Reform Jewish Movement Response to Iran Deal: Address Important Concerns, Focus on the Day After

Following extensive consultations with experts from across the political spectrum in both the United States and Israel, and thoughtful conversation with North American Reform Jewish leaders, the Reform Jewish Movement today issued a leadership statement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The statement – released today by the leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and ARZA – concludes that “there is simply no clarity that would support taking a position ‘for’ or ‘against’ the JCPOA itself.” Rather, the statement emphasizes, “Our focus must be on two questions: First, how is it possible to address our concerns about the JCPOA? Second, if the agreement is finalized, what happens the day after? Specifically, how can we work to support the strongest possible U.S.-Israel relationship going forward?”

Looking toward the “day after,” the leadership statement noted that “Whether the JCPOA is approved or defeated, there will be a day after. It is essential that this debate not be allowed to create a lasting rift between Israel and the U.S., between North American Jews and Israelis, or among American Jews.”

The statement also addressed the tone of the debate, saying “We call upon the Israeli leadership, the U.S. Administration and members of Congress, and those on all sides of this debate to tamp down their rhetoric. If the debate is allowed to weaken the U.S.-Israel alliance, or further sharpen partisan divides over what it means to be ‘pro-Israel,’ Israel will be less secure.”

The full statement follows.

NEW YORK, NY, August 19, 2015 — Our tradition teaches us never to wage war without first seeking vigorously the possibility of peace (Deut. 20:10). In that spirit, we applaud the diplomatic efforts of the Obama Administration to keep Iran from acquiring or developing nuclear weapons. We thank President Obama for his commitment to diplomacy, and we express our gratitude to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for keeping the world focused on the danger posed by Iran.

The end product of the Administration’s diplomatic efforts – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – is challenging to analyze. Some argue that it offers the most promising path forward to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state. Others argue that while the agreement has serious flaws, the consequences of rejecting it create far more perils and damage than implementing it would. Still others argue that it does not do enough to prevent and/or contain the danger that a nuclear Iran would pose. We recognize that these arguments have merit: The JCPOA does present a way forward, there are real dangers to rejecting it, and it does not foreclose Iran’s ability to become a nuclear weapons threshold state.

The Reform Movement is large and diverse. Within the Movement, reasonable people — patriotic Americans and passionate Zionists — have expressed different and valid positions on this agreement, articulating the many arguments made by others as well.

Our focus must be on two questions: First, how is it possible to address our concerns about the JCPOA? Second, if the agreement is finalized, what happens the day after? Specifically, how can we work to support the strongest possible U.S.-Israel relationship going forward?

At this time, there is no unity of opinion among the Reform Movement leadership – lay and rabbinic alike – just as there is not unity among our membership as to the JCPOA itself; but there is unity as to the important questions and concerns we pose in this statement.  Thus, there is simply no clarity that would support taking a position “for” or “against” the JCPOA itself.

The Vital Strategic Importance of the U.S.-Israel Alliance

The U.S.-Israel relationship is of historic and strategic importance. It is based on shared values and common concerns. The health of that relationship must never be jeopardized or allowed to become a partisan political issue. Now, more than ever, it is critical to solidify the unique relationship between the U.S. and Israel. The words of Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin ring in our ears: “There are three tenets to Israeli foreign policy, which are the strategic alliance with the United States, the strategic alliance with the United States, and the strategic alliance with the United States.”

We are deeply concerned about the tension, and the harsh rhetoric, in the discourse between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. We fervently hope that both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu will take concrete steps, transcending politics, to repair the rifts that impede this relationship between longstanding and essential allies. We say this sincerely believing that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are fully committed to the unique U.S.-Israel relationship and with appreciation for the President’s many efforts to support Israel.

It is important to emphasize that as American Jews, we are concerned about this agreement not only as Jews, but also as Americans. Iran’s regime poses a serious security threat to the people and nations of the region who continue to suffer from Iran’s support for violence and terror, including the State of Israel.

Our Concerns

We have had numerous conversations with and briefings from experts on global security and diplomacy, military experts from the U.S. and Israel, Republican and Democratic elected officials, and Israeli political leaders from the left, center, and right.  Those extensive consultations leave us with five principal areas of concern: deterrence, Iran’s support of terror, inspections, human rights and religious freedom, and the United States’ standing in the world.

