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Reform Leader Gets Tough on Iran

Yoffie calls for unity on importance of sanctions

Allison Hoffman
May 24, 2010
Rabbi Eric Yoffie.(Union of Reform Judaism)
Rabbi Eric Yoffie.(Union of Reform Judaism)

Last week, the Forward published an op-ed by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the leader of the Reform movement, in which he called on liberal and centrist Jews—his constituency, in other words—to “wake up” to the dangers of a nuclear Iran. The basic message wasn’t news to anyone who’s been paying attention to the Iran issue, but Yoffie’s real argument wasn’t about whether Iran is a threat to the Jewish state. It was about the imperative for the Jewish community to set aside increasingly partisan differences and mobilize as a whole on this existential issue. The left, he wrote, may be underestimating the threat to both Israel and the U.S. But the right isn’t helping by mixing up its opposition to the Obama administration’s Iran policy with its broader discontent, thereby turning off people administration supporters who might otherwise be willing to sign on to a tough-on-Iran platform.

Yoffie talked to Tablet Magazine today about his diagnosis, and how he hopes the left will respond.

What prompted you to write this now?
As I said in the essay, the conservative response was the motivating factor. The common sense notion is that you need American support for dealing with Iran, and the anti-government rhetoric seems so counterintuitive and counter-productive. I have heard it, and having that experience in several instances had me shaking my head, and saying I need to write about it. On the one hand it indicates concern for Iran, but on the other hand it seems to be so counterproductive and not focused on Iran at all, but focused on all kinds of other agendas. Do we care about Iran, or is it a pro-settlement agenda, or an anti-Obama agenda? And is Iran getting lost in the fog?

You wrote that you were puzzled about the relative silence from left and center of the Jewish community on Iran. Why do you think that’s been the case?
On the liberal, centrist side of the equation, I don’t think people feel as passionately about it as they should. So much of the rhetoric on the right strongly suggests, implies, or directly acknowledges that what we’re really pushing for is military action, and that really makes the left and center uncomfortable. My view is that, as the Obama administration has said, we’re not taking anything off the table, but that while it’s getting late, crippling sanctions can still make a difference. I think that’s the way to go. Liberals and centrists are scared off by the implication of military action and that’s a factor in their thinking. But that can’t be a reason for staying silent.

You invoke 1967 to indicate how urgent the threat is.
This is the critical time. It’s not something we can wait six months to talk about. We have to talk about it right now. I think we’re running out of time on the ability of economic sanctions to be effective. So there is real urgency now. And the Obama people have ratcheted up the rhetoric. But if it’s between that and delivering results, results have not been delivered yet.

If you believe the Obama administration is engaging with the Iran issue, and endorse the approach they’re taking, why is there a need for people who support that to mobilize now?
It’s a question of getting everybody on board. We need to push the administration. They’re moving in the right direction, they’ve said some of the right things, but at this time are we confident that Iran is going to be blocked from getting nuclear weapons? No.

Do you think you should have written this essay six months ago? Were you waiting for your constituents to mobilize themselves on this?
I would have liked to see more grassroots activity than I’ve seen. And it’s not like I’m not happy with what we have said—we have resolutions, and if I wanted to build a paper trail, I could. But the community is very split right now on a lot of the Israel questions, and Iran shouldn’t be an issue on which we are split. So I think it’s very important for the Administration to hear from everybody on this, across the spectrum. We don’t want the government to perceive this as a right-wing issue alone. The overriding issue is that this is a terrible threat that we all have to be concerned about, and the government is less likely to move if it’s perceived as an issue of the right.

You were booed at J Street last fall over your defense of Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war, in 2009. Have you had pushback from the left since the essay was published?
Well, if you think about what the response is going to be, you’d never write anything. I don’t rule anything out but I worry more about indifference or silence that amounts to indifference than a negative reaction. Someone did share with me some blog on the right where the author was laudatory, especially since in those circles I’m the crazy leftist. But all the talkbacks were attacks, people who were saying this is simply an apology for the Obama administration. That’s the narrow partisan perspective I’m trying to avoid here. What will the response be on the left? I just don’t know. But in a certain sense I don’t care. This is an overriding issue.

What kind of action do you want to see from your rabbis and congregants?
I’m going to sit with some of our folks and talk about what the best strategy is for pursuing this. Again, it’s not that we haven’t done things, and there are a lot of people out there who feel very strongly about this in the centrist or liberal camp. So the issue is working with those folks to give this greater urgency and higher priority, and to have more organization on the local level. Do I have a whole plan worked out? I do not. But I do have ideas and we will begin to move on them very soon.

Do you want to see them engage with AIPAC, for example?
My view is that we should work with everyone in the community. But we should be prepared to speak up on our own.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.