The elephant in the room

Aaron Mannes, far left, was moderator for panelists Ilan Sztulman, head of public diplomacy at the Israeli Embassy, and Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, as they discussed opposition to the Iran nuclear deal at Tikvat Israel Congregation. Photo by Sam Freedenberg
Aaron Mannes, far left, was moderator for panelists Ilan Sztulman, head of public diplomacy at the Israeli Embassy, and Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, as they discussed opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, at Tikvat Israel Congregation.
Photo by Sam Freedenberg

Whether it’s a whispered comment during Shabbat services or an impromptu debate in line for kiddush lunch, the Iranian nuclear deal is ubiquitous in the American Jewish community.

All eyes are trained on American Jews; lobbyists are targeting undecided members of Congress, secular newspapers note the huge sums being spent on advertisements by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and J Street — even PBS NewsHour is sending a film crew to Kol Shalom in Rockville on Friday to get a sense of the differing reactions to the deal within the Jewish community.

But how are area synagogues grappling with the nuclear elephant in the room?

In time for the High Holidays and an expected mid-September vote in Congress on the deal, synagogue adult education and Israel committees are scheduling panels and presentations while intentionally eschewing the traditional debate format.

More than 120 congregants and community members filled the sanctuary of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville on the evening of Aug. 20 for the first of two panels. That evening attendees heard from deal opponents Ilan Sztulman, head of public diplomacy with the Israeli Embassy, and Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. AIPAC materials were available.

“We didn’t want it to be a Crossfire-type event where people were put on the spot and asked to rebut and debate their positions,” said Sally Kram, chair of the synagogue’s adult education committee.

Szultzman and May each gave 15-minute opening comments before responding to questions from the congregation, introduced by moderator Aaron Mannes, an international affairs researcher at the University of Maryland.

The civility of the discussion and the quality of the questions asked and answered affirmed Kram’s decision not to format the evening as a debate. She noted that often the person with the sharpest wit or quickest response can be unfairly viewed as the winner, detracting from the substance of an argument.

“People need to understand that there are different positions on this,” said Kram. “The worst position a person can hold is based on lack of information.”

Tikvat Israel’s pro-deal panel, comprised of Stephen Goldberg, an MIT educated nuclear engineer and former assistant to the director at Argonne National Laboratory and James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, will take place Monday.

That will be in time, Kram said, for congregants to contact their members of Congress if they feel compelled.

Fact-gathering rather than position-persuading is a common thread at these synagogue forums.

“The Iran deal is one of the most important American policy decisions in front of us and American Jews are in the middle of it,” said Don Kraus, a senior fellow at Citizens for Global Solutions.

Kraus will moderate a discussion co-sponsored by his synagogue, Kol Ami, The Northern Virginia Reconstructionist Community, and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington on the evening of Sept. 8 at the UUCA. The meeting will feature Colin Kahl, deputy assistant to the president and national security advisor to the vice president; Allen Keiswetter, a Middle East Institute scholar and former diplomat; and Michael Eisenstadt, Kahn fellow and director of the Washington Institute’s Military and Security Studies Program.

Other organizations that have taken a stand on either side of the deal, said Kraus, are invited to have tables outside the room.

Though both sides will be represented in the discussion, Kraus said that neither congregation wanted a pro-con debate. The goal is to be as informative as possible.

Added Kraus, “As Congress is debating that week, there will be enough debating going on.”
Other area congregations are opting for single-person presentations.

The advocacy arm of the Orthodox Union, in conjunction with Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah, Young Israel Ezras Israel of Potomac and Chabad Shul of Potomac invited Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) to offer an overview and analysis of the Iran deal Thursday. As of press time, Delaney had not expressed his position on the deal. Ambassador Dennis Ross is slated to give introductory analysis.

Next week, at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, David Makovsky, Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy will attempt to explain the ins and outs of the deal.

Larry Sidman, chair of Beth El’s Am Yisrael Chai committee, described Makovsky as “in the top .01 percent” of people able to present both sides of the agreement. Makovsky will get a half-hour or so to present the deal on the evening of Sept. 3. Afterward, he’ll answer questions from the audience.

Like other area congregations, Beth El is intentionally shying away from the debate format, said Sidman.

“You can turn to the cable news networks and see a debate,” said Sidman. “The debates, sadly, tend to shed more heat than light.”

The bottom line, he added, is to “equip the broadest number of people with facts, insights and ability to engage intelligently in the political process.”

At Kol Shalom, after the public television crew has left, the discussion will continue. Though no formal programming has been held until now, according to Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman, he expects that Ross and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, both congregants, will dedicate their Yom Kippur seminar, held during the afternoon break in the service, to the nuclear deal.

Sounding a conciliatory note, Maltzman said, “We have to accept whatever the outcome may be and then, in my mind, the emphasis should be on our concern for Israel. … We can all share that view.”

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