At the end of my interview with President Obama the morning of Friday, August 28, after he had defended with lawyerly precision the pending multinational nuclear agreement with Iran and voiced a determined optimism that the toxic relations between his administration and Israel will be repaired, I asked him a more personal question.
He had just finished outlining what he called the “incredible support” that he has received from the Jewish community throughout his political career, from his first run for office in Chicago to his ascent to the Oval Office, in which we were now sitting.
“It’s not just that I’ve received votes from the Jewish community, it’s that I have received ideas, values, support that helped shape me into the person I am,” he said.
Then, I asked, does it hurt you personally when people say that you’re anti-Semitic?
“Oh, of course,” he answered quietly, leaning back in his chair, a cup of tea on an adjacent table still untouched. “And there’s not a smidgen of evidence for it, other than the fact that there have been times when I’ve disagreed with a particular Israeli government’s position on a particular issue.”
Only later, after I was able to digest my 45 minutes with Obama — the first one-on-one interview he granted a member of the Jewish media since becoming president in 2009 — did I realize the significance of that exchange.
It’s hard to imagine any other modern president feeling compelled to entertain such a question, especially from his own seat of authority in the White House. Recordings of Richard Nixon have, after all, revealed the anti-Semitic views he uttered repeatedly from the phone in that very Oval Office, and Nixon was never held accountable by the media at the time.
But the dynamic between the president and American Jews is different today. Obama is the first Democratic president to preside over a stubborn breakdown in trust between his administration and the government of Israel, and to be forced to deal with the anxiety that that breach has created among the American Jews who are otherwise his political allies.
And our American Jewish community is changing, too. As the moderate middle shrinks, we suffer from a disconnect between a communal leadership that hews closely to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing policies on Iran, the Palestinians, and religious questions, and a growing number of Jews, especially younger ones, disengaged from Israel or critical of the actions of its government. We are at once prosperous and powerful, and yet deeply insecure, demanding assurances of total fealty from a White House that, at least when it comes to Israel, is comfortable with disagreement.
The intense debate over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed by Iran, the United States and five other countries in July has thrown this all into sharp relief.
I’m sure that’s why my long-standing request for an interview with Obama was granted last week. While I was free to ask him anything I wanted, it was clear that he wanted to talk about Iran.
He has done that a lot lately — and, following my interview, he took questions during a live webcast sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. I focused on two specific issues that Jewish critics of the deal have raised repeatedly.
The first is rooted in the legitimate fear of what will happen if Iran complies with the first round of requirements in the JCPOA and is then allowed access to billions in assets that had been frozen by international sanctions. In his statement opposing the deal, New York Senator Chuck Schumer argued that “[r]estrictions should have been put in place limiting how Iran can use these new resources.” He and others worry about how much more mischief Iran could make in the already volatile Middle East.
So, I asked the president: What further assurances can you give Israelis and their supporters that those Iranian resources will not put them in more danger?
Obama acknowledged that even though Iran has tremendous pent-up domestic needs, some of the estimated $56 billion in available sanctions relief will undoubtedly go directly or indirectly to building up the country’s military capability — especially if, as expected, its moribund economy begins to improve.
“But as I pointed out repeatedly,” he continued, leaning forward and gesturing with his hands, “Iran’s annual defense budget is about $15 billion. The Gulf States, combined, spend about eight times that amount. Israel’s conventional military capacity far exceeds any Iranian capability, and you can’t compare the U.S. military to Iran. So the goal of this deal is to make sure that the one real game changer — nuclear weapons — is taken off the table.”
Besides, he argued, Iran’s destabilizing activities are not necessarily pricey. The Islamic Republic isn’t outspending us, it’s outsmarting us. Obama acknowledged that “we haven’t been as coordinated, had as good intelligence and been as systematic in pushing back [against Iran] as we need to be.”
In the potential deployment of newly available funds, critics seem to have identified a weakness that America and Israel need to address together. But Obama had another point to make.
Even if the Iranian economy improves modestly after sanctions are lifted, internal interagency estimates by his administration project that it will take at least another seven years, until 2022, before the economy returns to its pre-sanctions level. Iran’s economy, he said, “will continue to be in a significant hole even after sanctions relief occurs. And that’s part of the reason that we have confidence that if we work effectively with Israel and our other allies in the region, we can counteract whatever additional resources they may have militarily.”
How we project the future of Iran — will it continue to be a hostile, anti-American, anti-Semitic, human rights abusing theocracy, or will it warm to the West, become more democratic and treat its people humanely? — colors any evaluation we make of the JCPOA. Even though Obama has said repeatedly that he does not expect a regime change and does not expect Iran’s behavior at home and abroad to become more acceptable, the agreement has become a Rorschach test of sorts. If you believe that Iran may reform for the better, then forestalling nuclear development for 15 years is a reasonable bet. If you don’t, then surely the bad guys emerge stronger.
I posed that question to the president by paraphrasing a Forward reader, Sam Kermanian, a leader in the Persian Jewish community in Los Angeles who sent us his critique of the deal. If, when the terms expire, Iran gains international legitimacy, benefits from a stronger economy and has access to more conventional weapons because the arms embargoes will be lifted, won’t the Islamic Republic be an even more formidable foe? If military action is necessary to curb its development of a nuclear bomb, won’t it be harder to inflict damage then than it would be today, when Iran is weakened and isolated?
Under the terms of the agreement, Obama said, Iran “will still be prohibited from having a nuclear weapon, so they would be violating international law if they dash for a bomb 15 years from now.… And they would still be a military power that is far weaker than the United States — and for that matter, will be weaker than Israel.