Deterrence: We call on President Obama to issue an unequivocal statement that at no point will the U.S. accept a nuclear-armed Iran. The Administration must state clearly that in the short term, and more importantly, 15 years from now when key provisions of the JCPOA expire, the U.S. will take no option off the table when it comes to preventing Iran from attaining nuclear weapons capability. We also call on the U.S. to provide Israel with the support necessary, including advanced weaponry and the means to deliver it, to further deter Iran, protect Israel’s security, and maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge. This could take the form of a new defense alliance between the U.S. and Israel similar to NATO.  These steps are necessary both because of the prospect of Iran developing or obtaining nuclear weapons, and the possibility of increased military activity in the region, which is an inherent and likely consequence of the inevitable lifting of sanctions that any agreement containing Iran’s development of nuclear weapons would entail.

Iran’s Support of Terror: Iran’s longstanding and persistent threats against Israel, the U.S. and others, as well as its record of support for international terror organizations including Hamas and Hezbollah, are not addressed by this agreement. We urge the Administration to work with our European allies to ensure that harsh international sanctions will be adopted if Iran leverages its newfound resources to further fund terror activity. The U.S. should also commit to leading a broader international effort designed to eliminate Iran’s support of international terror.

Inspections: We share those grave concerns that arise out of the fact that Iran’s nuclear sites are currently closed to international inspection and that, even if approved, Iran may violate key provisions of the agreement thwarting inspections. Thus we call upon the Administration to commit to imposing significant additional consequences if Iran challenges the inspections regime, in addition to the “snap back” sanctions that will be imposed on Iran should it violate key provisions of the JCPOA. Doing so will ensure that Iran recognizes that there will be penalties for any violations of the agreement, even if claimed to be “minor.”

Human Rights and Religious Freedom: Iran remains one of the world’s great violators of human rights and religious freedom. The Administration has committed to keeping the sanctions related to human rights fully intact after this agreement and must further commit to marshaling international pressure on Iran to make improvements in expanding human rights, religious freedom and the development of democratic structures.

The United States’ Standing in the World: After years leading negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, U.S. credibility on the world stage and/or in the Middle East has been weakened in recent months as the American political process has unfolded. It is critical that the U.S. maintain leverage to address future international challenges in a manner that protects and advances national interests and especially promotes peace in the Middle East. We recognize that the broad international sanctions currently imposed on Iran, and which played a key role bringing Iran to the negotiating table, are in the process of collapsing with the U.N. Security Council, the Russians, Chinese, and certain Europeans moving to lift their sanctions even as we speak today. The U.S. influence and support of Israel is crucial to maintain peace in the Middle East and a safe Israel.

The Day After

Whether the JCPOA is approved or defeated, there will be a day after.

It is essential that this debate not be allowed to create a lasting rift between Israel and the U.S., between North American Jews and Israelis, or among American Jews. We are concerned, as well, with the possibility that some will use the debate as fuel for anti-Semitic views.

We call upon the Israeli leadership, the U.S. Administration and members of Congress, and those on all sides of this debate to tamp down their rhetoric. If the debate is allowed to weaken the U.S.-Israel alliance, or further sharpen partisan divides over what it means to be “pro-Israel,” Israel will be less secure. And on the day after the vote, as on the day before, Israel will need the United States’ continued military and political support, bilaterally, in the United Nations, and more broadly on the world stage.

The Need for Civility and Open Debate

Our Movement believes in vigorous debate. But that discourse must be civil and constructive, which has too often not been the case. There must be an open and welcoming tent as we continue to debate not only the future of this agreement, but also the very nature of what it means to be pro-Israel. Our Movement is deeply pro-Israel, though we express that core conviction in many different ways. No one should be compelled to defend his or her Zionism or support for Israel as we express legitimate views, both pro and con, about this most difficult issue.

When our people gather in a little less than a month for the High Holy Days, members who support the deal will pray alongside those who do not. If the harsh judgments and rhetoric continue between Washington and Jerusalem – and within our American Jewish community – we will be deprived of a deep commonality that binds our people together. Calling those who oppose the deal “war mongers” shuts shown constructive debate; calling those who support the deal “enablers of a second Holocaust” ends thoughtful discourse.

