A few weeks ago, on the eve of offering a benediction at the Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles Rabbi David Wolpe made clear that he didn’t intend his appearance to be seen as partisan in any way. At the time, I used Wolpe’s remarks as a springboard for a lament about the absence of politics in rabbinic discourse, saying a rabbi’s unwillingness or inability to clock in on high-stakes debates of the day undermines claims to the continuing relevancy of Torah and its teachers.
Now, writing for Time, Wolpe does clock in on a burning issue — Iran’s nuclear ambitions — but in a way that also leaves me unsatisfied. Essentially, Wolpe asserts that he has become a single issue voter this campaign, and that issue is Iran:
With the exception of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, humanity has managed to restrain itself from deploying this most awful of weapons, the one that can indeed destroy worlds. We stand before an iron law of history: you cannot unmake what has been made. Once Iran has a nuclear bomb, the world will never look the same. Not only Israelis, but the West will never sleep easily in its bed. Stopping Iran will not feed your family, get you a job or open a factory. It will not elevate the level of public discourse or bring manufacturing back from China. It will merely ensure that the free world, beginning with Israel but not ending there, will not live under the shadow of annihilation. To our presidential candidates: show me you have a way to do that, and you’ve got my vote.
In truth, I don’t think his article is about the presidential election at all, but rather a way to front and center the Iran crisis using the elections as a convenient hook. Or maybe it is just a way to wring strong statements and clear policies onIran out of both candidates, now and during the debates. That would be a win-win.
But let’s say it is about the elections — then what? Wolpe doesn’t discuss the candidates’ views on the subject, nor does he assert what combination of sanctions, red lines, and military responses he considers appropriate to preventing Iran from gettting the bomb. In fact, there is no discussion of the policy choices available to the president, either this one or whoever wins come November.
So if this is his single issue, what would a candidate have to tell him to earn his vote? Wolpe doesn’t say.
More than one pundit has suggested that there is no discernible difference between the Iran rhetoric of Romney and the policies of Obama — see here, here, here, and here. If there is any difference in their rhetoric, it revolves around whether the candidate would act militarily “if Iran actually tried to build a bomb” (Obama) or “if Iran were merely close to acquiring all the means for a weapon — which it is” (Romney).
Of course, people don’t just vote on the dry facts of policy and past actions — they go with their gut. And perhaps that’s how Wolpe will vote. Still, you have to suspect that he has a few criteria, or how else will he make a decision? By not sharing any of those criteria, the essay reads a bit like a Jewish telegram: “Start worrying — letter to follow.”
It’s a delicate dance — trying to be in the political debate, but above it at the same time. Desperate to bring attention to a burning issue, but unable to weigh in on its solution lest you alienate followers or your own principles of objectivity and non-partisanship. I’m sorry to single out Wolpe. In some ways, this is characteristic of the entire Jewish communal debate over Iran. The Jewish organizational consensus is that “Iran must be stopped” and “Iran must not be allowed to go nuclear,” and, except on the distinct ideological Right and Left, the discussion stops there. There’s little full-throated support for the sanctions regime because we don’t want to be seen as condoning too tepid a response; there are no demands for miltiary action because Jews don’t want to be seen as “leading” the country into war. “Containment” is an option that dare not speak its name. We can’t question Netanyahu’s actions or rhetoric because mainstream Jewish groups don’t do that, but we can’t challenge Obama because it would appear disloyal or partisan. We’re left with a communal dialogue on Iran that sounds like Mark Twain’s crack about the weather: “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”
But give Wolpe credit for laying the huge stakes of the Iranian crisis before a national audience. If a new poll of Florida Jewish voters by the American Jewish Committee is any indication, Iran is way down the list of priorities of most Americans. Only 1 percent of those polled say that Iran is their most important issue in deciding how they will vote in the election; the top two spots belong to the economy at 54 percent and health care at 16 percent. Iran trails behind issues like national security, U.S.-Israel relations, abortion, and social security.