How We Talk About the Iran Nuclear Deal, Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5776

on Friday, 25 September 2015. Posted in Rabbi

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5776

On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 66 American hostages. The immediate cause was President Carter’s decision to allow Iran’s deposed Shah to come to the U.S. for cancer treatment. In truth, the hostage-taking was about more than the Shah’s medical care; it was a dramatic way for the student revolutionaries to declare a break with Iran’s past and to put an end to American interference in its affairs. It was also a way to raise the international profile of the revolution’s leader, the anti-American cleric Ayatollah Khomeini.

Of the 66 original captives, 13 were released after two weeks, and one was let go after eight months. The 52 remaining hostages endured 444 days of captivity until their release on January 20, 1981, just after President Reagan delivered his inaugural address.

The Iran hostage crisis had its origins nearly a half-century before, stemming from an increasingly intense conflict over oil. British and American corporations had controlled the bulk of Iran’s petroleum reserves almost since their discovery – a profitable arrangement that they had no desire to change. In 1951, however, Iran’s newly elected prime minister, nationalist Muhammad Mossadeq, announced a plan to nationalize the oil industry.

In response, the CIA and the British intelligence service devised a secret plan to overthrow Mossadeq and replace him with a leader who would be more receptive to Western interests. In August of 1953, Mossadeq was deposed and a new government was installed. The new leader, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, was a member of Iran’s royal family. The Shah’s government was secular, anti-communist, and pro-Western. In exchange for tens of millions of dollars in foreign aid, he returned 80% of Iran’s oil reserves to the Americans and the British.

For the CIA, the 1953 coup was a success. Many Iranians, on the other hand, bitterly resented American interference in their affairs. The Shah turned out to be a brutal, arbitrary dictator whose secret police tortured and murdered thousands of people. Furthermore, the Iranian government spent billions of dollars on American-made weapons while the Iranian economy suffered.

By the 1970s, many Iranians were fed up with the Shah’s govern-ment. They turned to the Ayatollah, who promised a break from the past and greater autonomy for the Iranian people. In July of 1979, the revolutionaries forced the Shah to disband his regime and flee to Egypt. The Ayatollah installed a militant Islamist government in its place.

I remember the crisis well. 1980 was the first presidential election in which I was eligible to vote. The Iranian hostage crisis was in the news constantly. My mother was glued to the TV, hoping and praying for the release of the 52 captives. Many people feel that President Carter’s handling – or mishandling – of the crisis was a significant reason why he lost his re-election to Ronald Reagan.

I recount the Iranian hostage crisis because the relationship be¬tween the U.S. and Iran is again in the news. To those of you who came of age in 1980 or later, you may not be aware of this history. It includes not only the hostage crisis, but also the Iran-Contra Affair. There, President Reagan made a secret deal to provide funds to Nicaraguan rebels seeking to over¬throw their government from profits gained by selling arms to Iran. Why would the president sell arms to Iran, just a few years after the hostage crisis? He sought to placate moderates within the Iranian government in order to secure the release of American hostages held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon. Ironically, Israel carried out the deal with Iran for the U.S.

At other times, we have intervened in the Iran’s wars, mistakenly shot down an Iranian airplane, and muscled our way into the affairs of the country. In other words, the United States and Iran have had a long, convoluted, and unhealthy relationship.

Since the start of the 21st century, most of our difficulties with Iran have had to do with Iran’s nuclear intentions, resulting in the latest chapter – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the Iran nuclear deal. Many people have offered their opinion on it. I’m not a nuclear scientist. And I’m not a politician. I’m a rabbi. What would a rabbi have to say about the deal? A lot, it seems. More than 300 have signed a statement in favor of the nuclear deal. They write, “As rabbis, we support the agreement between the U.S, [Britain], France, Germany, China, Russia and Iran. … We encourage the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives to endorse this agreement.

They continue, “The Obama administration has successfully brought together the major international powers to confront Iran over its nuclear ambitions. The broad international sanctions moved Iran to enter this historic agreement. Should this agreement be rejected by the U.S. congress, those sanctions will end. There will be no new negotiations, as the other member countries are fully in favor of this agreement and have no desire to re-negotiate.