With such significant stakes, thoughtful debate is not only warranted but also essential. That is what our tradition calls a machloket l’shem shamayim, “a debate for the sake of heaven.”


We offer these thoughts with the words of the prophet Isaiah (2:4) echoing in our hearts and in our minds: “They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

These coming weeks provide the Administration with an opportunity to address the JCPOA’s serious limitations, and for all parties to this discussion – the Administration, members of Congress and the opponents of the deal in the United States and Israel – to establish a tone of civility and respect on these critical matters.

As always, we pray for peace. We pray that 5776 and the years to follow are a time of peace for all people.

Union for Reform Judaism: Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President, and Steve Sacks, Chair of the Board

Central Conference of American Rabbis: Rabbi Denise L. Eger, President, and Rabbi Steve Fox, CEO

Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism: Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director, and Jennifer Kaufman, Chair, Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism

Association of Reform Zionists of America: Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, President, and Rabbi Bennett Miller, Chair


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12 Responses to “Reform Jewish Movement Response to Iran Deal: Address Important Concerns, Focus on the Day After”

  1. avatar
    Cousin of Moses Mendelsohn Reply August 20, 2015 at 11:03 pm

    As a grandson of the teacher of the Rabbi of the founders of the Reform Movement as well as his cousin, I’m disappointed that this current leadership has chosen to ignore the overwhelming evidence that this is an absurd existentially dangerous deal containing far, far more harmful material than anything of substance that can be considered good.

  2. avatar

    When I saw this post headline I was excited that the leaders of my movement were going to give me direction and help me with this complex issue. This statement, however, is disappointing in that it does neither. I would much prefer to read the movement’s true position, even if it is one with which I disagree, than something written so carefully as to not offend those on either side of the debate. We look to our rabbis for guidance and for leadership and I need that wisdom in my life. It’s unfortunate that fear has neutered our leaders.

  3. avatar

    The third paragraph of the statement can be read to mean that the URJ’s constituency consists of Jews who are either “patriotic Americans” or “passionate Zionists.” Surely that was not your intent, was it?

  4. avatar

    Reform Judaism(which I have supported for 70 years) is making a historic and tragic error. Israel,Jews worldwide, and America will be in greater danger by conceding nuclear weapons, intercontinental missiles, and terrorist funding to the Iranian mullahs.

    Where is your bravery? Is Israel alone?

  5. avatar
    Rabbi Joel R. Schwartzman Reply August 21, 2015 at 10:30 am

    I have been in dialogue with a former military fellow who had been a Jewish cadet of mine at the Air Force Academy and is now a commentator on a national network. His point is that he sees no viable alternative and that exercising a U.S. military response to “the Deal” is dangerously unrealistic because of the vulnerability of the many U.S. assets in the region. What applies to the U.S. is equally if not more so for Israel. His ultimate point is that he is willing to take the bet and to put credence in the administration’s claims that “the Deal” does prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear capability for a decade or more. Although I am not so sanguine, I haven’t had much to offer as an alternative.

    This said, today comes a report that, in a side deal, the IAEA has given Iran the right to inspect its own facility at Parchin. If this sounds ridiculous to you, it is mind blowing to me and undermines my temptation to accept what seems to be becoming inevitable: the Congress’s supporting “the Deal.” If Iran is to self-inspect, why has the P5 + 1 gone to all this trouble to bang out this “Deal?” I would hope that the reasons wouldn’t have been economic, although in Europe’s case, I’m not so certain that it wasn’t. If it simply was to walk away with something, then the P5 + 1 certainly achieved that! But where other commentators/contributors accept and even laud the “the Deal,” I am skeptical that it does what is necessary to keep Iran from achieving and producing an atomic weapon.

    There are those who believe that Congress can walk away from “the Deal” in order to get something better. For instance, Senator Menendes suggests:

    A Proposal for a Better Iran Deal – Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) (New York Post)

    · Advocates of the deal argue that a good deal that would have dismantled critical elements of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure isn’t attainable. I don’t believe that. And I believe we could still get a better deal and here’s how: We can disapprove this agreement, without rejecting the entire agreement.

    · We should direct the administration to re-negotiate by authorizing the continuation of negotiations and the Joint Plan of Action – including Iran’s $700 million-a-month lifeline.

