With its non-stance on Iran deal, Reform Judaism looks to mend ‘ugly’ rift

Movement head Rick Jacobs says largest Jewish stream not sitting on fence but taking principled stand to avoid debate tearing community apart

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs (photo credit: URJ via JTA)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs (photo credit: URJ via JTA)

WASHINGTON — As the American Jewish community fractures along ideological lines over the nuclear deal with Iran, the decision of the Reform Movement to neither support nor oppose the deal was seen by some last week as a way of skirting the controversial issue.

But Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union of Reform Judaism, says that far from sitting on the fence, the decision reflects a bold and principled stance, one that was taken despite intense pressure and near-certainty that it would upset some of the deal’s most passionate supporters and detractors.

“There was a lot of pressure on all sides, and not just from the highest echelons of the Israeli political leadership and the US political leadership but also throughout our movement,” Jacobs told the Times of Israel shortly after announcing the decision Wednesday. “This has been a very, very intense and at times very acrimonious debate, so we felt pressure, but we felt even more pressure from our own conscience to do the analysis and discernment in a very very thoughtful way.”

Jacobs said that there was a diversity of opinion, even among the leadership of the Reform Movement, which is the largest movement within North American Jewry. Calling aspects of the current debate “scorched-earth lobbying” he said his main concern is that the dispute itself will prove dangerous – both to the Jewish community itself and to US-Israel relationship.

“The US-Israel relationship can never every be weakened and we believe that it has already begun to fray because of the deep partisanship,” he warned. “If you oppose the deal you’re not a
warmonger and if you support the deal you’re not automatically sending your family to the doorstep of Auschwitz. Those are demonizing and debate-ending types of statements.”

Jacobs emphasized that “the day after is key,” and said the Reform leadership was trying to show “that there is something bigger at stake.”

“There will be a Jewish community, there will be a need for the US-Israel relationship, there will be a need for a Jewish community that holds together with some core commitments,” he said.

Jacobs fears that the acrimony over the Iran deal could take away from the ability to combat the growing strength of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, as well as impeding the ability to address what he described as “the disaffection that many North American Jews are feeling toward Israel.”

‘We didn’t do it to be popular, we didn’t do it to make people happy. We did it because we believe it is an important message at this moment’

The 2013 Pew Research Survey of US Jews found that almost one-quarter of those who self-identify as Jews by religion are not very or not at all attached to Israel.

“We’re making a principled stand for something but it is not for the deal or against the deal, it is for the overarching commitments that we believe are essential,” he added. Jacobs called on Reform Jews – like all others involved in the current debate over the Iran deal – to “tamp down the rhetoric.”

In its official statement issued on Thursday, the Reform Movement cited some of the arguments pushed by the agreement’s supporters and opponents. “The JCPOA does present a way forward, there are real dangers to rejecting it, and it does not foreclose Iran’s ability to become a nuclear weapons threshold state,” the statement read.

Jacobs expanded upon this, saying that in addition to concerns about the deal, there were also concerns “around the deal.”

“There are things that the deal could not address but we think need to be addressed,” he said, describing Iran’s funding of proxies Hezbollah and Hamas as “deeply destabilizing,” the need for increased military cooperation and aid to Israel to increase Israel’s deterrent factor. He also said there were questions remaining about how low-level inspections violations will be addressed.

“We believe that things that need to be addressed could be addressed today and would strengthen the support for the deal,” he said, emphasizing that Reform representatives have discussed these topics “with the highest level leaders of Israel and the United States.”

The movement’s decision to stay neutral is a rare turn on an issue on which it seems nearly everyone in public Jewish life has taken a stand.

Supporters line Seventh Avenue during the 'Stop Iran' protest near Times Square in New York City, July 22, 2015. (AP/Frank Franklin II)
Supporters line Seventh Avenue during the ‘Stop Iran’ protest near Times Square in New York City, July 22, 2015. (AP/Frank Franklin II)

While Jewish community federations across the country have been nearly unanimous in either opposing or expressing concern over the agreement, a number of rabbis and Jewish leaders have also come out individually in support of the pact.

On Monday, 340 US rabbis, many of them affiliated with the Reform Movement, sent a letter to Congress backing the deal, and on Wednesday 25 Jewish leaders took out a full-page ad in the New York Times expressing support.

“This is the big discussion in meetings, over the dinner table on Friday nights, in synagogues and in the pages of Jewish newspapers,” former Israeli diplomat Josef Olmert said in an interview with Voice of America published Saturday.

Though the Reform Movement’s non-stand has yet to engender any wide-scale response in the wider American Jewish community, Jacobs said he recognizes that there are those on both sides who will be disappointed by the movement’s refusal to take a side.

“One of the principles of Jewish leadership is that if you’re waiting for there to be cheering, you’re going to be waiting for a while,” he quipped. “Doing the right thing doesn’t always mean doing the popular thing. But we believe that this is a message that affirms the core commitments of our movement and empowers our diversity.”

Jacobs hopes that the statement – and Reform’s position – will help to “tamp down on some of the ugliness of the debate in Washington and on the debate between Washington and Jerusalem.”

“If Israel becomes the sole possession of the conservative slice of the US political spectrum, that’s a disastrous outcome for the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” he warned, echoing a concern that Jerusalem’s rift with Washington could turn support of Israel into a partisan issue.

“What we’re doing is trying to do some heavy lifting in the most critical area and I think we have a lot of warring factions that are not focusing on that. We didn’t do it to be popular, we didn’t do it to make people happy. We did it because we believe it is an important message at this moment from us and we think it will have impact on our congregations and our leadership,” he said.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed