The United States is “on the edge of letting Israel become a partisan issue,” the leader of the international Reform movement Rabbi Rick Jacobs told The Times of Israel Sunday.
In an earlier interview with The Forward, Jacobs joined the growing chorus of American Jewish leaders calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel his March 3 speech before the US Congress in which the Israeli leader is expected to warn against the developing nuclear deal with Iran.
On Friday, Vice President Joe Biden announced he would not attend the speech, citing a previous commitment. Other prominent Democrats have stated similar intentions, and even Jewish lawmaker Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), told JTA that blacks in his district were asking him not to attend because they saw the speech as disrespecting President Barack Obama.
One focus of the fracas is the speech’s proximity to the Israeli elections, which are set for March 17. Cohen circulated a letter asking for a postponement of the speech until after the Israeli elections — and the congressional vote on an agreement with Iran.
“The prime minister has every right, and a duty, to speak up about one of the most important issues the State of Israel will face — a nuclear Iran. I believe it is absolutely a part of his responsibility as the leader of Israel,” Jacobs told The Times of Israel.
The fact that the speech is set for two weeks before elections in Israel, however, “will reduce the appropriate attention to the really critical question: What constitutes an acceptable agreement with Iran.”
Netanyahu’s thinking on Iran is closer to the views of Obama’s Republican critics than to the White House. The talks, he has warned, will conclude with a bad deal which will leave Iran with potential nuclear weapon capability.
The current tensions surrounding Netanyahu’s scheduled speech highlight increasingly diverging alignments in the Democratic and Republican parties, but this is hardly their genesis.
‘Dating back to the late 1970s, the partisan gap in Mideast sympathies has never been wider’
A July Pew Center for the People and the Press found that “dating back to the late 1970s, the partisan gap in Mideast sympathies has never been wider.”
In the July Pew survey, support for Israel was rising among Republicans, and had reached 73%. Among Democrats, support was falling, and was now at 44%.
“If support for Israel ceases to be bipartisan, the US-Israel relationship – which is of so much benefit to both countries – will suffer,” Republican Jewish Committee (RJC) Chairman Matt Brooks said in July.
Jacobs’ primary concern in calling for Netanyahu to cancel his speech is the preservation of this unique relationship, he said.
“The prime minister is a very gifted leader, and his message should be heard. But he should do it in a way that does not further alienate Israel and make it a partisan movement in the US,” said Jacobs.
Jacobs and Netanyahu have worked closely together on conversion legislation and access to the Western Wall, the most sacred place in Judaism. On these issues, Jacobs said, Netanyahu understands the importance of Diaspora Jewry and has been “responsive” and “helpful.”
Now, however, Netanyahu’s insistence on proceeding with his speech is harmful “to the incredible bond that ties the US and Israel together.”
There is currently “very harsh language” in America’s public debate over Israel, said Jacobs. “We express our voices in a way that affirms the complexity of a modern state. There are multiple ways to look at Israel, and it should not be made such a partisan divide.”
On Twitter Friday, RJC’s Brooks wrote that Democrats have a choice to “Stand with Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Jewish community against Iran, or to stand with President Obama.” He wrote that RJC will make sure people know what they chose.
Dems have a choice- stand w/PM Netanyahu and the Jewish com against Iran or w/Pres Obama. @rjchq will make sure people know what they choose
— Matt Brooks (@mbrooksrjc) February 6, 2015
The Republican party’s courting of evangelical Christian voters has not helped lower tensions with Jewish Democrats. The evangelicals, many of whom self-identify as Zionists, are among the most strident political forces in American politics, including on Israel.
While Israel can’t afford to turn its back on allies, and Jews should make alliances and partnerships with all faiths, said Jacobs, he cautioned that “their belief in their Zionism is through Christianity.”
The evangelicals’ Zionism is based “not on rational discourse,” but on their reading of scripture.
Increasingly, Jacobs warned, the debate has seen rhetoric that suggests that “if you don’t have these sets of beliefs, then you’re not a responsible Zionist.”
“Zionism is built on many different pillars. We have to be ready to partner, and be ready to identify many divergences of core beliefs,” Jacobs said.
— JTA contributed to this report.