“And so, in 15 years’ time, whoever is occupying my chair here in the White House will have more information about their nuclear program, will have greater international legitimacy in the event that the president needs to initiate a strike against Iran’s nuclear program, will have the justification of them explicitly having violated international agreements that they entered into.
“And so the notion that somehow we’re better off confronting that problem right now, rather than having 15 full years in which to monitor, learn about their program and be assured that they don’t have a nuclear weapon, doesn’t make much sense.”
It occurred to me that whether these answers are convincing also depends on the context with which we view Iran. Thanks to the rhetoric of those opposed to this deal — and, in many instances, to any deal — Iran has ironically grown in stature in our minds, as a nation with the singular ability to threaten our way of life and Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state. And those who don’t see it as the embodiment of evil are ridiculed as naive or ignorant.
But some perspective is in order here. I’m reminded of an interview my colleague Larry Cohler-Esses conducted on his groundbreaking trip to Iran last month. A member of the Revolutionary Guards Corps was baffled when Cohler-Esses told him that Americans feared the Guards’ fierce military reputation.
“America is a rich country with advanced technology, a huge army, enormous size and a large population,” the guard said. “Iran is a small country with a small army, much less developed technology and much poorer. Why would Americans be afraid?”
Well, there’s plenty of reason for Americans to fear a nuclearized Iran. Still more reasons for American Jews to be afraid of an Iran ruled by a supreme leader who continues to spew hateful words and threatens to annihilate Israel. But Cohler-Esses found a much more complicated set of attitudes about Israel among ordinary Iranians and even some top clerics, and that finding, as well as the skepticism of his own generals, ought to make us reconsider Netanyahu’s claim that the deal portends another Holocaust.
The relationship between Obama and Netanyahu had already been contentious before debate over the Iran deal reached a crescendo this year. I asked the president what his administration could do to address this rupture. What should the Israeli leadership do? And what can American Jews do?
He declined to be prescriptive, repeating his contention that America and Israel have a sturdy relationship built on unprecedented military, security, commercial and cultural cooperation that will survive this debate. He pushed for the Israeli government to discuss how the two nations will further cooperate after the Iran deal is signed — something Netanyahu has resisted doing, at least publicly, for fear that he will signal defeat in his campaign to reject the agreement.
For his part, Obama persisted in characterizing this as a family fight:
“[S]ometimes fights within families and among friends can be more heated than fights with people that you don’t care about — it’s been true in my family, anyway. And so even over the next several weeks, as we get to the conclusion of the congressional debate, I think it is important for everybody to just take a breath for a moment and recognize that people on both sides of the debate love the United States and also love Israel.
“I do get disturbed sometimes when I hear folks suggesting that those who oppose the deal are pro-Israel. We’re all pro-Israel. The issue is, how do we solve this very particular problem of making sure Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon.… I think we have to steer away from incendiary language that suggests that either those who are in favor of the deal are appeasing Iran or, conversely, that those who are opposed to the deal are not thinking about America’s interest.”
Then I told him that even some of his supporters say that he has contributed to the incendiary language by implying that opponents of the deal are “warmongers.” He rejected that outright. It was the only time during our interview that I saw him bristle and his back stiffen.
“What I said,” he explained, “is that if we reject the deal, the logical conclusion is that if we want to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, military strikes will be the last option remaining at some point. It may not be under my administration; it might be under the next one. And that is something that has to be taken into account.”
This is not a man who backs down — that much is obvious. He also is, outwardly at least, confident that the tensions between the United States and Israel, and among American Jews, will dissipate once progress is on display.
He continued: “And if, when the cameras are watching centrifuges being pulled out, and stockpiles of enriched uranium being destroyed or shipped out of Iran, and facilities that are of most concern being shut down, and inspectors operating effectively — then I think people will have a different assessment of this deal.”
The historic attachment that American Jews have to the Democratic Party will not weaken because of this debate, he insisted.
“American Jews, like African-Americans or any other cohort of Americans, have a wide range of concerns,” he said. “They care about student loans; they care about housing; they care about poverty; they care about women’s health issues. And so it’s not as if the American Jewish community makes decisions solely on the basis of a single issue.”
But some in that community do. I don’t remember a time when a foreign policy issue related to but not directly about Israel has caused such friction among American Jews. It has been exacerbated by congressional partisanship, made worse by Netanyahu’s transparent alignment with the Republican Party when he addressed Congress earlier this year. (“If I had gone to the Knesset and actively lobbied members on a position that was contrary to the prime minister’s position, I suspect that some eyebrows would have been raised inside of Israel,” Obama said dryly.)
That, though, is not the full explanation. It is a partisan issue — as he rightfully notes, most Republicans signaled their opposition before they even read the agreement — but it goes beyond partisanship. Democrats and Obama supporters are among those who reject this deal. In Israel, politicians across the spectrum have voiced opposition.
As we spoke that Friday, some news reports were already speculating that opponents of the deal would not succeed in overriding a promised presidential veto. That didn’t seem to temper Obama’s intense advocacy, especially to engage and convince a divided Jewish community.
“I think that one of the wonderful things about the Jewish community in America is that it is a community that is intellectually vigorous and morally grounded,” he said. “And after the smoke clears in the debate, I think people ultimately [will] make honest assessments and judgments about what’s been true, and I think they will find that this deal is exactly as I presented it… people will look back and say as long as we implemented it with care and precision it was the right thing to do.”
Contact Jane Eisner at Eisner@forward.com Follow her on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner
This story "President Barack Obama Speaks to Jews in Historic Interview With the Forward" was written by Jane Eisner.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.