“Most especially, we are deeply concerned with the impression that the leadership of the American Jewish community is united in opposition to the agreement. We, along with many other Jewish leaders, fully support this historic nuclear accord.”

Many others have written about their opposition to the deal. More than 1,000 rabbis have signed such a statement. Rabbi Richard Block, a past president of the Reform Rabbis group, says this:

“Under prior legislation, most sanctions on Iran were to sunset only when the president certified to Congress that Iran no longer provides support for acts of international terrorism and has ‘ceased the pursuit, acquisition, and development of, and verifiably dismantled, its nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and ballistic missiles and ballistic missile launch technology.’

“The deal accomplishes none of these goals. Rather, Iran receives as much as $150 billion in frozen assets, will reap immense profits from post-sanctions commerce, and can spend as much as it will to promote terrorism. Much of its nuclear infrastructure remains intact and it can continue R&D in weaponization. …
“Administration officials initially promised a deal would include ‘anytime, anywhere’ inspections. This one does no such thing. Instead, a cumbersome, convoluted process to address Iranian violations provides ample time to conceal most kinds of evidence. Iran’s leaders have declared repeatedly that inspection of military facilities will not be allowed, and secret side deals between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency may compound the inspection plan’s flaws.”

I am impressed that my colleagues feel they can speak on the substance of the deal. I know that I cannot. But that doesn’t mean that I will remain silent. Because I believe that the way people are talking about the Iran nuclear deal has become incredibly ugly. And about that, I have a lot to say.

Too many people who are speaking about the Iran nuclear deal are ignoring the merits of the debate and instead are engaged in name-calling and fear-mongering. Let’s begin with those who oppose the deal. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has accused President Obama of leading Israel “to the door of the ovens,” alluding to the Holocaust. Some people have suggested that Secretary of State John Kerry is an agent of the Iranian government. Others say that President Obama has effectively declared war on Israel. Several colleagues have been called traitors, Israel-haters, Arab-lovers, and Nazi Fascist Pigs.

The rhetoric coming from those who support the deal is even more troubling. Many accuse Jews who oppose the deal of being more loyal to Israel than to the U.S., even if their opposition isn’t only, primarily, or at all out of concern for Israel. New York Senator Charles Schumer has been called a warmonger, a puppet of the Israeli prime minister, and a traitor. There’s a cartoon in which an imaginary television host called a woodchuck version of Schumer a “traitor” and switched the American flag at Schumer’s side to an Israeli flag.
Also, opponents of the proposed agreement are accused of being “the same folks who brought us the war in Iraq” – a subtle dig at what is often called the “Jewish lobby.” Some have been called sellouts, while others are deemed “Netanyahu’s marionettes.” Sadly, we are hearing ancient accusations of Jews of acting as a “nation within a nation” and possessing dual and conflicting loyalties.

Even the White House has entered the fray of using questionable language. The president has voiced his frustration with the opposi-tion, particular from liberal Jews, with references to shadowy moneyed lobbyists and foreign interests.

And within the Jewish community, we are not talking very nicely to each other. Susan Turnbull, chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, was at a meeting where someone told her that her organization’s position on the deal was immoral. Her organization has chosen to remain neutral.

Our tradition contains much wisdom to guide how we talk about the Iran nuclear deal. First and foremost, let’s acknowledge that this is a highly complicated deal, negotiated by several countries that have conflicting interests. It is possible, just possible, that there is truth contained in all of the differing positions regarding the deal. I pray that we can heed these words from the Talmud:

Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years the students of Beit Shammai and the students of Beit Hillel argued. One said, “The halachah – Jewish law – is according to us” and the other said “The halachah is according to us.” A divine voice came forth and said: “These and these are the words of the living God.” In other words, they were both right. The Talmud always records all perspectives in a debate. No voice is ignored. We may be able to lessen the vitriol by recognizing there is merit in the substance of the arguments of those who support the deal and there is merit in the substance of the arguments of those who oppose the deal.

