Let’s Keep the Iran Debate Civil


The debate in the United States over the Iran nuclear agreement has taken an ugly turn in recent days, with charges of anti-Semitism, treason and Munich-like appeasement being thrown around.

As someone who passionately believes that this agreement is a vital U.S. interest that will also make Israel safer, I would hope that those on all sides of the argument could agree that there’s no room for such attacks – from either side. We should be debating this agreement on its merits.

That’s why my organization, J Street, unreservedly rejects the disgusting smears that have been hurled at Senator Chuck Schumer, insinuating that his opposition to the Iran agreement somehow makes him a traitor or calls his loyalty to the United States into question.

We don’t agree with Senator Schumer’s opposition to the agreement; we think his arguments are flawed. But there should be no room in this debate for questioning his patriotism and devotion to both the United States and its special relationship with Israel.

At the same time, there should also be no tolerance for opponents of the deal to accuse President Obama of selling out the United States or preparing the way for a second Holocaust – as Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has done.

When former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams wrote that in making his case for the nuclear agreement with Iran, the President is “feeding a deep line of anti-Semitism,” he was both devaluing the term and continuing an unyielding pattern of rightwing demonization of the President.

When editors at Tablet magazine accused the President of employing “dark, nasty stuff we might expect to hear at a white power rally,” they were engaged in hyperbolic rhetoric that ends up silencing, not civilizing, honest debate.

Anti-Semitism remains an ugly and pervasive threat around the world. We need to remain united and vigilant to combat it. We must also speak out when the accusation of anti-Semitism is thrown so loosely, because it both devalues the term while driving a wedge through the center of our community.

Yet that is exactly what some opponents of the Iran nuclear agreement have done with their attacks on President Obama. It is simply a logical argument that rejecting this agreement will make military engagement with Iran more likely. To accuse those making that point of anti-Semitism is both absurd and disrespectful to the victims of actual anti-Semitism.

Are Jewish Americans—including Jewish lawmakers—who note this fact also guilty of anti-Semitism? What about former Israeli security officials, such as former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon and former Mossad director Efraim Halevy who also make this critical point?

Certainly not. Instead, leveling the charge of anti-Semitism simply becomes another means for those on the right to stifle legitimate debate over US policy in the Middle East.

It is especially outrageous to hurl such false charges  at President Obama, who has enhanced Israel’s security even more than his predecessors.

In his passionate defense of his signature foreign policy achievement, the President has stuck to the facts. He has laid out meticulously the benefits for the US, Israel and the world, if the deal is implemented, and he has echoed arguments from American and Israeli security experts, explaining specifically how rejecting the deal could ultimately pave a path to war.

While he has noted that the traditional pro-Israel establishment in this country is leading a multi-million dollar campaign against the agreement, they of course have every right to do so, and the President did not imply that they do not. His point was simply that if groups are going to spend tens of millions to sink the deal, then the majority of Americans and American Jews who support the deal had better speak out too.

Let’s debate this agreement. Let’s analyze its provisions and listen to the experts.

But let’s not allow the very serious threat of anti-Semitism to be cheapened by ignoring its unwelcome presence in some of the vitriol directed at Senator Schumer, or by its cynical misuse in false accusations against the President.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the founder and president of J Street, the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.