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Rabbis & Plumbers: Is the Iran Deal Just Politics?

on Thursday, August 20 2015. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

The Jewish community is undeniably split regarding the highly controversial Iran deal. Sadly, rather than focusing on advocating the merits or demerits of the deal, too many on both sides of the issue have resorted to ad-hominem attacks, name calling, questioning of motives and dismissing the positions of others as just politics.

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, contains the call of “tzedek tzedek tirdof, righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue.” Bothered by the redundancy, the Midrash suggests reading the verse as tzedek b’tzedek tirdof, pursue righteousness with righteousness. Even in, or especially in the effort to advocate for and advance a righteous cause, one must never act unrighteously or ignobly.

I oppose the Iran deal. I identify with the position of the mainstream political leadership of Israel, from the left to the right, as well as that of the bi-partisan organizations – AIPAC, ADL, AJC and numerous Jewish Federations that see the deal as dangerous and potentially catastrophic for America and Israel.

To be clear, I presume that those who support the deal love Israel as much as I do and are as loyal to America as I am. I believe that those who support the deal are entitled to their position, as I am to mine, and are well within their rights, and perhaps even duty, to advocate loudly for it. I don’t believe they support the deal because they are, God forbid, self-hating or anti-Semitic or are simply demonstrating partisan loyalty. I take for granted that they support the deal because after considering the issues, they genuinely believe it is the best option available to contain Iran and preserve peace.

I expect the same courtesy in return. I am not against the deal because I am a warmonger, because I have dual loyalty, because I am partisan, or because I am uninformed. I am well aware of the formidable challenges that arise from striking down the deal that the Administration has negotiated.

Yet, I oppose the deal because it fails to achieve the goal of preventing a nuclear Iran while at the same time funding terrorist networks and their efforts to murder Americans and Jews around the world with billions of newly released dollars. Moreover, in addition to all the other weakness and consequences of the deal, it shockingly relies on the Iranians, wholly deceitful and untrustworthy actors, to police themselves.

Rabbis have been criticized for using their public platforms to advocate against the deal and for their efforts to rally their congregations to lobby to strike it down. I have been told that politics don’t belong in the pulpit and I could not agree more. Shuls must be non-partisan and provide safe spaces for people with diverse political positions to feel comfortable and welcome and to pursue spiritual inspiration without fear of intimidation, discomfort or exclusion. I am extremely proud that a few years ago, Boca Raton Synagogue adopted our civility statement that appears in our shul literature and on our website and calls on our members to be respectful of others’ views and always speak and act respectfully and civilly.

In my career in the rabbinate, I have never used the pulpit to publicly endorse a candidate or promote a particular political position. And yet, I do not hesitate in these critical days to use every opportunity to encourage our community to lobby our elected officials to vote against the Iran deal because to me, this issue is not one of politics, but one of possible pikuach nefesh (life and death), hatzalas Yisroel (saving the Jewish people) and the preservation of the Jewish state.

I recognize that one can manipulate an issue to have it appear as one of pikuach nefesh. Still, I feel that this issue is truly exceptional, as the stakes include weapons capable of conducting genocide against our people and the possibility of billions of dollars flowing to sworn enemies that surround Israel. These threats transcend politics and demand leadership from the pulpit even if those in the pews have diverse positions.

In reaction to rabbis weighing in on the Iran deal, Shmuel Rosner writes in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, “One thing is quite certain: Rabbis have no advantage over plumbers when it comes to understanding and assessing the agreement with Iran. They have no better professional qualifications and no more relevant experience.”

Rosner is correct; rabbis are not categorically smarter, necessarily more qualified or more insightful. However, I believe that rabbis, unlike plumbers, do bear an awesome responsibility to be outspoken leaders on issues of historic significance to Israel’s security as well as to the well-being of the free world. Rabbis have been charged with being both students of Torah and of history and applying both our analytical skills and knowledge to try to guide our constituencies in an informed, educated manner.

While the Holocaust raged and millions of Jews were being slaughtered, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the American Jewish Congress rigorously debated the best course of action on behalf of the Jewish people. The former feared instigating anti-Semitism and therefore advocated for quiet, behind-the-scenes efforts, while the latter called for protests, rallies, and demonstrations.

The prominent and influential Rabbi Stephen Wise worried that American Jews would be accused of dual loyalty and worked to undermine the vocal efforts of Hillel Kook, who used the pseudonym Peter Bergson. Despite the opposition of the Jewish establishment, Bergson was successful in taking out over 200 newspaper advertisements and even produced a movie shown in cities across the country calling attention to the Nazi atrocities and on America to intervene.

When Bergson (Kook) called on the Jewish community to act, was that politics or pikuach nefesh? When two days before Yom Kippur in 1943, Bergson organized 400 rabbis to march to the White House and demand to meet with the president, was that politics or pikuach nefesh?

I would like to believe that Rabbi Wise and the leadership of AJC loved their fellow Jews in Europe and were staunchly committed to do all they could to put a stop to the genocide and rescue their brethren. They surely thought that the best way to achieve those goals was to work quietly with behind-the-scenes diplomacy that wouldn’t call attention to or raise suspicion of American Jews.

With the benefit of hindsight, would they now agree that they were mistaken in the strategic position they took? We can’t know, but we do know that Elie Wiesel has argued that Jews ought to have chained themselves to the White House until Roosevelt was willing to act.

Nobody would look back and dismiss the debate between Wise and Bergson regarding advocacy during the Holocaust as politics. Nobody would read a sermon of a rabbi from 1943 calling on his members to lobby their elected officials to intervene and say it had no place in the synagogue.

I am not suggesting that the current situation is perfectly analogous to the Holocaust or that those who support the deal are akin to Rabbi Wise and the AJC. I am simply saying that there are momentous points in history when the stakes are so high and the potential consequences so calamitous that they cannot be dismissed as politics. In moments like this, rabbis should not be censored or silenced, but should be supported in fiercely advocating whichever position they feel will best protect the interests of America and the safety of Israel.
340 rabbis garnered significant attention by signing a letter in support of the Iran deal. I admire their advocacy, even while I could not disagree more with their position.

I hope that every rabbi will show leadership on this issue, whichever side of this debate they find themselves on. In that spirit, I personally urge the hundreds or thousands of rabbis who oppose the deal to not remain silent.

Please encourage your rabbi to sign our letter in opposition of the Iran deal (here) today.

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