American Jewish opinion deeply divided on Iran | News | DW | 14.08.2015
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American Jewish opinion deeply divided on Iran

The increasingly harsh debate over the nuclear deal with Iran has sharply divided the American Jewish community. Some warn that this may translate into a shift in relations between the United States and Israel.

The debate over the nuclear deal with Iran has had more than its share of fireworks. In few places is this more true than in America's Jewish community, which has found itself profoundly split between those who support the deal and those who oppose it.

"The tone and tenor [of the debate] has been vicious and bordering on hysteria," says Guy Ziv, assistant professor at American University's School of International Service. When four pro-deal Jewish activists protested at an event hosted by the anti-deal American Israel Public Affairs Committee in New York City, they were told to "Go live in Iran," or derisively referred to as "Arabs." On the other side, when Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, who is Jewish, announced his opposition to the Iran deal, he was accused by some of having divided loyalties between the United States and Israel.

'The deal is too important'

USA Washington AIPAC Konferenz Benjamin Netanjahu Ministerpräsident Israel

Israel's PM Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the AIPAC policy conference in Washington

The thing both sides agree on is that this rhetoric isn't helpful to a reasoned debate. "The deal is too important," says Michaela Dodge, senior policy analyst for Defense and Strategic Policy at the Heritage Foundation. "This is about American national security." The deal is bad on its merits alone, she says, and the viciousness with which the debate has been conducted is ultimately counterproductive.

Of course, the American Jewish community is no stranger to tense debate, Rabbi Alana Suskin, Director of Strategic Communications at Americans for Peace Now, points out. "But it seems to me that this issue has been more divisive than other issues have up to now, even though in reality it shouldn't be. Why are people fighting more bitterly over Iran than over settlements or over the Gaza War?" A possible answer, she says, is that unlike long-term problems like conflicts over Gaza and the West Bank, there is an end-point to the Iran debate in sight: Congress's vote on whether or not to approve the deal.

Threats can't be taken lightly

Symbolbild - Isreal Premierminister Benjamin Netanjahu

Benjamin Netanyahu

Iranian rhetoric has also drawn the concern of Jews in Israel and the US alike. Ayatollah Khamenei has described Israel as "savage" and "wolfish" and called for its annihilation through his official Twitter account. "Iran is one of the few countries in the UN that has threatened another nation in the United Nations with destruction," Guy Ziv says. "That can't be taken lightly, even if it is empty rhetoric."

No wonder the prospect of a nuclear Iran touches a nerve, particularly with older generations for whom the legacy of the Holocaust and the centuries of European anti-Semitism that preceded it are still emotionally raw. Not only that, says Rabbi Suskin, "Israel is so very central to Jewish identity. And not Israel the state, but Israel the entire package: the land, the people, the history is very central to our identity."

US too supportive of Israel?

US Präsident Obama und Israels Premier Ministe Benjamin Netanjahu

US President Obama and Israel's PM Netanyahu in Washington

Still, thinking of Israeli policies through the lens of a nation acting under constant existential threat is becoming less common among younger generations of American Jews. In fact, the generational gap is striking. A growing minority of young American Jews even believe that the United States is too supportive of Israel, according to a Pew survey published in 2013: those aged 19-29 were four times as likely to say the US was too supportive of Israel as those aged 50 and older: 25% to 6%.

But Suskin is eager to point out that support for the deal from American Jews does not signify a turn away from Israel per se. "People care," she says, "otherwise they wouldn't get engaged about the issue." She feels older American Jews have been reluctant to take the voices of young Jews seriously. "I don't think this is sort of an 'Oh, those young people, they'll grow out of it!'"

Guy Ziv agrees, saying, "Many young American Jews feel increasingly uncomfortable supporting an Israel that is moving in a more religious and more nationalistic direction than the kind of secular, liberal, humanist values that most American Jews have grown up with here." This discomfort is particularly strong given the conservative Israeli governments of recent years, especially under the controversial Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

More American Jews oppose the deal than support it

USA Israel Demonstration gegen AIPAC in Washington

Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest in front of the Washington DC Convention Center

This year Netanyahu has thrust himself into the debate over the Iran deal - delivering a speech to Congress to the dismay of the White House. Many saw it as blurring the lines between US and Israeli politics – even meddling. According to Ziv, it led "to an increasing number of Democrats who are uncomfortable providing [Israel] the same level of support as they have in the past." He fears it could threaten to break down the otherwise broad bipartisan support for Israel.

In the end, there is disagreement even over the extent of the disagreement in the American Jewish community over the Iran deal. A study conducted by The Israel Project, which describes itself as "a non-partisan American educational organization," found that more American Jews still oppose the deal than support it. By a 45%-40% margin, they found American Jews opposed the deal, with that margin widening when they were presented with arguments from both sides. By contrast, pro-deal lobby group J Street found in its survey that 60% of American Jews were in favor. Divided the American Jewish community may be, but just how deep or lasting that division proves to remain uncertain.

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