    · A continuation of talks would allow the reconsideration of a few critical issues, including:

    Immediate ratification by Iran of the Additional Protocol for access to suspect sites
    A ban on centrifuge R&D for the duration of the agreement to ensure that Iran won’t have the capacity to quickly break out
    Close the underground Fordow enrichment facility
    Resolve the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s program
    Extend the duration of the agreement to at least 20 years.

    · At the same time, the president should unequivocally affirm and Congress should formally endorse a Declaration of U.S. Policy that we will use all means necessary to prevent Iran from producing enough enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, as well as building or buying one, both during and after any agreement.

    · We should authorize now the means for Israel to address the Iranian threat on their own in the event that Iran accelerates its program and to counter Iranian perceptions that our own threat to use force isn’t credible.

    As to Menendez’s last point, if the U.S. isn’t willing to attack Iran, we’ll give Israel what she needs to do the dirty work. I think that this is bordering on dire cynicism; for, as I said above, what is dangerous to the U.S. in using a military option applies even more to Israel because of her strategic, geographical position.

    I have seen other articles which state that if Congress just ups and walks away, we would be better off by returning to a status quo ante because, given Iran’s past history, it is almost assured that it will cheat on this deal.

    I have become sadly reconciled to Congress’s acceptance of “the Deal” and I am equally certain that we shall wake up one day, not so long from now, to the fact that we shall have to attack Iran’s nuclear development facilities. It probably won’t happen during Barack Obama’s term because of his repeatedly stated reticence, but it is inevitable to me. We’ll have to protect our regional forces and embassies in advance as best we can, but the alternative is Iran’s having the Bomb. Please God, we’ll be better at detecting when the Iranian are but days away from a break out. We’ve failed with North Korea, Pakistan and India…and we haven’t been much better in knowing where Iran has been hiding its facilities…so this is extremely dicey. If we miss this time, Iran gets an A-bomb, and the whole equation changes.

    My sad point is that we and the members of the P5 +1 have placed ourselves in a no win situation. It is untenable for Iran to achieve nuclear capability. The only question is what we can and are going to do about this? One can’t oppose “the Deal” without some realistic alternative…and it condemnatory that this administration has put us and the rest of the world in this terrible bind. Hind sight is not helpful, but there were definite points along the way that could have been utilize to avoid where we are now. But my point is that if you believe that we have fenced off Iran’s drive for the bomb for any length of time, then, by all means, support this “Deal.”

    My bottom line is that I believe that Iran will respond to nothing less than firmness and an on-the-table, believable threat. I do not believe this administration is capable of this. So, I and everyone who believes as I do–that Iran cannot be trusted and that “the Deal” will lead to disastrous consequences–will have to take this one in the neck; but, mark my words, Congressional approval of this “Deal” won’t be the end of this mess and it won’t remove Iran’s rogue behavior from the headlines. It will only exacerbate it. But it’s the thought of Iran’s getting the Bomb that leads me to oppose “this Deal.”

    As for the worry that we American Jews and Israel will be blamed if Congress does turn this deal down, I can only say that it is, in my eyes, better to be blamed for being right, than being buried for being wrong. We Jews have had the dubious distinction of being the world’s canary-in-the-mine shaft. Some of us are singing at the top of our voices. The fallout of our stances may bring us trouble, but I hope and choose to believe that we will weather the splash back as we have too often done in the past. It is no reason in this society where freedom of speech still exists for us to go quiet in the face of the rash of reasons to oppose the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).

  6. avatar

    So the URJ votes “present”. Shame on you.

  7. avatar

    I’m disappointed that our leadership has sidestepped its obligation to take a stand on the JCPOA. As a strong supporter of the President and Secretary’s successful efforts I’d love the stand to be one with which I agree. However, even a “wrong” stance would be preferable to a punt.

    Specifically, here’s where I agree and disagree:

    Re: the US/Israel alliance. I agree that this is vital to Israel, but should hinge on an Israeli Prime Minister who understands that Israel is indebted to the US for being its only strong, committed ally on the world stage and who should know better than to interfere in our political process. Specifically, Mr. Netanyahu should show more respect to our President and our political process and appoint an ambassador who is interested in more than remaining the Republican operative he was in a previous career. Israel’s objective nurture the US/Israel relationship, not put it at risk.

