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The painful, divisive American Jewish debate over the Iran deal, explained

Obama speaks to an AIPAC meeting.
Obama speaks to an AIPAC meeting.
(Getty Images)

On Friday, President Obama gave a live address to the members of some of America's largest Jewish groups. The subject was, of course, the Iran nuclear deal. I say "of course" because at the moment it is the political issue for American Jewry. "Nowhere has the nuclear accord been more divisive than among American Jews," the New York Times's Jonathan Weisman writes.

That debate "has taken on the appearance of the war of the Jews, as if only our community has a stake in the debate’s outcome," three prominent American Jewish leaders write in Ha'aretz. "When the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, is subjected to death threats and compared to Jewish concentration camp guards for his championing the deal, something has gone terribly awry."

It may not necessarily be obvious, though, why the Iran nuclear deal, which is a topic of concern for all Americans (and indeed, given that it is an international agreement, a topic of concern for the world), is being treated as a Jewish issue in the US. Nor may it be obvious why that debate has become so polarized and heated.

The answer, naturally, has a lot to do with to do with Israel. But it's bigger than that: It's also about the political identities of American Jewish communities, and how they might be changing.

Why Iran is a Jewish issue

To understand why the Iran agreement has become such a big issue for American Jews, you need to understand why Israel is such a big issue for American Jews. Yes, it's because Israel is the world's only Jewish state, but there's a bit more going on, and it goes back the first big waves of Jewish migration to the US.

Large-scale Jewish immigration to the US began in the 19th century, but it was the second generation — the first American-born Jews — that really bought into political life. "Jewish political activity probably starts around 1924," Steven M. Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told me. It "derived from their sense of exclusion from American society. They're fighting for inclusion and acceptance."

For American Jews, experience with intolerance helped to make the idea of a Jewish state especially important.

"From the beginning, Israel has been a place that was literally a lifesaver," Leonard Saxe, the Klutznick professor of contemporary Jewish studies and social policy at Brandeis University, said, pointing to Israel's role taking in refugees from post-Holocaust Europe, the Arab world, and the former Soviet Union. "The idea of it was always very important to American Jews."

That mindset makes Israel's security especially important to American Jews today. First, it serves both as a refuge for persecuted Jews globally, a safe place any Jew can flee to. Second, it houses the world's largest Jewish community, which must be protected in its own right. "The Irish have only a kind of sentimental or nostalgic attachment to Ireland," Cohen points out. "Whereas American Jewry — Israel is at the core of their survivalist concerns."

Concrete links between the two communities strengthen this connection. Birthright Israel, a program that takes young adult Jews on free trips to Israel, has sent somewhere in the tens of thousands of Americans to visit Israel per year since 1999. According to Saxe, more American Jews have family there now than 40 years ago, and the internet makes it easier for them to stay in touch. The growth of English-language Israeli media in the past few decades has allowed American Jews to follow Israeli political and cultural life pretty closely.

So that's why American Jews consider Israel to be an important and cherished issue, and a Jewish issue specifically. But why would that apply to an international arms control agreement with Iran?

The answer is that Israel and its leadership are treating the Iran nuclear deal as not just an important issue for Israeli security, but an issue that is literally existential. Israeli leaders such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been sending the message, for years or even decades now, that Iran's nuclear program poses a potentially existential threat. If you care about Israel, whether you find Netanyahu's arguments persuasive or not, you have to at least take this issue seriously.

That means American Jews are inclined to be invested in the Iran nuclear issue, and to be invested in it as a specifically Jewish concern. When it comes to the nuclear deal in particular, Netanyahu has painted it in apocalyptic terms: His February comment that "the agreement being formed between Iran and the powers can endanger our existence" isn't out of character. This links American Jewish fears about Israeli survival directly with their feelings about the deal: Taking a stance, either for or against, means deciding on an issue that Israeli leaders say is absolutely critical for the future of the state.

