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Why is Iran About Us?

All claims that this is an American issue were nullified by the names of the organizations under whose banner we campaigned
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and holds the Kaufman Family Chair in Jewish Philosophy. He is author of the Boundaries of Judaism, and Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. His latest book, Who are the Jews and Who Can We Become, was a 2023 Jewish Book Council Award Finalist.  Donniel is also the host of the award-winning podcast For Heaven’s Sake, together with his colleague Yossi Klein

Originally published on Times of Israel

Our airwaves are abuzz with learned analysis of the content of the interim deal signed by the international community with Iran. What I found interesting however was not just the content of the deal but the content of the announcement of the deal by President Obama.

Whether the interim deal will facilitate negotiations through which Iran relinquishes its nuclear weapons aspirations or not, is above my pay grade. I, like most Israelis, prefer a negotiated solution to a military one. At the same time, I have significant concerns, as do many in Israel and around the world, as to whether this interim deal will in fact be an interim one. Iran has done little to earn our trust and will only relinquish its nuclear weapons aspirations in the face of crippling sanctions and a believable threat of a viable military option. These concerns of mine are neither unique nor especially insightful or profound.

The deal with Iran generates two different sets of questions. One deals with the question of what Israel should do now in the interim, or in the event that the interim deal does not bear fruit. I am concerned with a second set of questions: Not what we should do, but what can we learn? Whether Israel “lost” or not is being debated by others. It is clear, however, that independent of whether the deal is good for us or not, we did not get our way. Both Israel and the leadership of the North American Jewish community campaigned vociferously against the deal, and at least at present, we have had our concerns and fears ignored.

Is there anything that we can or ought to learn from this failure? For some, the answer is self-evident: As Jews we are alone, have always been alone, and will always be alone. The deal is nothing new but merely the representation of a millennium-old phenomenon. That we thought otherwise was mere naivete.

Undercutting this analysis is the fact that but one day before the deal was signed, Israel hosted President Hollande of France and crowned him as the great friend of Israel. I will not capitulate to Iran, nor will I ever leave Israel alone, and Israel’s security needs have a special place in France’s heart, he passionately declared from the podium of the Knesset. Yet our true friend but 24 hours later, instructed his representative to raise his hand in support of the deal. Russia and China, the new objects of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s affection, did the same. While some in the Jewish community take President Obama’s anti-Semitism as a given, I for one have always found such assertions as bordering between the ludicrous and the preposterous.

The deal with Iran was not signed by states akin to Nazi Germany or by leaders mirroring Neville Chamberlain in 1938, but by people who have proven their friendship to Israel and the Jewish people. Political differences may exist, and always will, but the majority of the P5+1 are our allies.

So what can we learn? To do so, we need to look not merely at the details of the deal but at President Obama’s announcement of the deal. In his brief remarks, he outlined why the deal was good for America and the international community. He defended the logic and benefits to compromising in the first stage with the Iranians as a gesture which will enable the negotiated end. He also reiterated his commitments to ensure that the interim deal will in fact be but a first step.

After outlining the promises and pluses of the deal for the world, at the end of his remarks, Obama then turned to America’s allies in the Gulf region and Israel and declared his commitment to our security and well-being. The interests of the Gulf region and Israel were noted as separate from those of America and the world community. What President Obama was communicating was that while he cares for us, and is concerned by the dangers we confront, as President of the United States, his first obligation is and must be to what he perceives as the well-being of his country.

I believe that addressing the concerns of Israel and Saudi Arabia with regard to a nuclear Iran as somehow distinct from that of the rest of the world, is preposterous. How is it, then, that a nuclear Iran somehow became predominantly an Israeli or Saudi agenda? We can spend our time critiquing the international leaders or wondering how the hurdles facing Obamacare influenced the President’s decision. Or, as is the Jewish way, we can open ourselves up to self-analysis and be receptive to a critique of ourselves. What is it that we did, how is it that we contributed to the dissemination of this perception? We are a powerful people, both in Israel and in North America. We are no longer victims but active participants in shaping our destiny. Did we do anything wrong?

Our newfound Jewish power, coupled with a history of self-perception as God’s chosen people, as the apple of God’s eye, can at times cause a delusion with regard to our importance and capabilities. While we are now important players on the world stage, our capacity does not give us license to divest ourselves of our greatest historical asset – being smart.

While in the David-Goliath analogy, David is often portrayed as the weak one and Goliath as the mighty, it is important to remember that it was David who in the real world was more powerful. Nimbleness and intelligence, planning and foresight, will prevail against brute strength. The failure that Israel has succumbed to a number of times since 1967, not the least of which shaped the predicament in which we found ourselves in the Yom Kippur War and in the Second Lebanon War, and which at times guides our foreign policy, is that we perceive ourselves as David and yet act like a cumbersome Goliath.

We are witness to a similar phenomenon in North American Jewish life. As loyal citizens of America we have the right and the responsibility to speak out as Jews and shape the direction of American politics, like any other group in America. We need not fear arguments regarding our “dual loyalty,” nor should we be silent when we believe that America is acting counter to its interests as we, full and equal citizens, believe them to be. When, however, we allow the significant influence we have acquired, to lead to arrogance, to forget the limits of our power, limits inherently connected not to our Jewishness but to our proportional size, we are embodying the inadequacies of Goliath.

A nuclear Iran is a danger to the world, and it is folly and arrogance to believe that we should lead the campaign, and teach the world with our cleverly crafted pedagogical presentations, the facts that they childishly have yet to comprehend. While the Jewish community has every right to campaign against a nuclear Iran, it was I believe short-sighted to do so under the aegis of the pro-Israel lobby, thereby branding it as an Israeli issue. All claims that this is an American issue were nullified by the names of the organizations under whose banner we campaigned. We made this into an Israeli issue and should not have been surprised at our unfortunate “success.”

Access to power does not preclude the need to be smart. It merely enables intelligent policy to become a reality. We live in a dangerous world in which the Davids survive. We have earned the right to the confidence that comes with victory. We can assert and push for our legitimate interests across the international arena. The days of always worrying what others will think of us have passed. But because we do not need to worry it is a mistake to believe that we can act alone. We have allies, and we need them. Our policies in the future, whether it involves the next stage of the negotiations with Iran, or our policies in Judea and Samaria, need to be shaped by this awareness.

If we believe we are alone, we will find ourselves alone. If we forget the true proportions of our power and place, we will find ourselves marginalized and irrelevant. It behooves us to learn the lesson of the way we enabled ourselves and Iran to be positioned, and is worthy of David to recalculate, reposition, and plan accordingly.

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