    Rather than bemoaning the potential harm to that relationship we as a Movement should be taking a strong stand against this adventurism the Israeli have replaced for diplomacy.

    Re: Deterrence. I agree the President should unequivocally state that Iran must remain non-nuclear but believe he has done so. If not, then yes, he must.

    By the same token, we should push Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and destroy its hundred or so nuclear weapons. The Middle East is far too dangerous a neighborhood for anyone to have weapons of mass destruction.

    And as we consider a NATO-like alliance, we should be careful of entangling the US in a war if that war was either started by Israel (for example, by an attack on Iran) or is one that Israel could reasonably have avoided. Netanyahu and his coalition are not the ones I’d like to see setting US foreign policy.

    Re: Iran’s Support of Terror. Agreed. They’ve been major supporters of Hamas and Hezbollah for years. But are continued sanctions the answer to getting them to change their ways? From all I read, there’s a serious political struggle in Iran today between the Ayatollah’s supporters (a small minority of the population) and the current government and their supporters who are the most Westernized of the Middle East countries.

    Bringing Iran into the world’s economy and rewarding and encouraging the moderates is the quickest way to a lasting peace and end to terror.

    And if we ‘re serious about sanctioning the world’s supporters of terror, let’s look at Saudi Arabia whose support of Al Qaeda makes Iran’s support of Hezbollah pale.

    Re: human rights and religious freedom. Ditto the above. I agree, but we haven’t encouraged much good behavior with the stick, so let’s try the carrot.

    Re: the US’s standing in the world. This is probably the most important issue of all. If we reject an agreement whose conclusion we marshaled and the world has accepted, where does that leave us? Who will join our coalitions tomorrow?

    And re: the day after. (If only the Netanyahus of the world would focus on that.) Yes, that should be our focus. And to accomplish a serious US/Israeli alliance – as well as a world/Israeli one – it’s up to we American Jews to show Israel the way to rejoin the family of nations.

    The far right government in Israel is so beyond anything resembling acceptance to us as Reform Jews or as Americans that we should be taking a much firmer stance to help the Israeli electorate pressure their government to become menschen. (Here’ I’m not just referring to their attitude toward our President but also but their insults to Reform Jews, to women and to religious and ethnic minorities within Israel.)

    In short, I’m disappointed that the Movement has avoided taking a stand on what is by far the most important issue of the day. Whether or not there is uniformity of opinion, it’s our leaders’ obligation to lead, not follow the consensus of opinion.

    We can do better.

  8. avatar

    Your article should be titled “Leadership of Reform Jewish ……”. I never had a chance to vote on it and I do not support your position. I fear that your position will lead to further rupturing of North American Jews from each other and from Israel. I certainly don’t want to be part of a movement taking this position.

    With your list of concerns, I am disappointed with the lack of clarity you exhibit. You should be opposed to the deal—especially since we found out yesterday from the Associated Press that Iran will be inspecting itself for IAEA. Furthermore, according to the head of IAEA there are parts of the “agreement” he can’t disclose. There are secret parts of the agreement not available to the Administration or Congress. How can one support it?

    What can you do “The Day After” to put some meat to your “Concerns”? Your can come out in strong support—even leadership—for a joint resolution from Congress authorizing current and future presidents to use force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state. Congress could declare that this is part of the agreement. In the NY Times today, President Obama sent a letter to Representative Nadler reaffirming his position on this issue. The idea of such a resolution was offered by both Thomas Friedman and Alan Dershowitz. Why not formalize it?

  9. avatar

    Es verdaderamente preocupante que las naciones hagan tratos o firmen convenios en el papel con naciones como Irán cuyos dirigentes declaran diariamente que quieren borrar del mapa a Israel, es sabido también que cuando vivía Hugo Chavez intercambiaba permanentemente uranio por armamento con Irán mientras permaneció en la presidencia de Venezuela, de tal manera que asi como lo hizo en su tiempo Adolfo Hitler en la alemania nazi que dijo una mentira muchas veces hasta que el pueblo creyo que era verdad asi igual los Iranies, como las naciones creen que respetaran acuerdos que no cumpliran porque en los demuestran otras cosas diferentes “EL DIOS DE LA BIBLIA PROTEGERA A ISRAEL EL LO HA PROMETIDO”.


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