Why the American Jewish community is divided over the Iran deal

Among the American Jewish community, the Iran nuclear deal has triggered vigorous debate. While advocacy groups and politicians campaign for both sides of the issue, members of the Jewish community grapple with what’s best for Israel and for America. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner looks at why the deal has become such a contentious issue.

Read the Full Transcript

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    President Obama got three more senators to back the Iran nuclear deal today, Democrats Cory Booker, Mark Warner and Heidi Heitkamp, bringing the total number now to 37.

    Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden was at a Jewish community center in Florida this morning to press what has been a high-stakes lobbying campaign for the support of American Jews.

    Tonight, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner takes a closer look tonight at that community and how the Iran issue is triggering a rigorous debate.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The campaign within the Jewish community over the Iran deal has been intense and bruising, with ads over the airwaves and Internet from the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, and its affiliated groups.

  • NARRATOR:

    Iran could build a nuclear weapon in two months. Congress should reject a bad deal. We need a better deal.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And from advocacy groups like J Street favoring it.

  • NARRATOR:

    This deal prevents Iran from producing a nuclear weapon. It is good for America, good for Israel, and makes both countries safer and more secure.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And in direct appeals from the two countries' leaders in competing Webcasts sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America.

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warning of the dangers.

  • BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israeli Prime Minister:

    This is a time to stand up and be counted. Oppose this dangerous deal.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And President Obama asserting the special bond the U.S. feels with Israel.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    Like all families, sometimes, there are going to be disagreements. And sometimes people get angrier about disagreements in families than they do with the folks who aren't family.

    AARON DAVID MILLER, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: This is, in fact, perceived to be a core strategic existential issue.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, is a veteran Middle East peace negotiator under several presidents.

  • AARON DAVID MILLER:

    American Jews worry for a living. And the reality is that never in my 40-some years have I seen a community more energized, more conflicted and at times more reluctant to engage in what one Jewish leader described as fratricide.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    How difficult a decision is this for members of the American Jewish community?

  • TAMARA WITTES, Brookings Institution:

    It's a very stark choice. Either you support this deal or you oppose it.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Former Obama State Department official Tamara Wittes runs the Middle East Policy Center at the Brookings Institution.

  • TAMARA WITTES:

    It is not easy to say that there is some third path, some compromise available to knit together opposing sides. The situation of the Middle East is more tense and complicated and scary in many ways than it has been in a long time. And American Jews feel that too. Their concerns about Israel are as sharp as ever.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    That sharpness is felt here, far from the tense and scary Middle East, at the Kol Shalom conservative synagogue in Rockville, Maryland, outside Washington.

    The debate within this congregation has focused on whether the Iran deal is good for America, good for Israel and how to weigh the two. Last Friday evening, just before the Sabbath began, we came to Kol Shalom to sample opinion. And we found, amidst the polls of certainty for and against, doubt and dismay.

    College student Mark Reichel has yet to make up his mind.

  • MARK REICHEL, Student:

    Certainly, in my family, there has been a lot of arguing just over dinner and stuff, yes, it's been quite intense debate.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Digital strategy company president Jeffrey Rum is undecided too, but bemoans the tone of the debate.

  • JEFFREY RUM, Digital Strategist:

    It is sad to see that the Jewish community has become so divisive over the Iran deal. I think that, at a time when we need to be coming together, we're being taken apart.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    With a bird's-eye view of the debate within Kol Shalom, Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman.

    It's a politically aware congregation, with vocal opponents and supporter of the deal. And in e-mails and personal entreaties, both sides have pressed him hard to announce a position.

    Now, you have not taken a public stand. Why not?

  • RABBI JONATHAN MALTZMAN, Kol Shalom:

    I don't think this is a moral or an ethical issue that I have a right to take a stand on. This is a political question. And I believe that both sides, underlying both sides there is a feeling that we love Israel and we just want the best for Israel. But there are different ways of looking at it.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    We met two members firmly on opposite sides. Biotech executive Lewis Schrager is an amateur photographer and playwright.

    DR. LEWIS SCHRAGER, Vice President of Scientific Affairs, Aeras: After a lot of thinking about this, careful thinking about it, after reading the agreement, talking to people I know, both here and in Israel, and reading everything I can, I have come down on — with a position that this should be supported.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Talk a little bit more about why it's difficult.

  • DR. LEWIS SCHRAGER:

    Well, because there's a lot at stake.

    You know, every one agrees that a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat to Israel. It simply is. It's a small country. And it is surrounded by states that don't have its best interests in mind. There is always a sense of vulnerability. We have to take that very seriously.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    What is your view of it?

  • AL HELLMAN, Former Science Director, National Cancer Institute:

    I find it — it's just a piece of paper, because if they have — we have had 30 years through which the Iranians have been cheating.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Holocaust survivor Al Hellman, a former science director at the National Cancer Institute, hears the echoes of history. He is certain the deal will endanger Israel and the United States in the long run.

    So what is the alternative, given where we are now?

  • AL HELLMAN:

    The alternative, first of all, is to basically set a red line that, in the event that they do not conform within the next six months, that we are going to destroy their nuclear facilities.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The solution is military?

  • AL HELLMAN:

    The solution is military. I know what happened during the — prior to the Second World War. I look at this deal, and from the very beginning, the same way I think I looked at it when Chamberlain came back with peace in our time.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So when you bring up the Chamberlain example, are you essentially saying that, wittingly or unwittingly, those who support this deal are engaging in appeasement?

  • AL HELLMAN:

    I think so, absolutely.

  • LEWIS SCHRAGER:

    One of the big concerns for me as I reached my conclusion about this is a concern about what I call the A-word in the American Jewish community, which is appeasement. If I honestly thought this was appeasement, I wouldn't go anywhere close to it.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Also playing a role in this debate are mixed feelings about both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama. A majority of Jews are Democrats, and some have been offended by Netanyahu inserting himself so vociferously into a U.S. domestic debate.

  • LEWIS SCHRAGER:

    He's the prime minister of a sovereign country about which I care deeply. But the way he is intervening politically, I find deeply troubling.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Yet Schrager also harbors doubts about President Obama's resolve to enforce the deal.

  • LEWIS SCHRAGER:

    I have been troubled by Obama's, I don't want to call it fickleness or lack of commitment, in my view, particularly in dealing with, say, the Syrian mess. That doesn't show strength.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All this has left American Jews in a bind, said Tamara Wittes.

  • TAMARA WITTES:

    A deal like this involves uncertainty. It involves risk. And, most of all, it involves uncertainty about the intent of the guys on the other side of the table, of the Iranian regime.

    And so at the end of the day, people have to make a make a judgment call, and that's very hard.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Even as the White House nails down the congressional votes it needs, for American Jews, assessing what this deal will mean remains very hard indeed.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Margaret Warner in Washington.

Listen to this Segment