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The White House’s Iran Sell and the Jews: A Debate

Part 1: Duss and Gitlin: Tablet editorial ‘an insult to readers’ intelligence’

Matthew Duss and Todd Gitlin
August 11, 2015
This article is part of The Iran Deal.
See the full collection →︎

In their August 7 editorial, “Crossing a Line to Sell a Deal,” Tablet’s editors accuse the White House and its allies of smearing American Jews in efforts to promote the recently inked nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran.

The Editors cite a number of articles from The New York Times and the The Washington Post that supposedly reveal “the use of Jew-baiting and other blatant and retrograde forms of racial and ethnic prejudice as tools to sell a political deal, or to smear those who oppose it.” They charge the Obama White House with orchestrating a smear campaign that labels opponents of the deal as “agents of a foreign power” or accuses them of “selling their votes to shadowy lobbyists, or of acting contrary to the best interests of the United States.”

The first of those links—“agents of a foreign power”—is to a New York Times editorial on the “vicious battle against Mr. Obama, involving not just the Republicans but Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.” It notes that “[t]he unseemly spectacle of lawmakers siding with a foreign leader against their own commander in chief has widened an already dangerous breach between two old allies.” But it is Netanyahu himself, with the cooperation of the Republican leadership, who has staked out his leadership of the opposition to the Iran deal in the United States. The unprecedented nature of this dynamic has been widely remarked upon, including by Israeli politicians. Even in the days of the China Lobby, a powerful group that for years secured American support for recognizing the government headed by Chiang Kai-shek, located on the island of Taiwan, as the sole Chinese government, to the exclusion of the People’s Republic of China that ruled the country from Beijing, Chiang Kai-shek did not fly to Washington to mobilize Americans.

The second link—“selling their votes to shadowy lobbyists”—cites a January 2015 New York Times article on a tense exchange between President Obama and Senator Robert Menendez, in which the president said that “he understood the pressures that senators face from donors and others, but he urged the lawmakers to take the long view rather than make a move for short-term political gain, according to the senator.” Such an exchange would be unremarkable if the issue were gun control. “Shadowy lobbyists”? Please. Senator Menendez did not use this term in his paraphrase. There is nothing “shadowy” about AIPAC and its allies.

The third link—“acting contrary to the best interests of the United States”—goes to the text of President Obama’s August 5 speech at American University, as if it were self-evident proof of bigotry. But almost any argument about foreign policy impugns opponents for “acting contrary to the best interests of the United States. Indeed, “acting contrary to the best interests of the United States” is a claim that Obama’s critics have made against him constantly, in extremely ugly ways. Indeed, later in January, Menendez slammed the administration in these terms: “The more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran.” Yet Tablet’s editors have not been moved to weigh in on the rhetoric of such attacks.

Another link—“Murmuring about ‘money’ and ‘lobbying’ and ‘foreign interests’ who seek to drag America into war is a direct attempt to play the dual-loyalty card—directs readers to an article previewing President Obama’s August 5 speech and mentioning meetings he’s held with American Jewish groups concerned about the deal. Many of these groups are arguing hard against the deal. The Obama administration is arguing hard in return.

The editorial goes on to declare: “Accusing Senator Schumer of loyalty to a foreign government is bigotry, pure and simple.” Where are these accusations? No links are given. We can find no evidence that anyone has played a dual-loyaty card against Schumer.

The Washington Post does refer, in one article, to “Schumer, who is Jewish.” It goes on to say:

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.), the most senior Jewish Democrats in the Senate, both backed the deal. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) had been a target for opponents of the accord, in part because his state is home to powerful Jewish figures.

Where is there a word about “loyalty to a foreign government”?

According to the Editors, we are to believe that such items represent “the kind of naked appeal to bigotry and prejudice that would be familiar in the politics of the pre-Civil Rights Era South.” To call this an insult to readers’ intelligence is an understatement.

We note that another writer cited in Tablet’s editorial, Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev, quickly slammed it , calling it part of a “brazen attempt to exponentially multiply signs of anti-Semitism to gain political advantage:”

The editorial gives opponents of the Iran deal a powerful weapon with which to silence any criticism of Netanyahu or AIPAC or Jewish Democrats who oppose the president. It provides a convenient way for the GOP and other right-wingers to have their cake and eat it too: Netanyahu is allowed to address 10,000 American Jewish leaders and activists from Jerusalem, but mentioning their faith is forbidden; he is allowed to be the sole foreign leader to openly campaign against the deal, but singling him out is verboten; AIPAC can raise emergency funds, cancel all vacations and send its lobbyists to canvass on Capitol Hill, but say the words “lobby” or “money” and you are quickly branded a bigot; Schumer can famously boast that he sees himself as a Shomer Israel but you won’t dare say that when he seems to live up to his promise.

The fact of the matter is that money, lobbying, and donor pressure all play a huge part in American politics. When the issue is the Gun Lobby, the Pharmaceutical Lobby, or the Defense Industry Lobby, such observations are unremarkable. Yet when the issue is Israel, the banal observation that wealthy lobbies have influence is somehow transformed into evidence of prejudice. Opponents of the Iran deal have boasted about the amount of money they would spend to defeat it. It’s absurd to suggest that noting this fact, as the president has done, should be off-limits, a form of “Jew-baiting.”

It’s also a fact that many of those criticizing the deal, though not all, were outspoken advocates of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Many have also advocated military action against Iran. Opponents of the deal may consider it inconvenient to be reminded of this, but hiding behind reckless, unsubstantiated accusations of anti-Semitism is both cowardly and insulting to the real victims of actual the anti-Semitism, that is, as both of us have repeatedly written, horribly alive in the world.

Discussions of money and its influence on politics, particularly with regard to issues of war and peace, are freighted with disturbing historical resonances. But to point out the influence of wealthy Jewish organizations and individuals is not to impute disloyalty. To ignore it, in fact, would be absurd. A policy debate over an issue as significant as that between the U.S., its P5+1 partners, and Iran is bound to get intenseand tense—and Tablet’s editorial did nothing to advance the discussion on the merits of the proposed nuclear deal.

Matthew Duss is president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, based in Washington, DC.

Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, is the author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.

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