Menu JTA Search

Groups fear hard line on Iran

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) speaks at the JCPA plenum in Washington on Feb. 26, 2007. (JCPA)

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) speaks at the JCPA plenum in Washington on Feb. 26, 2007. (JCPA)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — For weeks
ahead of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs plenum, community leaders tiptoed
around how to deal with growing Jewish opposition to the Iraq war: Mention it?
Debate it? Pass a resolution addressing it?
“Fuggedaboutit” was more the attitude this week at the annual parliament that
attempts to formulate Jewish community consensus on the issues of the day. Who
has time to deal with Iraq when Iran is turning into such a headache?

Yet on the issue of Iran as well, consensus proved elusive.

The delegates from Jewish community relations councils across the United
States and major Jewish organizations became mired in debate late into the night
over whether Iran should even be on the agenda.

Off the record, delegates said the JCPA’s failure to agree on a new Iran
policy underscores the American Jewish community’s nervousness about taking any
militant posture in the Middle East given the quagmire Iraq has become.

Martin Raffel, JCPA’s associate executive director, said the umbrella body
and its constituents were aggressively pursuing a policy of isolating the
Islamic Republic as long as it resists nuclear transparency. What was at issue
Monday night was whether to create new policy; ultimately, he said, JCPA decided
to defer a decision on divestment.

“It needs to be understood that the plenum
resolutions session simply enables our system to adopt new policy or change
existing positions,” Raffel told JTA, noting that the Iran issue had featured
prominently in other sessions. “The only policy question which was deferred to
an expedited review process — because of the lateness of the submission and
lack of member agency consideration — was whether to support divestment as an
additional advocacy tool in this arena.”

The Iran debate left delegates with little energy to deal with what had been
a compromise formula for an open debate on the Iraq war. After the Iran
discussion was resolved by referring the issue to a committee, scarcely a
dozen of the more than 400 delegates remained for the Iraq debate.

Other resolutions considered at the Feb. 25-27 plenum in Washington
included:

• A resolution encouraging financial support for Israelis displaced by last
summer’s war with Hezbollah and targeted by Palestinian rocket attacks from the
Gaza Strip. A separate resolution sponsored by the Orthodox Union encouraged aid
to settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip in 2005 who are still living in tent
cities. Both measures passed.

• A resolution calling for targeted divestment from Sudan. It unsettled some
delegates because of the Presbyterian Church’s 2004 resolution calling for
divestment from certain companies doing business with Israel, a step rescinded
in 2006. Supporters of Sudan divestment said it was clear that Israel’s
treatment of Palestinians couldn’t be compared to the genocide being carried out
in Darfur by militias allied with the Sudanese government. The resolution
passed.

• Resolutions also passed opposing criminalization of social-service
provision to illegal immigrants; advocating limits on handgun sales; advocating
decreased dependence on fossil fuels; opposing social-service funding cuts at
the local and state levels, as well as some tax cuts; and opposing laws and
constitutional amendments that deprived groups of civil liberties, an implicit
rebuke to the anti-gay marriage movement.

The absence of Iran from the agenda led the Boston JCRC delegation to offer
its own hastily drafted resolution to launch a “Stop Iran” movement.

Delegates wondered aloud why the threat from a government that talks of
destroying Israel, backs terrorists, denies the Holocaust and appears to be
rushing pell-mell to build a nuclear bomb was a no-show when it came to forming
policy. Iran did feature prominently at several informational sessions during
the conference.

Nancy Kaufman, the Boston JCRC’s director, noted that the resolution on the
Sudan genocide had made it through the arduous pre-screening process, where
resolutions are reviewed by staff and the JCPA executive. Iran’s posture toward
Israel and the West is “not yet a genocide,” Kaufman said, but “it poses a clear
and present danger” of becoming one.

JCPA officials initially responded that the umbrella body already had a
position on Iran’s nuclear threat. Last passed in 2005, it calls for placing a
high priority on stopping Iran’s nuclear program.

But that didn’t satisfy delegates. The Boston JCRC proposal called for Jewish
and non-Jewish groups to form a “Stop Iran” coalition that would launch
political, economic and educational initiatives against the Iranian nuclear
threat, including a mass demonstration in Washington and a divestment campaign.

Raffel said that the umbrella body’s Iran policy was evolving. He cited an
effort to consolidate a national strategy outlined in a Jan. 30 memo to JCRC
professionals and the JCPA executive.

Components of that strategy, according to the memo, would include building
coalitions with non-Jewish groups, lobbying, media advocacy and American Jewish
pressure on foreign governments and businesses that deal with Iran.

Once Raffel outlined the memo, the plenum voted overwhelmingly — with only
the Boston delegation opposed — to refer the Boston resolution to Raffel’s task
force.

“We will deal with that issue expeditiously,” Raffel said. “That includes
divestment.”

It was clear that elements of the Boston proposal, particularly its call for
major public actions like the mass demonstration, worried other delegates.

“Precisely because it’s so serious, we need sufficient time to deal with the
messaging,” Rabbi Doug Kahn of the San Francisco JCRC said in explaining why he
wanted the resolution deferred.

Speaking off the record, delegates said the aftermath of the Iraq war had
profoundly unnerved them and made them wary of U.S. Jewish involvement in calls
to militancy — especially with polemicists like John Mearsheimer and Stephen
Walt spreading the myth that the pro-Israel lobby was behind the Iraq war.

Earlier in the day, the other signature Iraq war session also turned out to
be more about Iran. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who is considering a presidential
run and his party’s most strident critic of Bush administration policy in Iraq,
switched topics: Instead of critiquing Iraq policy, he wanted to outline his
concerns about Bush’s posture toward Iran.

Hagel said Bush’s policy of not engaging Iran until it comes clean on its
nuclear program was not adequate.

“By refusing to engage with Iran, we are perpetuating dangerous geopolitical
unpredictabilities,” he said. “Our refusal to recognize Iran’s influence does
not decrease its influence but increases it.”

He added, “We must be clear that the United States does not seek regime
change in Iran.”

Such talk is in clear contradiction to policies promoted by the American
Israel Public Affairs Committee, the lobbying powerhouse, which backs Bush’s
tough posture and advocates only the narrowest engagement with Iran.

Yet Hagel’s reception at a signature Jewish event was warm. The sound system
failed as he was completing his speech, so he wandered into the audience to take
questions. Delegates rushed him with compliments, softball questions and
outstretched hands.

By contrast, delegates wandered out during the address by the next speaker,
Barbara Stevenson, a senior State Department official who deals with Iraq.
Questions afterward focused on the financial costs of the Iraq war.

The behavior was consistent with a religious community that leads all others
in opposition to the Iraq war. According to an analysis of 13 recent Gallup
polls, 77 percent of American Jews think the war was a mistake.

Yet it also could mean that the Jewish community won’t be able to present a
united front on Iran. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), who is Jewish, returned
Tuesday from Iraq and sought to explain to reporters why he was now sorry that
he voted to authorize the war — and why he was wary of a similar confrontation
with Iran.

“We don’t need to go to Iran with any particular carrots or as supplicants,”
Rothman said. “One negotiates conflict resolution with one’s potential enemies.

NEXT STORY