This also forces Americans Jews, by the way, to decide whether they think Israeli leaders are correct on the Iran issue. It opens up the possibility of American Jews taking the position that Israel's leadership — and Israel's citizens, who tend to oppose the nuclear deal — are wrong about what they all agree is a major Jewish issue. Maybe you can see why this would become controversial.

The bitter, revealing Jewish debate on Iran

You'd think that since American Jews broadly share a commitment to Israel's security, they might generally see the Iran deal in the same way. But the debate has been incredibly fractious in practice — which speaks to a fundamental political divide among American Jews.

"The overlay here is a growing polarization between politically conservative and politically liberal Jews on many issues," Cohen says. He calls Iran the "Gettysburg" of this split: "It's this battlefield where everything comes together."

American Jews have been overwhelmingly left-wing for generations. According to Cohen, this actually predates American arrival in the United States: In 19th-century Europe, left-wing and socialist parties were the ones most supportive of Jewish rights and equality, so Jews gravitated toward those political movements. Immigrants carried these values across the ocean, gravitating toward the Democrats and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition in the 1920s. Jews have remained one of America's most left-leaning constituencies ever since.

But the American Jewish community isn't a monolith. There's long been a Jewish Republican community, which has vacillated between 18 and 30 percent of Jews for the past 20 years. In 2014, 31 percent of Jews identified as Republican or Republican-leaning — the highest figure Pew has on record (albeit not by much):

jewish partisanship has remained steady over the past 20 years, with a slight uptick in republican identification recently

(Pew Research Center)

The basic political divide between the left-wing majority and right-wing minority, more than anything else, explains the Jewish divisions over the Iran deal. The Iran deal has become a hyper-partisan issue: It's President Obama's signature foreign policy accomplishment. Because liberal Jews are likely to be Democrats and Obama supporters, they're likely to line up with the president on a core issue.

Indeed, an LA Jewish Journal survey supervised by Cohen found majority Jewish support for the deal — reflecting the liberal Jewish majority. The "simple, crude question" of whether American Jews see themselves as "liberal, moderate, or conservative ... manages to be very predictive of lots of attitudes, including their position on the Iran deal," Cohen explains.

While most American Jews broadly share a commitment to Israel's survival and security, they disagree sharply about the country's current, right-wing government. Liberal Jews, unsurprisingly, tend to be more critical of Netanyahu's policies toward the Palestinians and Iran. That makes them more likely to take Obama's side in the ongoing debate between the two leaders about the deal.

The LA Jewish Journal poll, which asked about Obama and Netanyahu's favorability among Jews, bears that out. Cohen's analysis of the results revealed sharp polarization between Obama and Netanyahu supporters.

"People who were Obama supporters supported the deal, and people who were [Netanyahu] supporters opposed the deal," he explains. "And there was a negative correlation between Obama and [Netanyahu] support; you supported one or the other."

This polarization is very rarely a problem for Jewish community on Israel issues. Support for Israel has historically been broadly bipartisan: Everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Ted Cruz tends to line up behind Israel during conflicts with the Palestinians or the wider Arab world. But the Iran deal's hyper-partisan nature has activated an otherwise dormant political fault line in the Jewish community over Israeli issue. That's why the American intra-Jewish debate over Iran can be so nasty: It links bitter partisan disagreements to deep feeling about Israel on both sides.

This is not likely to be the last time this happens. The youngest generation of American Jews has a markedly larger Orthodox minority than do previous generations, and Orthodox Jews tend to be more politically conservative. As the community's political balance shifts, more political conflicts like this one could play out. If the US-Israel relationship remains rocky, and if Israel remains under a right-wing government and the US a left-wing one, those moments will likely continue.

And while the fight over the Iran deal will likely be settled shortly, there's no end in sight for Israel's occupation of the West Bank — another increasingly partisan issue in the United States. "We'll see the continuation of liberal/conservative skirmishing over Israel," Cohen says. "The Palestinian issue will return to center stage."

So, a message to my fellow American Jews: We need to brace ourselves. The bitter fight over the Iran deal may be less of a one-off than a harbinger of more political fights to come.