And along these lines, let’s remember that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are leaders of nations whose interests are not always aligned. Their responsibilities are to act in ways that they deem to be in the best interests of the inhabitants of their nations. There will be differences and that is okay. Neither leader – nor supporters – should be demonized for their position.

Second, let’s practice some humility. Are you an expert on Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s nuclear intentions, the workings of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the motivations of the involved nations, national and international security, and any number of other elements that went into making this deal? I know that I’m not.
Judaism teaches that humility is one of the qualities for which we should regularly strive. We read in the Talmud: Rabbi Yochanan says: Wherever one finds the might of the Holy One, one also finds God’s humility.
Isaac Aboab, a 14th century Talmudic commentator suggests what this passage means for us: We must imitate the qualities of God in order to ascend to greatness and to cling to humility. We will then earn the love of God – and other people. When we grasp on to the quality of humility, we will distance ourselves from much of the ugliness found in humanity, and we will hasten to the quality of holiness.

I would add this: In hastening to the quality of holiness, we are able to see the holiness in each other. Chapter 19 of Leviticus is sometimes referred to as the Holiness Code because it contains a long list of commandments coming after the words k’doshim t’hiyu ki kadosh ani adonai eloheichem, “you shall be holy for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.”

So what make us holy according to the Holiness Code? Honoring one’s parents; leaving the gleanings of one’s field for the poor and the stranger; not stealing; not lying; not defrauding; paying the wages of a laborer before the day’s end;not insulting the deaf nor placing a stumbling block before the blind; judging fairly; not hating another. The author Ellen Davis sums it up as this: As we “practice holiness in life, we imitate God’s enabling and sustaining care for the world.” And the Calivinist Andrew Bonar said, “If we are growing holier, we are growing kinder.”

Caring for the world, growing kinder – through our practice of humility and recognizing that we don’t have all the answers, I believe that we necessarily seek out community. We look for our place in it. We keep our perspective on what we contribute to the conversation and what others offer. We look to others to help us sort out what we do not understand and cannot comprehend.

Third, let’s bring down the volume of the debate and we choose our words more carefully. Let’s stop accusing each other and instead listen to one another. Once again, the Talmud can be our teacher. We read, “The wrong you do by means of words is worse than monetary wrongs. … Monetary wrongs are subject to restitution, verbal wrongs cannot be returned.” There is a phrase in Hebrew, sinat chinam, which means baseless hatred. The ancient rabbis suggested that internal sinat chinam was the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple. The way some Jews have talked to each other on the Iran deal is reminiscent.
Fourth, let’s stop predicting the future. Rob Eshman, publisher of the LA Jewish Journal, played out the various scenarios that could follow Congress’ vote later this month. His final comment was the most compelling. He said, “Frankly, I don’t know what all this means for the future of American Jewry and U.S.-Israel relations, and I doubt anyone else does either.”

In Torah, divination – predicting the future – is included among the abominations of the nations that the Israelites were forbidden to learn and practice. Leviticus warns, “You shall not practice divination or soothsaying.” The punishment for those who do is excommunication. At the same time, Torah recognizes human nature and the desire to have some sense of the future. Thus, we are given two methods of inquiry into the future in the Torah: consultation of the Urim and Thummim – the sort of Biblical Ouija Board – and hearing the words of prophets. The Urim and Thummim died out with the high priest and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and the last prophet was Malichi, who lived in the late 5th century, BCE, more than 500 years earlier than the Temple’s loss.

Torah’s lessons make sense for us today, too. No one can foresee what the world will look like in eight, ten, 15, 20, and 25 years at the various transition moments under the agreement. Long range predictions have a way of coming up very short, which is a reminder to all of us that much can happen in just twenty-five years.
We owe it to ourselves to become educated about the Iran nuclear deal. We owe it to our community and the world in which we live to engage in thoughtful conversation, avoiding accusations, vitriolic language, and stereotypes. Our future truly is at stake.

Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will for us all.

Shanah tovah.

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