not forget the Palestinians, the one- or two state solution; BDS. As Halevy has written: “At stake is nothing less than our ability to function as a people — one of the great achievements of the Zionist revolution.”

The second temple was destroyed because Jews couldn’t make room for Jews they disagreed with. Even Menachem Begin, who was not at all wishy washy, maintained that Jews must not let disagreements divide them into irreconcilable camps. He himself warned in a speech, “Twenty centuries ago we faced the bitter experience of the destruction of our Second Temple, the destruction of our capital Jerusalem. And why? Because of our senseless hatred of each other, a hatred that led to civil war and to our utter ruin: bechiya ladorot – generations of tears.”

We can avoid that by adopting the two principles Yossi Klein Halevy suggests for discussions of this magnitude: First, delegitimizing fellow Jews is itself a kind of existential threat. And second: let’s be modest. Out of humility, let’s acknowledge that no one segment of the Jewish people has a monopoly on truth or concern for Israel’s survival. Israel’s right wing president has also said that we ought not to question the motives of those with whom we disagree. Those fighting the Iranian deal are not all war mongers and those supporting the Obama administration are not all anti-Semitic Israel haters.

Wisely, Halevy concluded with these words: “And so we are left with this challenge: how to remain faithful to our most deeply held truths about Israel’s predicament, while remaining faithful to our mutual covenant as a people. Navigating this dilemma will require all our wisdom as an ancient people that has known how to overcome both external threat and suicidal schism.” If we heed these words, maybe we can avoid more bechiya ladorot, generations of tears.

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