Grassroots Jewish Groups Push for Tough Line on Iran, Despite Barack Obama's Thaw

Congress May Turn Blind Eye to Charm Offensive

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By Nathan Guttman

Published October 25, 2013.
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Much of the credit for this appears to be due to years of grassroots activism by local Jewish community relations councils. The JCRCs, most of which are affiliated with local Jewish philanthropic federations, are organized under a national umbrella group, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which coordinates their work. In cities and towns nationwide, these groups maintain close ties with local politicians on all levels and remind their Washington representatives of the interests of hometown Jewish constituencies.

On October 9, a week before the first round of nuclear talks in Geneva between Iran and the six countries with which it is negotiating, including the United States, the JCPA sent out a new petition to their members that local activists were urged to sign. The JCPA called on its local bodies to use the petition to push their senators to adopt a new sanctions bill that has already been adopted by the House.

“We worked hard to get support for the JCPA petition and we encouraged our colleagues to do so,” said Carol Brick-Turin, director of the Greater Miami JCRC. Her group, which was among the local agencies that initiated the national petition, also launched a Facebook page to spread the word about the need to push for further sanctions.

In New York, home to the nation’s largest Jewish community, the local JCRC also worked with an advocacy coalition, Iran180, set up in 2010 to take action against a nuclear Iran. The JCRC and other members of the coalition sent President Obama a letter on the eve of the Geneva talks, stressing the need to maintain pressure on Iran until it takes “clear, serious, and verifiable action,” to end its nuclear program.

In September, when Iranian President Hassan Rowhani came to New York to speak at the inauguration of a new session of the United Nations General Assembly, he was welcomed by a press conference organized by the Jewish community at which the city’s elected officials warned against falling for the charm offensive of the new Iranian leader. The event drew an impressive slate of congressional representatives, local legislators and mayoral candidates.

The tight relationships JCRCs enjoy with local leaders are a product not of crises but of work done year-round on a wide range of issues. This work involves local activists in regular one-on-one meetings with political leaders, annual missions to Washington in which they meet with their elected officials, and email blasts aimed at mobilizing activists to contact their representatives for certain pieces of legislation.

The JCRCs have played a leading role in initiating and advocating for legislation on the state level that has led to state pension funds divesting Iranian assets and, in some cases, barred international companies from doing business with Iran and from bidding for state contracts. But since the revival of the diplomatic track with Iran in September, JCRCs and national Jewish organizations have focused primarily on sounding alarms about Iran’s intentions and warning against concessions.

On October 17, AIPAC took aim in particular at the Iranian claim that it should be allowed to enrich uranium for civilian uses under any future agreement.

“Iran has no ‘inalienable’ right to uranium enrichment,” the influential pro-Israel lobby stated in a memo, countering Tehran’s claims that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty grants an explicit right of enrichment to governments seeking to develop nuclear energy for peaceful uses, such as generating energy.


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