Monday, July 20, 2015

Rabbi Benson's Shabbat Remarks on Iran Agreement

Obama is a secret Muslim and anti-Semite and this is the worst deal possible.  The Iranians will without a doubt abide by all the details of the agreement and this is the best deal possible.  The Americans “win”.  The Iranians “win”.  Of course not!

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Elizabeth’s husband, said a long time ago that the trouble with being a royal was that the press wants nothing more than to get a picture of you picking your nose (this from the same man who just this month was recorded on camera at an event honoring World War II veterans telling the photographer to “just take the --- picture”, so…). 

For anyone hoping to “catch me picking my nose” today, for anyone who was hoping I would say just what Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow always says so you could finally, righteously and justly, tell me what you’ve been telling the TV screen all these years, I’m sorry, I think I shall disappoint you as well. 

While, just like the Rabbinical Assembly, which in its press release this week on the Joint Agreement, referred to, “our reservations about the deal as it is currently being reported”,  I did express in my message, which I’m glad so many of you saw, my troubles with the deal, and I do have troubles with it. 

But for those of you who took me to mean that “troubles” meant “bomb” or for that matter that “troubles” meant “you’re a cowardly sell-out”, I will disappoint again. 

For then, as now, my primary goal as your rabbi, and really, my primary goal for myself on this matter, is to really understand what is going on, for us to see clearly that like any work of mortal hands, this Agreement is not perfect.  That there are Israel military leaders who support it and that there are Democratic leaders who are against it.  That you are not a traitor or a fool to be in favor or against it, but that given its 159 pages and tremendous level of jargon, given that I have encountered thoughtful pieces written about it in everything from The Forward on one side to The Times of Israel on the other to the Atlantic somewhere in the middle, I think our best approach now, as once again the Rabbinical Assembly suggested, and that I think our legacy as Jews should mandate, is to approach this thoughtfully and be sure we understand the matter so we really know how to respond and act going forward.

And so I will attempt to share with you, in what I intend to be a neutral and fact-based way, what I have come to understand about the deal, and following that I will share with you my suggestions for what we do about it.

Specifically, I have three main points – 1) what is good about the deal, and I must say that there was a point where I did not expect there would be anything, but having been immersed in attempting to understand the deal my attitude has changed.  2) The challenges or issues with it.  3) What we should do in response to the deal.

Allow me to mention that as I said, there have been any number of articles and reports I have read on this.  I am also very much guided in my thinking by what was shared with members of the Rabbinical Assembly by Dr. Robert Satloff, the head of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, who briefed us by phone yesterday. 
11)    So with that said, let me tell you what is good about the deal:
I.                    Not a Slam Dunk Either Way
II.                 Achievements
a.     Bargain – do this, no bomb
b.     Not end to nuclear program – postponement of military program
c.      So Called “break out” time will be variable, but probably expands it from where it is now.
d.  Experts do think this is all reasonable from the perspective of real limits on the nuclear weapons program.
2) The four Issues or “Trade-Offs”:  Monitoring, Consequences, Sanctions, Regional Alignment
d.     Monitoring – the deal essentially has “anywhere” but not “anytime” and Iran has 24 days to confirm an inspection.  This doesn’t mean they can build a bomb and then hide that in 24 days, our experts told us, but at the same time, there are other types of violations that could be clouded by that delay – so that is an issue.
e.     Consequences – there are many, many rules that are going into place in terms of what Iran must do – from dismantling facilities to producing centrifuges, to what kind of uranium can be enriched.  There are many places where big, small, major, minor or even inadvertent violations could take place.  The deal does not clearly lay out the “consequences” the “punishments” for all these.  So if enriched uranium levels are a couple of percentage points off where they should be – is it likely that sanctions are going back into place?  That is not really addressed.
f.       Sanctions Relief – understand that some American sanctions on Iran have nothing to do with nuclear weapons development and these will stay in place.  But some sanctions from the US will not and many from elsewhere will not.  That said, Iran will likely end up with, realistically, $100 billion dollars of benefits from sanctions relief.  There is much reason to think that some of this will go into the Iranian economy.  As many Americans forget, Ahmadinejad lost the presidency for failing to turn the economy around and Rouhani was elected on a campaign of doing so.  BUT, that said, Iran currently gives Assad’s Syria around 2 billion dollars and so you can see how even an extra billion could make a huge difference there or elsewhere.
g.     Alignment – As I just said this could likely change the scales in Syria and has clearly, rightly or wrongly, upset many in the Sunni Arab world and brought the Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog together with PM Netanyahu in standing against this issue.  The lasting and unintended impact of these changes will have to be seen.

