Rabbi Joseph Berman, Government Affairs Liaison for Jewish Voice for Peace.
Q - How would you characterize the reaction of the American Jewish community to the Iran nuclear deal?
“A majority of American Jews support the Iran nuclear deal while less than one-third opposes it. This should not be surprising. Organizations like AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Jewish Federations are increasingly out of touch with the American Jews they claim to represent. They are out of touch about the Iran nuclear deal and they are also out of touch when it comes to Israel’s policies towards Palestinians. We see this disparity reflected in the growing support for groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, which is one of the fastest growing Jewish organizations in the United States. In the past year JVP has expanded from 40 chapters around the country to more than 60 chapters and from 140,000 members and supporters to over 200,000.”
Q - Polls show that a majority of Israeli Jews oppose the deal, while most American Jews support it. Does this disparity reflect a larger rupture between the two groups, and if so, how do you see it affecting support for Israel in the U.S. in the longer term, if at all?
“The disparity in support for the nuclear deal with Iran reflects a deeper rupture between American Jews and Israeli Jews. Despite the fact that Israeli leaders, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in particular, like to speak as though they represent all Jews, American Jews have wide ranging perspectives on Israel, Iran and other political issues that stem from differing world views. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s deliberate manipulations of the fears and anxieties of Jews in both Israel and the United States has worked with Israeli Jews and some American Jews of a certain generation, those who have imbibed the narrative that the Jewish people are always under attack and believe that military force is the only means to create security. But younger American Jews increasingly recognize that negotiations, diplomacy, and relationships of mutual accountability are the only way to secure relative peace and security. This is not to discount the real threats facing Jews and many others, but war will not provide real salvation or safety.
“When it comes to thinking about Israel and the Palestinians, American Jews are increasingly looking to the core values of Judaism. Perhaps the most important Jewish value is ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18). Last summer when over 2,000 Palestinians were killed, including 500 children, many of us applied this teaching to the situation in Gaza. This value means that we are obligated to love our neighbor, those who are different than ourselves. In order to love those who are different, we must first love ourselves. I love my fellow Jews in Israel and because I love them I plead with them to stop perpetuating injustice. Second, this value teaches me to love my neighbor as myself. This leads me to be appalled at the situation in Gaza and work for human rights and equality for Palestinians.”
Q - There has been much talk recently about Israel becoming a partisan political issue in the U.S., with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party developing close ties with the Republican Party over the past several years. At the same time, polls show that key segments of the Democratic Party and its constituency, including young people, people of color, and Jews, are becoming more questioning and critical of Israeli policies and of US support for Israel.
Do you think Israel has become or is becoming a partisan issue in the US, and do you think we’re witnessing a fundamental shift in the US-Israeli relationship, or are the current differences just a temporary blip?
“The shift in the US-Israel relationship has as much to do with Israel’s relationship to Palestinians as it does with Iran. We are witnessing a fundamental shift in the US-Israel relationship. Americans who believe in justice, equality, and human rights - including American Jews - are starting to wake up to the fact that US support for Israel’s policies of occupation and segregation run counter to their values. For this reason, Israel is becoming a partisan issue in the United States. However, it will take time for this shift to solidify. Over the coming months we will likely see an attempt by some of our elected officials, including Democrats, to ‘make up’ with AIPAC and Netanyahu.
“In fact, we have already seen a push for an increase in United States military cooperation and funding to Israel in exchange for passage of the Iran deal. Israel already receives over $3.1 billion per year from the United States. Last summer, our tax dollars were used to finance Israel’s military aggression in Gaza. Some are currently trying to secure an increase in aid and munitions to Israel that will be used to fund the daily human rights abuses in the West Bank and Israel’s next major offensive against Palestinians.
“Congress and the Administration defied the hawkish pro-Israel lobby on Iran. This same moral courage and integrity is needed to end US support for Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise and denial of Palestinian freedom and equality. More and more Americans are standing up to say that we will not trade one war for another war. Nevertheless, we may still be a few years from seeing the courage and integrity from political leaders needed to apply the requisite pressure to force Israel into respecting Palestinian human rights. The daylight between the US and Israel right now is the beginning of a deeper wedge that will continue to grow if Israeli society moves further rightwards and the racism of its policies becomes even more blatant.”
Q - Opposition to the Iran deal in the U.S. has been led by groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Zionist Organization of America, which have spent millions of dollars in an attempt to block it. Do you think that AIPAC’s failure to stop the deal has weakened its influence in Congress?
“The deal with Iran has made it clear that AIPAC, the arms lobby, Christian Zionists, and war hawks do not have an iron grip on Congress. It is no longer the case - if it ever was - that senators and representatives have to tow the AIPAC line. The passage of the deal demonstrates that grassroots pressure can win over the wealth and power invested by individuals and organizations that choose war over diplomacy.”