Cliff Owen / AP

Iran deal furor reveals a split among Jewish Americans

Analysis: Pro-Israel lobby seeks to scuttle deal backed by majority of Jewish-Americans, while Obama calls them out

The frenzied lobbying in Washington over the international deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program has drawn attention to two unprecedented ruptures — both of which potentially have significant long-term consequences for Israel’s place in U.S. domestic politics.

For decades, unconditional support for Israel had been a point of unshakable bipartisan consensus inside the Beltway, even as bipartisanship on most other issues became a distant memory. A majority of Jewish voters continue to choose the Democrats; deep-pocketed Jewish donors remain vital to the electoral prospects of candidates from both parties, but partisan distinctions meant little when it came to Israel. And the pro-Israel lobbying establishment, first and foremost the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has always worked hard to span the aisle on Capitol Hill, while political leaders from both parties routinely pay tribute to the lobbying group at its annual convention. 

The Iran nuclear deal has thrown that consensus into crisis, leaving Jewish Americans divided between a Democratic-voting majority that polls show support the Iran deal (in numbers proportionally larger than the wider U.S. population) and a conservative minority that includes some very powerful donors, and supports the GOP-led opposition to the deal. And AIPAC’s leading role in campaigning against the deal has prompted President Barack Obama to publicly challenge the group in a manner unprecedented for a U.S. leader over the past two decades.

The Democratic Party itself is divided over the issue, with four of its leading Jewish members of Congress having broken with the president by declaring their intent to vote against the deal. At the same time, the two most senior Jewish Democrats, Sens. Dianne Feinstein  and Barbara Boxer (both Calif.), continue to support the president. Polls show a majority of Jewish Americans want Congress to approve the Iran deal, putting them at odds with AIPAC and the American Jewish federations which support Israel’s rejection of the nuclear agreement.

The intensifying lobbying effort has angered President Obama, prompting him to accuse AIPAC of pouring millions of dollars into a campaign to discredit the deal with what he called inaccurate claims.

Lara Friedman, director of policy and government communications for the dovish pro-Israel group Americans for Peace Now, noted that it has been AIPAC policy since 1995 — when it was traumatized by the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an opponent of the Oslo Accords — to support the Israeli government’s position.

“AIPAC actively went after Clinton and Rabin over Oslo Accords [before the assassination], and this caused a traumatic period within the Jewish community,” Friedman told Al Jazeera.

The lobbying group’s inclination to adopt the same principle of supporting the government of the day in the U.S. has been increasingly tested in recent years, Friedman explained. She pointed out that the majority of AIPAC’s funders are conservative Republicans, and that the Obama presidency had seen AIPAC go “further and further down a partisan road,” adopting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position on the nuclear deal and staying silent about Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which the administration has made clear violate standing U.S. policy.

Netanyahu in March antagonized the White House by accepting an invitation extended by Republican Speaker John Boehner to address Congress in an attempt to sway U.S. lawmakers against the deal. In several recent statements, including a long video statement directed at Jewish Americans, Netanyahu insisted that the agreement would ease and accelerate the Islamic Republic’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Netanyahu has consistently ignored the support for the deal expressed by prominent members of the Israeli security establishment, including former heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet and Military Intelligence.

The perception that Netanyahu has overtly supported the Republicans — even during the 2012 presidential election — has left many Jewish Americans, a large majority of whom continue to vote Democratic, feeling torn between their progressive values and their loyalty to Israel.  

An editorial last week in the Jewish digital magazine Tablet accused the New York Times and the Washington Post of anti-Semitism by “playing the dual loyalty card” and invoking “money,” “lobbying” and “foreign interests” in critical coverage of Democrats who have decided to oppose the deal, such as New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer. The Tablet editorial set off a firestorm of debate among Jewish-Americans on social media. In a response published the same outlet on Aug. 11, Matt Duss of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and Todd Gitlin, a sociologist and prominent writer who teaches at Columbia University, termed the editorial “an insult to readers’ intelligence.”

Despite the heat of the debate among committed partisans, Steven M. Cohen, Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner told Al Jazeera that “Israel is a top issue for only a small number of American Jews.” Cohen, who regularly polls Jewish-American attitudes on a range of issues, expects the Jewish communal debate over the Iran deal is unlikely to change U.S. political dynamics.

 “There'll be very little effect, because liberals support Democrats and the deal, while conservatives support Republicans and oppose the deal,” he emailed.

Cohen noted that the wider Jewish-American population and the organized Jewish community are not the same thing. The “community” refers to those who are organized and affiliated with various branches of Judaism and various NGOs. But the majority of Jews are not affiliated, and they are, he wrote, “split along ideological lines with liberal Democrats in favor and conservative, Republicans opposed.” He added, “The organized community's top leadership is wealthier, more religiously traditional and more politically conservative.”

The leadership of AIPAC and the long-established Jewish federations tend to be wealthy, conservative and unrepresentative of the political opinions of the wider population of Jewish Americans. For the generations of Jewish Americans aged over 50, according to a 2013 Pew Study, identify strongly with Israel as a matter of existential reflex.  But automatic identification with Israel is weaker among millennials, and there is significant anecdotal evidence to show that axiomatic support for Israel declined during last summer’s Gaza war. Studies have found that a majority of younger Jewish Americans — perhaps personified by the comic political commentator Jon Stewart — are more likely to stick by their liberal American values when those conflict with support for Israeli government policies. It remains to be seen how this generational shift will affect Israel’s status in the U.S. political process in the years ahead.

But long-standing concerns among the pro-Israel establishment raised by the generation  gap in Jewish-American attitudes to Israel will have been amplified by the community’s split over the Iran deal, and by the willingness of Obama — the president elected by the millennials — to publicly castigate both Israel’s government and AIPAC for their efforts to reverse U.S. diplomacy. 

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