3) So what happens next?  Robert Satloff, among others, argues that it is not a case of The Deal or War at this point.  For the following reasons:
1.      The deal will be presented and probably approved (but not go into action) at the UN before the 60 day debate period in the US.
2.     Congress can “at most” keep the present from lifting sanctions – it really can’t say yes or no on the deal itself.
3.     Even if Congress does this, Iran, as the Supreme Leader’s comments about some of the negotiating powers being “untrustworthy” suggest – may very well stick to the agreement, work to isolate the US and work more with Europe, Russia and China.
4.     Doing so would be a far more effective strategy than a “mad dash” for a bomb – which would confirm everyone’s suspicions about them anyway, and Iran all along has said they have been unfairly sanctioned, etc.

Bottom line, what do we do?  I’d love to be here telling you we are marching in the streets for something, but I have to believe now that I don’t know what that would look like and to what end – at least not yet. 

What I can and do encourage everyone to do is continue to look at the deal very closely and truly seek to understand so important a document as well as possible. 

If that leads you to advocate against it, make sure your choices for such advocacy are effective and meaningful and aren’t solely about proving who’s right and who’s wrong.  I have sheets with the contact information for our elected officials available for anyone who wants.

Look, I could certainly understand the person who says just because Iran doesn’t have a gun to shoot Israel from across the street (i.e. a bomb) doesn’t mean I like it that they can run up and stab Israel with a knife (more funds to support proxies). 

But I could equally understand the person who says more accountability and restrictions than before on what was already a bad actor have to be better when it comes to building a bomb and represent a giant improvement in relations and security.

There is a story from the Parshah that is of real guidance to us this week.  The tribes of Reuben and Gad come to Moses to ask for land in the trans-Jordan and not in Israel, it being better for them logistically there.  A great deal of negotiating takes places and the tribes agree to fight for the conquest of Israel before returning to the lands they want.

Moses tells them that if they do this, if they commit to this agreement then, vihyitem n’ki’im me’Adonai u’mi’Yisrael, “you shall be clear before the Lord and Israel.”

The modern commentator Shlomo Ressler notes Moses response reflects “being able to accept other perspectives, despite initial fears and uncertainties, is the true test of being a thoughtful Jew and understanding person.”

But the great Chafetz Chaim takes it a step even farther in guiding us on how we should move forward in relationship to advocacy about this deal, number one; and number two in relationship to those others in our community with whom we might disagree.  It is certainly advice I needed today:

Once student of the Chafetz Chaim asked him about whether he should take a pulpit or not.  He responded, “First the rabbi must ensure his own proper observance of the Torah so he is ‘clear’ before the Lord and only afterwards fill his obligations to his community.  That is the order the Torah states.  If a rabbi reverses the order and is interested first in being in the good graces of his community and only afterward in being in God’s good graces, he will not succeed.”

 Like me, each and every one of you must decide how to respond to this important issue for America and Israel.  How each of us does, I pray, will be guided by a knowledgeable understanding of the facts combined with a true listening to our own hearts, to our own response to God’s call to us, and not what we think we have to or should do in the eyes of others. 

Shabbat Shalom


Contact your Representative:
Charles E. Schumer                                                 
Charles Schumer, Senator for New York, Democrat.  Website:

Washington, DC Office
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Phone: (202) 224-6542
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Kirsten Gillibrand
Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator for New York, Democrat.  Website:

Long Island Office
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Fax (631) 249-2847
Washington, DC Office
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Fax (202) 228-0282

Lee Zeldin
Lee Zeldin, Representative for New York, Republican, NY-01. Website:

Washington, DC Office
1517 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Phone: (202) 225-3826
Fax: (202) 225-3143

Patchogue Office
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Phone: (631) 289-1097

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