The nuclear deal with Iran has already put Jewish politicians in the hot seat. Now, Jewish federations from coast to coast are debating whether to take a stand on the controversial agreement.
So far, eight of the larger American federations have issued statements denouncing the deal, which opponents claim poses a danger to Israel, and urging members to push Congress to block it.
“We felt that at this moment our voice needs to be heard,” said Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
But most federations, along with the Jewish Federations of North America umbrella group, have pointedly avoiding taking a stand on the issue, apparently mindful of the fact that Jewish voters are deeply split on it.
“There is a plethora of diverse opinions,” Gregg Roman, community relations council director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told JTA. “For our federation to come out with a position would be irresponsible. We’re not going to pretend we’re nuclear experts.”
The dilemma has played out in federation board meetings across the country in recent weeks. It exposes competing fault lines within the Jewish community and bares the increasingly powerful influence that pro-Israel donors have on communal groups, even those like federations that claim to be purely philanthropic organizations.
Federations have traditionally avoided entering controversial partisan debates, mostly for fear of alienating donors who hold diverse political beliefs.
But the Iran deal, several communal activists said, has created an advocacy storm in the pro-Israel world that makes it much harder for federations to remain on the fence. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is making a major lobbying push to defeat the deal and has enlisted the support of pro-Israel donors in the communal world to get its way.
“You cannot exaggerate the hand of AIPAC,” one activist involved in federation work said when describing the massive mobilization. “This is a hot topic now, and federations just can’t ignore it.”
The nuclear deal is an especially dicey issue because it is a signature foreign policy achievement for President Obama, who enjoys the support of a large majority of Jewish voters. It has also become a rallying cry for Republican presidential candidates, a chorus that gives the debate the tinge of a partisan political campaign that many communal groups seek to avoid at all costs.
The tension the Iran deal brought to the already fraught relations between Jerusalem and Washington was on the minds of all American federations. Most put out statements that tried to avoid the political pitfall of taking a stand on the vote on the agreement expected in Congress in September. Obama has vowed to veto a bill to block the agreement, meaning two-thirds votes in both the House of Representatives and the Senate would be needed to scuttle the deal effectively.
The Jewish Federations of North America set the tone in a statement expressing concern over the specifics of the deal but leaving it up to Congress to “give this accord its utmost scrutiny” without stating how the organization would like to see Congress vote.
But for some of the leading federations, this language was not sufficient.
Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Boston’s Jewish federation, said his group’s board unanimously decided to urge action to block the deal.
“Many federations gave a list of what’s wrong with the deal, but they didn’t take the next step of saying what needs to be done,” Shrage said.
Boston is among the largest federations and the community it represents is largely considered to be moderate in its views on Israel and on domestic policy.
Even though the board was unanimous in support of rejecting the deal, Shrage acknowledges that this position has not gone across well with some members of the community. He said the fact that Israel’s leading opposition party, the Zionist Union, came out against the deal helped Boston’s federation decide to wade into such a thorny issue.
“When it comes to life-and-death issues for Israel, the federation always takes the lead,” Shrage said.
Alongside Boston, several other large federations took a stance opposing the deal, including those of Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas and Phoenix. Although Sanderson conceded that the L.A. federation seeks to avoid politics, he claimed it had no choice but to speak out on the nuclear deal.
“This is an unusual moment, and I hope we will never face such a moment again,” Sanderson said. [His community in Los Angeles is as diverse as Jewish communities get, with America’s largest Iranian and Israeli expatriate groups both considered to be more hawkish on the Iranian deal, but also with a strong contingency of liberals and unaffiliated Jews who are more likely to support the agreement.
Writing in Los Angeles’s Jewish Journal, editor Rob Eshman argued](http://www.jewishjournal.com/rob_eshman/article/federation_take_it_back) that in adopting an anti-deal policy, the Los Angeles federation fell victim to groupthink. “In doing so,” he wrote, “it misrepresented the people it purports to represent, alienated a good chunk of them, and clouded, rather than clarified, the Iran deal debate.”
This type of communal infighting has led most federations to avoid taking a stance on the Iran deal.
UJA-Federation of New York, America’s largest Jewish federation, has yet to make its voice heard on the deal. Its leader, Eric Goldstein, declined requests for comment on the issue.
Metropolitan Chicago’s JUF/Federation, another leading federation, has also avoided taking a stance for or against the deal. Aaron Cohen, the federation’s vice president of communications, said the organization is “still processing both the terms of the agreement and what response might be forthcoming from us.” The Jewish Community Relations Council in Chicago, which cooperates with the federation on policy issues, will meet on August 6 to “consider a community consensus position at that point, should a consensus indeed emerge.”
The debate has certainly put federation leaders in a precarious situation.
Choosing not to object to the Iran deal at a time of major communal mobilization could put federations, their leaders and key donors in conflict with the broader pro-Israel community. It could also lead some donors to rethink their support for the federation.
One major federation official, who asked not to be named, described a frenzy of phone calls and consultations from donors demanding the federation adopt a clear policy against the deal.
“If they reach a critical mass, the federation will have to reconsider its position,” the official candidly admitted.
Speaking out against the deal could also come with a price for federations. Taking a stand on an issue that has become partisan and politicized could alienate liberals, including supporters of J Street, the dovish group that is mobilizing support for the agreement. Taking action against the deal could also put federations on a collision course with many Democratic lawmakers who are committed to backing it.
Beyond short-term politics, federations that take a stand on such a contentious issue could see their image as philanthropic umbrellas that cater to all sectors of the community tarnished.
Even Sanderson conceded that there might be a price to pay.
“I’m hopeful that in the coming months there will not be a significant loss of donations,” said Sanderson, who added: “Everything we do, there will always be opposition.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman