I can think of no other conclusion when I see that the voice of progressive American Jewry is backing the Berman bill on Iran sanctions.

“J Street has consistently supported President Obama in his efforts to engage Iran diplomatically and to resolve issues relating to its nuclear program through negotiations,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s Executive Director.  “However, in the face of Iran’s continued defiance of the international community and its rejection of the most recent diplomatic offer on nuclear enrichment, we believe the time has come to pass the Iran sanctions legislation currently pending in the House of Representatives….”

I sympathize with the concern. Obviously we all would have liked it if the Iranian regime had responded remotely positively to the past year’s worth of good-faith Obama efforts at substantive diplomacy. But it didn’t. So we have to look at a Plan B. But what makes sense in a Plan B is a multilateral sanctions package — something with either U.N. Security Council backing or a meaningful coalition behind it. Berman’s bill can do nothing more than give Obama the option for additional unilateral sanctions. The lesson of the last 30 years is that unilateral sanctions are toothless. A regime that has already exposed, through its depravity, how alienated it is from its population will simply exploit the increased economic misery such sanctions bring and artificially prolong its resistance. (To be clear, there’s a real chance multilateral sanctions could do the same thing — hurt the people while not affecting the leadership — so I reserve judgment on the merits of the policy until I see an explanation of why any multilateral sanctions package can actually do what it’s intended to do. But I also think that progressives need to come to terms with the fact that the regime has rebuffed every productive diplomatic effort Obama has offered.) As a result, Americans for Peace Now and the National Iranian American Council oppose the Berman bill.

But this isn’t about Iran. It’s about J Street and the Jewish community. All the other status-quo based Jewish lobbies are on board with Berman out of an emotional and astrategic tribal response against Iran. You don’t see any real debate about the hard questions on unilateral sanctions from them — either about their efficacy; their morality; or their threat of alienating the Green Revolution. But after months of browbeating from the Jewish right, J Street is basically coming around to that side. And I wonder why in the world that is. Do my friends in J Street really think that their critics are going to stop questioning their authenticity as a Jewish or a pro-Israel organization if they just cede a little more on sanctions?

I mean, maybe the Berman bill is just so ultimately toothless that J Street calculates the symbolism of standing with the rest of the Shtetl is worth it. And maybe that’s ultimately a good trade for J Street. I recognize that you’ve got to pick your battles. But progressive American Jewry is looking to J Street to lead. At the risk of sanctimony, the early Zionists were crazy left-wing radicals in 19th century European Jewry, and they didn’t listen to those who told them that they needed to trim their positions to meet the sentiments of the moment. And then something something something about willing it makes it not a dream.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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