Sanctions bill sponsor Sen. Robert Menendez addresses AIPAC annual policy conference, Washington Convention Center, March 5, 2013 / Getty Images
The debate over the Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions bill in the Senate just keeps getting uglier. And now the nastiness is seeping – make that pouring – right into the heart of the Jewish community, as liberals and conservatives trade accusations of bullying, maligning, smearing and even “destroying” opponents.
On January 9, the newly appointed executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Rabbi Jack Moline, accused two of the most influential national Jewish organizations, AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee, of pressuring senators to support the bill despite the strong objections of President Obama. Moline told JTA that the two agencies were using “strong-arm tactics, essentially threatening people that if they don’t vote a particular way, that somehow that makes them anti-Israel or means the abandonment of the Jewish community.”
On Tuesday Moline dialed the accusation back a step or two. He told me he’d subsequently had a conversation with David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who assured him that AJC wasn’t applying the sort of pressure he described. Moline said he hadn’t heard directly from AIPAC, but he’s taking Harris’s denial as applying to both agencies, “and I take them at their word.”
“The situation seems to be that citizen-advocates are using the organizations’ names and initials without the encouragement of those organizations,” Moline said. Unfortunately, the calls and emails from rank and file pro-Israel activists speaking in the name of the two organizations appear to have created an impression on Capitol Hill that these “strong-arm tactics” are at the behest of the agencies themselves.
Moline may be a tad too generous here. AIPAC, AJC and other Jewish organizations have a long tradition of lobbying Congress by urging their members and followers to pick up the phone. They can generate thousands of phone calls from Jews in the hinterlands who are deeply concerned for Israel’s safety and aren’t shy about saying so. They don’t tell their members to be rude and bullying when they call. They don’t have to. They’ve been doing this long enough that they know exactly what’s going to happen.
AIPAC’s legislative agenda page on the Iran sanctions bill is even more direct. It offers three “Key Points” for activists to raise in advocacy: America Must Prevent an Iranian Nuclear Weapon Capability; Diplomacy Must Be Backed By the Threat of New Sanctions; and America Must Stand with Israel. It doesn’t come out and tell members to say that if you don’t support the bill you’re not standing with Israel, but that’s easy enough to infer. That’s how the game is played.
In the meanwhile, though, Moline has come under sharp attack on the website of the conservative magazine Commentary. First came Commentary’s senior online editor, the brilliant and passionately partisan Jonathan Tobin. On January 10 he blogged that Moline’s comments were part of a Democratic campaign to stop efforts to slow “the administration’s headlong rush to embrace Iran.” Specifically, Tobin wrote, the president had “assigned his Jewish surrogates the job of smearing mainstream Jewish groups that have been lobbying for the bill.”
Then, on January 13, Commentary’s assistant editor Seth Mandel essentially repeated Tobin’s post, claiming that the Democrats “sent out liberal Jewish groups to smear other American Jewish groups for partisan political gain.” Those liberal Jewish groups—Moline apparently now comprises several groups—
are acting in service to President Obama, and so must treat their fellow Jewish groups as enemies to be destroyed so the president can shield the Iranian government from them.
Where’s the smear here? Tobin says Harris, before speaking to Moline, was wondering “what exactly Moline was up to by engaging in that kind of invective on the issue.” Note that Moline’s “invective” consists of repeating complaints he’d heard, presumably from Capitol Hill or sources close to it, describing bullying phone calls from callers identifying themselves as representatives of AJC and AIPAC. There’s no reason to think he made it up. But Harris and Tobin are stumped; they can’t figure out what might make someone level such a charge. Here’s Harris, as quoted by Tobin:
“Can a group differ with him [meaning Moline] on a critically important issue like Iran, where potentially existential issues are at stake, without being maligned or misrepresented, or is that the price we’re supposed to pay for honest disagreement?”
Well, yes, says Tobin, “that is exactly the price. Especially when the stakes involve anything that would potentially upset the administration’s effort to create a new détente with Iran.” Even though the bill probably couldn’t override a presidential veto, he writes,
the administration is not only doing its utmost to spike the effort, it is calling out the dogs in yet another attempt to intimidate those determined to speak out in favor of stricter sanctions.
No maligning or misrepresentation there. Let’s see: Moline hears from sources he considers reliable that senators are receiving angry, threatening phone calls in the name of AIPAC and AJC, and he says so. This, in the eyes of Commentary’s blogger-editors, amounts to an effort to “smear” and even “destroy” (!) the larger Jewish organizations. That’s right: A sharp word to JTA from Rabbi Jack Moline has the power to destroy AIPAC and AJC. Wipe them off the map. And why would he do this? Because Jewish liberals have been assigned by Obama to protect Obama’s effort to cozy up to Iran.
And here I thought Obama had orchestrated unprecedented international sanctions and gotten Iran to agree for the first time to freeze enrichment while the sides attempt to negotiate a full nuclear disarmament, with the threat of a U.S. military strike looming if the negotiations don’t succeed. Silly me.
Now, I know there are those who honestly believe that Obama simply wants to cozy up to Iran. Evidently, Rabbi Moline doesn’t agree with them. So this makes him Obama’s running dog? Gee—can someone differ with the hawks on a critically important issue like Iran, where potentially existential issues are at stake, without being maligned or misrepresented, or is that the price we’re supposed to pay for honest disagreement?
Well, Tobin explains, the stakes are high here. The “context of this dispute isn’t merely a spat among Jewish groups.”
The administration’s position on Iran has fundamentally shifted in the last several months during which secret talks with representatives of the ayatollahs were conducted. As articles in publications like the New York Times have made clear, Washington now regards Iran as a useful partner in Syria (where Tehran has ensured the survival of its ally Bashar Assad) and in Iraq. The move to step back from confrontation with Iran over its nuclear quest predated the election of faux moderate Hassan Rouhani last summer, but it has now reached the point where the White House considers any move to put more pressure on the regime as a threat to the hopes for better relations with the ayatollahs.
In this context, AIPAC and AJC aren’t misbehaving. Au contraire, they
are reminding members of Congress that they can’t have it both ways. If they are sincere about their campaign pledges to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons they can’t also refuse to back more sanctions.
Which is more or less what Moline said they were doing.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).