Obama's Iran nuclear deal rhetoric troubles American Jews

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Story highlights

  • President Barack Obama has repeatedly charged that opponents of the deal are pushing for war with Iran as they did in Iraq.
  • Jewish organizations say administration's rhetoric concerns their members, who are sensitive to suggestion of Jews' warmongering

Washington (CNN)Some prominent members of the American Jewish community are increasingly worried that the rhetoric the Obama administration is using to defend the Iran deal could fuel a backlash against Jews.

In recent days, President Barack Obama has repeatedly charged that opponents of the deal are pushing for war with Iran as they did in Iraq and has decried the well-funded lobbying campaign behind them.
The White House says Obama is simply offering what he regards as a stark truth about the options facing lawmakers and what he's up against.
    But American Jewish organizations -- who maintain the President himself isn't intentionally fueling stereotypes -- say the themes concern their members, who are sensitive to any suggestion of Jews' warmongering or placing ties to Israel over the interests of the United States.
    Abraham Foxman, until recently the head of the Anti-Defamation League, which combats racism and anti-Semitism, said the language Obama is using could end up "fueling and legitimizing anti-Semitic stereotypes out there that Jews are warmongers."
    Meanwhile, Jewish supporters of the Iran deal wonder whether the increasingly harsh language coming from Republican presidential candidates and groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee could inflict damage on the American Jewish community as a whole.
    Pro-Israel and Jewish organizations are among those objecting most strongly to the deal and leading lobbying campaigns, many of which cite threats to Israel's security as a reason for Congress to oppose the deal when it votes in mid-September. In particular, AIPAC has launched a $20 million-plus effort against the agreement, including TV ads, emails and visits to congressional offices.
    The White House, for its part, has launched a major press for congressional support, holding classified briefings with Cabinet members, providing one-on-one sessions with the President for certain wavering lawmakers and making full use of the bully pulpit, where some of the rhetoric discomfiting Jews has been uttered.

    A push for war with Iran?

    In a major speech Wednesday defending the deal, Obama declared that "many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal."
    He also said that "because this is such a strong deal, every nation in the world that has commented publicly, with the exception of the Israeli government, has expressed support."
    He delivered a similar message about the Iraq War in a conference call he held last week urging progressive groups to speak in support of the deal amid the intense efforts to defeat it.
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    "The lobbying that is taking place on the other side is fierce, it is well-financed, it is relentless," he told them. "And in the absence of your voices, you are going to see the same array of forces that got us into the Iraq War, leading to a situation in which we forgo a historic opportunity and we are back on the path of potential military conflict."
    Foxman stressed that Obama wasn't deliberately touching on stereotypes.
    "I know the President, I've heard him, I've met him. I don't think any of it is intentional," he said. But he added, "Some of us in the community are troubled the messaging will be used and abused by bigots."
    Foxman, who noted that he was speaking in a personal capacity as he is no longer with the Anti-Defamation League, also objected to administration statements that have singled out Israel.
    "To say Israelis are the only ones in the world opposed -- it's troubling messaging," Foxman said.
    Asked to respond to Foxman's comments, a senior administration official said, in part, "we have engaged in extensive outreach with members of the Jewish community over the past several months," and that "we've been clear in the context of this deal that we remain stalwart in our commitment to Israel and its security."

    Defending lobbying efforts

    Another Jewish organization, this one partisan, criticized Obama for going after the lobbyists and wealthy backers of anti-deal campaigns.
    Jewish groups fear that such descriptions dredge up stereotypes connecting Jews and money.
    "President Obama should stick to the facts and stop demonizing Americans who are rightly skeptical of his dubious deal with the Tehran regime," Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks said in a statement following the call.
    It's not just those on the right in the Jewish community who are concerned about the increasingly acrimonious spat between the administration and pro-Israel groups.
    "My biggest concern here is that the more we frame this debate with vitriol, the more likely we inflict severe damage for the Jewish community," said Greg Rosenbaum, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, which supports Obama's Iran deal.
    He said the growing ugliness between Obama and Jewish groups -- paired with remarks like that of Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee, who claimed with the Iran deal that Obama "will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven" -- could be harmful.
    "I've used the word 'fratricide' to describe the terms of the debate," he continued, arguing that Obama -- faced with tens of millions of dollars in opposition ads -- "can't sit there with his hands tied and not use the arguments at his disposal because the people on the other side think that hurts them."
    An official at a second progressive Jewish organization, who spoke anonymously to protect his group's relationship with the White House, described Obama as having punched "below the belt" in his rhetoric opposing the deal.
    But he indicated that Jewish groups using hardball tactics to oppose the deal have to some extent invited the harsh criticism, because "when you play rough, that's what happens."
    He also predicted that Obama's anti-war approach could be effective in garnering the support of "rank-and-file" American Jews, most of whom opposed the Iraq War and voted for him as president.

    American Jews support deal

    Polls of Americans Jews have found that they tend to back the Iran deal in higher numbers than the general public. In July, a Jewish Journal survey found that 53% think Congress should approve the deal versus 35% who don't. In contrast, a CNN poll that month found that 52% of Americans overall think Congress should reject the deal, while 44% say it should be approved.
    Moreover, many Jewish Democrats in Congress -- including California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz -- have said they support the plan. However, the highest-ranking Jewish senator‎, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, said last week he opposes it.
    And certain organized Jewish groups, such as AIPAC, are among the most vocal, and active, in their opposition to the deal. There are also Jewish groups, such as the liberal J Street, that have been lobbying for it to pass, though the $5 million they've allocated is dwarfed by AIPAC's budget.
    Both groups were among the 22 Jewish organizations whose leaders met with Obama at the White House on Tuesday night to discuss the Iran nuclear deal.
    Several of those in attendance lodged complaints that the President's arguments for the deal -- including predicting war if Congress voids it -- were damaging to American Jews and made a direct appeal that the debate over the Iran nuclear accord not be framed that way.
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    Obama responded that he was mindful and sensitive to those concerns but underscored that he truly believes that if the deal is struck down, war could be in short order. Several participants described the exchange as the most intense moment of the meeting.
    On Wednesday, the President continued with that line of argument. "Let's not mince words: The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy and some sort of war -- maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon," he said.
    White House press secretary Josh Earnest pushed back against the criticism of Obama's line of attack -- also leveled by many Republicans -- in a press briefing Thursday.
    Asked about the charge that Obama was painting opponents of the deal as warmongers, Earnest said the President was "pointing out a simple fact."
    He also said the President "is disappointed that too often critically important policy issues like this get reduced to whoever can spend the most amount of money advocating for or against it."
    Earnest emphasized that there were places of agreement between pro-Israel advocates and the White House.
    "The concerns that some of the strongest supporters of Israel have about Iran are entirely justified," Earnest said. "The President has those concerns."
    Obama himself also spoke in his address Wednesday about his attention to Israel's perspective and his belief that this deal protects Israel as well as the United States.
    "I have also listened to the Israeli security establishment, which warned of the danger posed by a nuclear-armed Iran for decades. In fact, they helped develop many of the ideas that ultimately led to this deal," he said. "So to friends of Israel, and to the Israeli people, I say this: A nuclear-armed Iran is far more dangerous to Israel, to America and to the world than an Iran that benefits from sanctions relief."
    Foxman noted Obama's deep conviction about the importance of getting the deal through Congress in discussing his strategy for achieving that result.
    "The President feels very strongly on this -- this is his legacy. And he's using every weapon in the arsenal he's got," Foxman said. "But some of the arrows in his quiver might land in the wrong place."