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Obama to Jewish Leaders: Lay Off the Iran Deal, and I Will Lay Off You

Obama met with Jewish leaders this week in a private meeting in D.C., followed by a curious speech the next day

Lee Smith
August 06, 2015
Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama waves after speaking about the Iran nuclear agreement at American University in Washington, DC, August 5, 2015. Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama waves after speaking about the Iran nuclear agreement at American University in Washington, DC, August 5, 2015. Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Tuesday, President Obama met with Jewish community leaders at the White House for two and a half hours to explain the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement. “He spent 45 minutes, laying out deal, speaking without notes,” said one participant in attendance. “He argued why the deal is better than the alternatives, even as he acknowledged that Iran is not a good actor. The meeting was very emotional, everything was out on the table.”

The participant told me that some Jewish leaders in the meeting objected to how the administration characterized the JCPOA’s critics. “Words have consequences, and when they come from official sources, they can be even more dangerous,” he said the president was told. “The community worked hard to keep it from getting personal and didn’t make it specific to him. The president complained about the lobbying, and said some of the same people who brought you Iraq are opposing the Iran deal. He was told those characterizations are not accurate. Jewish lobbyists didn’t support the Iraq war.”

Another participant who also asked to remain anonymous told me that some people expressed discomfort with “how the debate is being framed—framed as, ‘if you are a critic of the deal, you’re for war.’ The implication is that if it looks like the Jewish community is responsible for Congress voting down the deal, it will look like the Jewish community is leading us off to another war in the Middle East.”

Apparently, President Obama wasn’t paying attention because the one point he made sure to drive home in his speech the next day at American University in Washington, D.C. is that there are only two choices: the JCPOA or war. And the only nation in the world that does not think this is “such a strong deal” and “has expressed support” is the Israeli government. In short, if you don’t like the agreement, then you want war and you’re aligned not with the United States and the rest of the civilized world, but with a Jewish pariah state.

A senior official at a Washington, D.C.-based Jewish organization involved in the Iran fight told me: “The President told concerned Jewish Americans that he would turn down the constant refrain of anti-Semitic insinuations from the White House. Then he went out and gave a speech implying that Jews are dragging American boys and girls into war.”

It’s unfortunate that the president of the United States seems to really believe that Israel and the American Jewish community was responsible for taking America to war in Iraq. But Obama is not an anti-Semite and it seems he doesn’t even really want to use anti-Jewish dog whistles, like he did last month on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. But the JCPOA is the cornerstone of his foreign policy legacy and he’s determined to win. AIPAC is leading the countercharge with a multi-million dollar campaign managed by a group called Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran. According to The Washington Post, “The president suggested to AIPAC that ‘if you guys would back down, I would back down from some of the things I’m doing.’’’

Or, as one of the participants told me Obama said, “If you don’t like the claims that are being made, don’t run the advertisements.” In other words, lay off criticizing the Iran deal and I’ll lay off the Jew-baiting.

“Fifty-two years ago,” said Obama, “President Kennedy, at the height of the Cold War, addressed this same university on the subject of peace.” Obama’s political tactics however point not to Kennedy’s Cold War but Nixon’s Southern strategy, which played on the racist fears of white southerners. If the purpose of the Obama Administration’s Jew-baiting is to silence potential critics of the JCPOA, it may also stoke a deeply ugly hatred that is no less dangerous to American society than racism.

Even if the JCPOA turns out to be worse than its critics charge—a deeply flawed inspection and verification regime, billions of immediate sanctions relief that could fuel Iran’s imperial terror throughout the Middle East, etc.—America will survive it, as will Israel. America’s center of gravity is not its position in the Persian Gulf. Rather, it’s our social cohesion. For all of our many flaws, our petty hatreds, our violence against one another: America works because of the fundamental trust Americans have in their neighbors—black and white and brown and yellow, Christian, Jewish and Muslim—throughout the fifty states. Why is the president putting that at risk? For the sake of comity with an anti-American, anti-Semitic obscurantist regime.