Speaking (and tweeting) for the Jews


By definition, tweets run no longer than 140 characters. Arguments over tweets, however, can ricochet endlessly in the blogosphere (and even eventually find their way into print).

So, despite being a few days late, I’m jumping into the Isaac Luria (J Street) vs. William Daroff (UJC) vs. Daniel Sieradski (Daniel Sieradski) twitter debate over Iran and the Jews. The Washington Jewish Week covered Round 1 (Luria vs. Daroff) and JTA’s Eric Fingerhut picked it up from there with a lengthy post on how the debate has been spreading.

The short version: Luria was essentially minding his own business, tweeting away about J Street’s opposition at this time to new U.S. sanctions against Iran. Luria complained to Daroff because he linked on his Twitter account to a piece attacking J Street. At some point in the exchange, Daroff, the UJC’s man in D.C., accused J Street of “standing with the Mullahs” and “to the left of Obama and everyone else.” Sieradski jumped in, accusing Daroff of “misrepresenting hard-right positions as reflective of the broader American Jewish community’s feelings” (click here to read their full Twitter exchange and Sieradski’s commentary on it).

OK, let’s try to unpack some of this.

First, Iran. Argue all you want against tougher sanctions. But it’s hard to see how anyone can convincingly make the case that Daroff is advocating a “hard-right” position — he’s in line with a coalition of Jewish organizations spanning the political and religious spectrum. As for the question of whether this wide coalition of Jewish is groups is out of step with rank-and-file American Jews, that’s hard to answer definitively.

The annual survey of U.S. Jews put out by the American Jewish Committee has an Iran question, but it deals with the question of a U.S. military strike (47%-42% opposed), not sanctions.

J Street conducted a poll in March that would — at first glance — appear to suggest that Jewish groups and American Jews are not on the same page. Four hundred of the respondents were split when asked: "The best way to deal with Iran is through direct negotiations that provide strong incentives for them to abandon the development of nuclear weapons. OR The best way to deal with Iran is through international sanctions that force Iran to choose between nuclear weapons and international isolation." The problem is that the either/or wording of this question makes it useless for our purposes — since many Jewish groups support the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts and tougher sanctions.

In fact, this is the Obama position. As a senator and a presidential candidate was quite clear and consistent: He wanted more diplomacy and tougher sanctions. Presidents cannot always be as direct about these things, but there is no significant sign that he’s backed away from this carrots-and-sticks approach.
Why does it matter where Obama stands?

I’m not sure it does. But any time Jewish organizations are perceived as staking out ground to the right of Obama, J Street backers and other liberals cry foul, noting that the president received 78% of the Jewish vote. Well, in this case, Jewish groups are sticking to the Obama policy — it is J Street, Americans Peace Now, Luria, Sieradski, et al. who are breaking with the president, opting instead for the Dennis Kucinich/Ron Paul line (how did those guys do with Jewish voters?). [UPDATE: Maybe I should have said the Richardson line.]

However, change the topic – for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and suddenly those groups favoring a settlement freeze and calling for Obama to pressure both sides might be the ones in line with the Jewish public. It all depends on the issue (and the moment).

That said, the very premise behind the argument over who speaks for the Jews is futile (not too mention tired and ridiculous). No one does. Organizations speak for their boards and/or members. Period. But there’s nothing wrong with organizations advocating what they believe to be in the best interests of the Jews (even if many Jews disagree with that position). I suspect that’s what Daroff was trying to say — that as the national arm of the federation system, UJC sees itself as working to help Jews in the United States, Israel and around the world. And, in this case, it’s teaming up with dozens of organizations that collectively boast a membership of hundreds of thousands, if not millions (Fingerhut does a good job of explaining how the process behind how these organizations ended up together is, all things considered, fairly democratic).

But now it’s Daroff’s turn for a spanking. This whole business started because he took aim at J Street — for breaking with this consensus forged by so many Jewish organizations. And he’s not alone in suggesting that dissent in this case is not acceptable. Malcom Hoenlein, the executive vice-president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, recently criticized those who are opposing the sanctions push:

Hoenlein as he moderated the panel blasted those in the Jewish community “who seek to get attention by sowing discord” on the Iran issue.

“We need to put aside our differences and stand together” against the threat of Iran, said the chief executive of the Presidents Conference — the Jewish community’s main umbrella organization on Middle East-related issues.

Hoenlein did not specify exactly to whom he was referring, and declined he to do so when asked by JTA. But he appeared to be reacting to a statement released the day before by Americans for Peace Now, a Presidents Conference member, opposing “crippling” sanctions "that target the Iranian people rather than their leaders" and backing "engagement" without "arbitrary deadlines."

The bottom line: Jewish groups are doing their jobs — lobbying for what they think is in the best interests of the Jews, Israel and the United States — when they push for sanctions, and stand well within the U.S. political mainstream. But that’s no excuse for beating up on J Street and Americans for Peace Now just because they see things differently.

Recommended from JTA