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Thoughts on the Iran Deal

As of this moment, it appears that the United States will participate in the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran to limit its nuclear program. The United States will be joining China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union in this agreement.

Anyone who has been following the news knows that this has been one of the most divisive foreign policy issues in recent memory. It has also created rifts between the current Israeli and American administrations, and has fostered extreme rancor and attacks within the American Jewish community, as American Jewish groups have taken sides in the debate.

The level of incendiary rhetoric around the Iran deal has made it difficult to assess its actual merits and deficiencies. I am not a foreign policy expert, and I rely on reading broadly and conversing with people of different political stripes whom I trust in order to try to reach reasonable assessments. I have had some very enlightening conversations with friends and colleagues who do not share my point of view.

As usual, I have my own opinions. Of course I do. I hope you do too. Our passionate involvement is a sign of our engagement and concern. However, as we all well know, passion can often cloud good judgment. Passion can often escalate into a war of words, or worse, and make us forget that we are speaking to someone else who cares just as much as we do, but may have a different point of view.

I have watched despairingly as reasoned debate has been drowned out by invocations of the next Holocaust or nuclear war; as our Congress stakes out turf along strict party lines; and certainly as relations between Israel and the United States have become frayed and polarized to a degree unprecedented in recent memory.

So, what can we do?

First, I like to admit that I actually have no idea what is going to happen. I am humbled by my overwhelming lack of ability to predict the future. Every position I take is open to reconsideration, as new developments unfold. This is not particularly reassuring, as I would like to be in more control of international affairs, let alone my own. But it is the truth. Over the past five years the previous century-old order of the Middle East has crumbled. Hardly anyone anticipated it, and in the power vacuum that has emerged no one knows what will happen next. In that scramble for influence I can only hope that the JCPOA improves and protects the interests of Israel and the United States. I hope, but of course I don’t know.

Second, when debating, argue the issues without demeaning the person with whom you are debating, or their motives. It’s not only the right and decent thing to do – it is also more effective. No one ever changed another person’s mind by calling them an idiot.

Third, remember that arguments over the Jewish future almost invariably escalate into doomsday scenarios. Given our history, this is tragically understandable. But predicting certain and inevitable disaster is not a foundation for constructive dialogue or for sound decision making. For example: the Jews of Europe in 1938 had no army, no powerful ally, and no massive nuclear arsenal to deter the Nazi regime. Israel of 2015 has all of these. Israel’s overwhelming military and destructive capability, backed by the United States, of course does not guarantee its people’s safety, but to compare Iran in 2015 to the Nazi regime of 1938 must be taken in some kind of historical context. Just as we shouldn’t be naïve about the risks and dangers facing Israel and the Jewish People, we also are not served by assuming that assured abandonment and destruction are always around the next bend in the road. It’s a big, complicated world out there, and there are countless potential outcomes. We must be nimble, not rigid, as we walk this narrow bridge.

I have decided to support the Iran agreement. From what I have written above, you might be able to anticipate my reasoning: I don’t know enough to know if the JCPOA will work. I don’t know enough about the power struggles within Iran, let alone who will prevail there. There is so much that I don’t know. But I have had to conclude that shelving this agreement leaves us with nothing: no path at all to reining in Iran’s nuclear program; no path to reinstating international sanctions; and a tremendous discrediting of the United States – Israel’s greatest ally – as a global diplomatic player. Having read the arguments of experts and pundits on all sides, along with meaningful conversations with thoughtful and informed colleagues and friends who oppose the agreement, I remain unconvinced that defeating the agreement will lead in a more fruitful or positive direction.

This position puts me at odds with the Israeli government, with a vast majority of the Israeli public, and with much of the organized American Jewish community. This is a tough position, but I absolutely do not want to withdraw from this important debate. If ever there was a time in both the American and the Jewish spheres when reasoned public discourse was needed, it is now. And so I am using my modest public forum, this column, to express my own thoughts and to encourage all of you to keep thinking, debating, and caring about the Jewish future and humanity’s future, and to keep contributing your thoughtful energy to the public sphere.

Shabbat Shalom, and may we all be inscribed for a good year,

Rabbi Jonathan