When the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles came out with a strongly worded statement last week opposing the Iran nuclear deal, it became one of a handful of federations across the country to stake out a clear position on the agreement.
“This Iran deal threatens the mission of our Federation as we exist to assure the continuity of the Jewish people, support a secure State of Israel, care for Jews in need here and abroad and mobilize on issues of concern,” the federation said in its July 21 statement.
The accord, reached July 14 in Vienna, places limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Unlike in some other communities where federation leaders came out against the deal (none has come out in support), there was strong, public pushback in Los Angeles. In a column titled “Federation: Take it back,” Rob Eshman, the editor-in-chief and publisher of the L.A. Jewish Journal, called the federation’s action a mistake.
“The Los Angeles Federation made a wholly unnecessary but completely reparable mistake by urging its members to defeat the Iran deal,” Eshman wrote in his piece published July 26. “In doing so, it misrepresented the people it purports to represent, alienated a good chunk of them, and clouded, rather than clarified, the Iran deal debate.”
Federation CEO Jay Sanderson has since canceled his planned vacation to talk to community members upset about the federation decision.
“We are not a voice of the entire Jewish community. We just aren’t. Nobody is. And we don’t make political statements. But this is an extraordinary moment,” Sanderson said. “Sometimes when you take positions, you do so recognizing that one of the results will be a louder, more interesting communal conversation.”
The kerfuffle in Los Angeles highlights the apparent gap on the Iran deal between American Jews as a whole and American Jewish organizations.
According to a telephone survey of American Jews sponsored by the Jewish Journal and carried out July 16-20 by a reputable polling firm using scientific methodology, far more American Jews support the deal than oppose it: Of the 501 Jewish respondents, about 48 percent said they favored the deal, compared with 28 percent against; 25 percent said they didn’t know.
The survey was conducted by Steven M. Cohen, a research professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and carried out by SSRS Omnibus. The margin of error was 6 percentage points.
By contrast, at least seven Jewish federations that came out with position statements on the deal oppose it — Boston, Miami, Detroit, Dallas, Florida’s South Palm Beach, Phoenix and Los Angeles. The federation umbrella group, the Jewish Federations of North America, has not taken a formal position.
It’s not uncommon for federations to take policy positions, but the issues usually are matters of broad consensus within their communities, such as bills that would affect the social safety net or increased U.S. assistance for Israel.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group for 51 national Jewish organizations that is meant to be the Jewish community’s voice on foreign policy, also has not taken a position on the Iran deal. Nevertheless, the organization’s executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, made his position on the deal clear in an interview.
“We believe it is a dangerous deal and the implications are extremely serious,” said Hoenlein. “This is not some minor piece of legislation.”
Hoenlein said that while an “overwhelming” majority of organizations in the Presidents Conference oppose the deal, the umbrella group, which is meant to operate on the basis of consensus decision-making, isn’t yet ready to take a formal position.
In Boston, the local Jewish federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, was the first to publicly oppose the Iran deal after it was announced. The decision followed a unanimous vote in a conference call with board members, said the federation’s president, Barry Shrage.
“We took this to our full board, and it’s got Democrats, Republicans, liberals and conservatives. It was unanimous in opposition to the deal,” Shrage said of the 24 of 40 board members who participated in the call. “We don’t think we’re speaking for the whole Jewish community. We expressed the opinion of our board.”
So far, the only Jewish organizations to express public support for the deal have been those identified with the political left wing, such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now. Meanwhile, right-wing organizations such as the Zionist Organization of America and Orthodox groups such as the Orthodox Union have come out against the agreement.
The Jewish Journal isn’t the only poll of U.S. Jewish sentiment on the deal, but it’s the only scientific one to be carried out by a nonpartisan group. The Israel Project released its own survey July 28 conducted online by a Republican pollster showing slightly more Jews opposing the deal, 45 percent, than supporting it, 40 percent. Also on July 28, J Street released a poll showing U.S. Jewish support for the deal at 60 percent, versus 40 percent opposed.
Meanwhile, national surveys of Americans also show some divergence. In a telephone survey of 1,017 Americans sponsored by CNN and carried out July 22-25 by ORC International, 52 percent of respondents said that Congress should reject the deal, compared with 44 percent who said it should be approved. By contrast, a Washington Post telephone survey conducted a few days earlier, July 16-19, found 56 percent support for the deal and 37 percent opposed. It’s not clear whether the different findings are the result of methodological differences or whether Americans are growing increasingly opposed to the deal the more they learn about it.
In Israel, a poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 10 shortly after the agreement’s announcement found 69 percent of Israeli respondents opposed to the deal and 10 percent in favor.
Cohen, who did the Jewish Journal survey, said the divergence between American Jewish opinion on the Iran deal and the positions of American Jewish organizations reflects how the constituencies of Jewish organizations differ from average American Jews: Jewish organizational supporters tend to be older, more traditional and more affiliated.
“We live in an elitist bubble of Jewish insiders, and we forget that the rest of the Jewish world doesn’t think like us,” Cohen said. “Jewish organizations are doing what they’re supposed to be doing: representing their membership. That makes sense.”
As for the wide difference between American and Israeli Jews, Cohen, who holds dual Israeli and American citizenship, chalked it up to the Israelis’ heightened sense of their own vulnerability.
“Israeli Jews have a strong sense of their vulnerabilities and their imminent destruction, given who their neighbors are,” he said. “American Jews’ neighbors aren’t trying to kill them; they’re marrying them.”
Local Jewish groups spring into action, for and against
dan pine | j. staff
Bay Area Jews opposed to the Iran nuclear deal have begun holding community meetings, writing letters and launching efforts to lobby Congress.
Jewish groups supportive of the deal are doing the exact same thing.
AIPAC, which has announced its strong opposition to the proposed deal between Iran and the world powers, has organized several community briefings, some held earlier this week and more to be held nightly Aug. 3 to 6 across the Bay Area and Sacramento. AIPAC Pacific Northwest regional director Adam Harris will conduct several of the closed-door, off-the-record gatherings, for which advance registration is required.
In addition, the local AIPAC chapter sent out an email blast asking supporters to write to members of Congress and urge them to vote against the deal while pressing the Obama administration to “negotiate a better deal that will truly prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon.”
An ad hoc group of dozens of local Jewish professionals, lay leaders and rabbis from across the political spectrum are gathering signatures for a letter calling on Congress to reject the deal, stating the agreement “falls woefully short in key areas, which threaten the safety and security of the United States, Israel and our other allies in the Middle East, and consequently increases the likelihood of war in the region.”
Meanwhile J Street, a liberal pro-Israel lobby, has urged its members to write and call Congress in support of the agreement. The Bay Area chapter of J Street will stage advocacy meetings in the coming weeks to help rally community support for the proposal.
Jewish community federations across the country have weighed in on the deal, with agencies in Boston, Los Angeles and Miami among those announcing their opposition.
In the Bay Area, the East Bay, Silicon Valley and S.F.-based federations were more circumspect, releasing statements, along with the Jewish Community Relations Council, expressing their concern over the agreement but refraining from taking a stand.
Former S.F. federation CEO and current New Israel Fund president Brian Lurie told J., “Leaders in our communal organizations are showing great wisdom compared to a number of other federations, which have gone in a direction I feel is a real mistake. To have taken positions against this [deal] is contrary to the major function of their business, which is to keep the community together as much as they can. I am at a loss as to how many federations are attacking [the deal].”
So far, American Jewish community opinion appears split over the issue. This week, a poll sponsored by the pro-Israel media watchdog organization The Israel Project showed 47 percent of Jews oppose the deal and 44 percent support it, though after presented with additional information about the deal, respondents split more widely with 51 percent opposed and 35 percent in favor.
A poll sponsored by the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles showed 49 percent of American Jews supported the deal, while 31 percent opposed it.