The column | Bay Area federations pick the right side on Iran deal:neither

Two weeks ago, J. ran an editorial about the Iran nuclear deal. An imperfect agreement is better than none, we opined — at least it should slow down, if only temporarily, the Islamic Republic’s headlong pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Like most of the pundits weighing in on the topic, none of us in the newsroom had read the actual document, released 24 hours earlier. But that didn’t stop us — any of us — from speaking out.

Someone I respect called me on that. So this past weekend, I read the damn thing ( All 159 pages. And you know what? I’m not sure that I’m in a better position to opine. You really need to be a physics expert to evaluate the restrictions it places on Iran’s centrifuges and uranium enrichment programs, as well as the inspections protocol. Are they reasonable, or laughable?

What struck me most in the document was its laconic tone. It could have been an agreement on hallway décor for all the urgency it conveyed. Nowhere does it indicate why the world powers are so intent on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Nowhere does it suggest why Iran is so eager to divest itself of the sanctions crippling its economy. The “why,” in fact, is completely absent.

Israel’s political leadership has come down hard against the deal, as was expected. Even the opposition has closed ranks with the government, in the name of Israeli security. Most of the Israeli (Jewish) population also opposes it.

In the United States, however, there are intelligent people on both sides of the argument, within the Jewish community as well as the general public. And that’s why I’m so distressed by the growing number of Jewish federations announcing their opposition, and why I’m so proud of the East Bay and San Francisco–based federations for refusing to be drawn into the fray.

As soon as the deal was announced on July 14, AIPAC came out strongly against it, arguing that its very premise — acknowledging Iran as a threshold nuclear power, instead of working to prevent Iran from ever reaching that status — leads to a host of related shortcomings, most notably immediate sanctions relief for Iran with questionable enforcement protocols for Iran’s nuclear program. This week AIPAC began blanketing the country with experts urging American Jews to oppose the deal and to lobby their legislators (see page 14 for Bay Area activity).

That’s entirely appropriate. It’s what AIPAC does.

But what is the mission of a Jewish federation? I would argue it is to educate and inform, to sustain Jewish life, to reach out to the next generation, and to help build a strong Jewish community that supports needs at home, in Israel and around the world.

Taking a position on such a highly politicized issue works against those interests by alienating parts of the very community the federation is trying to bring together.

Soon after the deal was announced, the Boston and Miami federations announced their opposition. On July 21, Los Angeles did the same. Others have joined in.

Not in San Francisco or the East Bay.

“There are a number of federations that have staked a position, which we will not do and do not see as our role to do,” said Danny Grossman, the recently appointed CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

“At our core, we’re a community-building organization that attempts to keep the tent as wide and inclusive as possible,” he told me. “Our ability to do so would be impaired if we were to take a political position” of this sort.

Rabbi Jim Brandt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, also emphasized the federation’s community-building mandate.

“This is clearly a time for us to feel great concern for the health and safety of Israel,” he told me. “For all in our community who have such concern, it’s time to safeguard against moments like this becoming moments that polarize and fracture the community.”

That doesn’t mean Jewish federations should never take political positions. When Israel is under attack, for example, they rally in support. That’s different, Grossman said, because “everyone’s on the same side.” But on the Iran deal, “there are reasonable points of view expressed in our own community on both sides.”

Sue Fishkof
f is the editor of J., and can be reached at [email protected].


Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].