In 1967, I was a contented sophomore at Brandeis University. Then, in May of that year, I watched in horror and dismay as Arab nations massed troops on Israel’s border and the nations of the West, including the United States, responded with studied indifference.
I was absolutely certain that Israel faced imminent destruction. As Israel prepared for war, I joined with a small group of Brandeis students who volunteered to go to Israel to assist in civilian jobs. Fortunately, Israel did not end up needing my help.
The Six Day War changed everything. It changed my perception of Israel and Israel’s perception of itself. For the next 40 years, I never once believed that Israel was in danger of physical annihilation.
A nuclear Iran poses a threat as grave as that faced by Israel in the dark days of May 1967. The debates among experts about whether or not Iranian leaders should be taken seriously in their calls for Israel’s destruction have a surreal quality to them; the very fact that such debates are taking place serves as confirmation that the risk of a nuclear Iran to Israel is unacceptably high.
Even if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons and never use them, the danger to Israel would still be intolerable. Israel cannot live in the shadow of a nuclear Iran. In the minds of its own citizens and of the world community, Israel would cease to be a safe place to live. In addition, any possibility of an Arab-Israeli peace might disappear forever, as moderate Arab states drift out of America’s orbit and into Iran’s.
The time has come for the centrist and liberal elements of the American Jewish community to get serious about mobilizing support against a nuclear Iran. Their failure to do so until now is somewhat of a puzzle. It may be that they have simply not recognized the absolute urgency of the situation. It may also be that they are not championing this issue because others see it as a parochial one, and American Jews do not like to be perceived as self-serving. Yet it would be a terrible mistake to fall into this trap.
American Jews should never hesitate to promote the welfare of Israel, a democratic ally of the United States. In any case, there is another argument to be made: A nuclear Iran is a clear threat to America’s strategic interests. It would increase the risk of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists and encourage Egypt and Saudi Arabia to seek nuclear weapons of their own, leading to an arms race that would destabilize the region and the world.
The time has also come for the conservative wing of the Jewish community to get serious about Iran. Jewish conservatives have been more aware than liberals of the magnitude of the Iranian threat, but they have been acting in ways likely to make matters worse rather than better.
There is no conceivable solution to the threat of a nuclear Iran that will not require American leadership. All of the options — whether economic sanctions or military action — are impossible without American support. The Obama administration has a reasonably good record to date, and has recently adopted a tougher, more confrontational tone. Nonetheless, the major test of American intentions lies ahead. Despite the progress recently announced by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, crippling economic sanctions have not yet been approved and implemented by the U.N. Security Council, and the resolve of America’s allies remains uncertain. If sufficient support from the international community is not forthcoming, the United States must be prepared to unilaterally enact tough sanctions of its own.
American Jews, therefore, need to be doing several things: pushing their government hard to take decisive action on Iran, working equally hard to develop trust and good will with the administration, and minimizing areas of tension that are of secondary importance.
However, too many American Jews — many, but not all, in the conservative camp — have chosen to pour out contempt for the Obama administration in language that is harsher than anything I have heard in three decades of involvement in American Jewish life. I have also watched in dismay as these voices obsess over America’s position on settlement disputes, which — however sensitive and complicated — are simply not the central issue at a moment when Iran threatens Israel’s very existence.
I am not suggesting an obligation to agree with the Obama administration on everything. In fact, I am suggesting the opposite: Now is the time to pressure our government to move more emphatically to counter the Iranian threat. But the best way to achieve this goal is not to demonize the president and members of his team. The wise course is to work on cultivating the strong ties to which we have aspired in our relations with all administrations, whether Republican or Democratic.
The dangers of a nuclear Iran are real, and the time has come for American Jews to wake up. We need to act and to act now, but to do so in a way that is smart, strategic and effective.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.