There are plenty of questions to ask about the temporary nuclear agreement with Iran, but the one dominating my thoughts is personal: What would my father-in-law say?
He would be troubled, I’m sure — possibly even furious — though he would maintain his outward cool. Almost certainly, I would receive an email encouraging me to read an article, probably including a note to establish the author’s credentials. Sorting through the first wave of reactions, I wondered which article he would choose. Maybe “Iran’s Nuclear Program Is Still Growing, and America’s Fist Is Shrinking,” by the Washington Institute’s Robert Satloff, whom he admired. Or the Wall Street Journal editorial headlined “Iran’s Nuclear Triumph.” I’m only guessing, but former UN Ambassador John Bolton’s column bemoaning the “Abject Surrender by the United States” in The Weekly Standard probably would be too hysterical.
I would see the email and my heart would start pounding before I even opened it. It would take me a few moments to overcome the initial panic, and then I would read carefully and consider my response. “Thanks for sending,” I might write and leave it there. Maybe I would share a less negative assessment from a pro-Israel writer, such as Jeffrey Goldberg, and say I am inclined to agree. And then I would be distracted and anxious for the rest of the day.
In March 2012, he sent me a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Bret Stephens titled “The ‘Jewish’ President” (subhead: “Don’t believe Obama when he says he has Israel’s back”) and asked for my thoughts. The title referred to a chapter in The Crisis of Zionism, the controversial book by Peter Beinart, whose evolution from hawkish editor of The New Republic to vocal critic of Israeli policies had caused an uproar in the Jewish community. In the book, Beinart explored how President Obama’s views about Israel and the Middle East were influenced by the circle of Jewish friends he made in Chicago. To Beinart, those relationships proved that Obama understood Jewish attitudes. To Stephens, those friends’ associations with dovish groups such as J Street and New Israel Fund made them radicals — and, if he really developed his views about Israel by talking to them, then clearly Obama was, too.
My impression of Stephens was formed about a year earlier, in the wake of a foreign policy speech in which Obama declared that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” I had watched the speech at my desk and followed the reactions online, which initially included a surprising amount of gloating from conservatives saying that Obama was shifting toward their worldview. On Twitter, Emergency Committee for Israel executive director Noah Pollak said, “I don’t think there’s anything in this speech that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu will find surprising or even disagreeable.” But the narrative quickly changed; Obama had “thrown Israel under the bus” by endorsing a return to the 1967 lines, or “Auschwitz borders.” The part about “mutually agreed swaps” all but disappeared.
I was confused and angry, so I called my father-in-law at work. He had not yet watched the speech, but he had received several emails and calls about it. He said that Obama’s statement, if it included the key words about land swaps, did not represent a meaningful policy shift, though he questioned the wisdom of saying anything at all. I hung up feeling both reassured about Obama’s position and dismayed by the narrative taking hold. That weekend, I sat beside my father-in-law at the AIPAC Policy Conference as Obama recited the steps his administration had taken to bolster Israel’s security and delivered an unqualified defense, with more than a hint of condescension, of “what I said — not what I was reported to have said” on the subject of borders. Immediately following the speech, Stephens took the stage for a panel discussion with former Ambassador Martin Indyk and dismissed Obama’s entire case. Despite pushback from Indyk, Stephens insisted that Obama’s comments represented a “sea change” in U.S. policy. Two days later, he published a scathing op-ed titled “An Anti-Israel President.”
It was still relatively early in my education on the issue, but I was becoming deeply dispirited by the way we talk about Israel, even within much of the Jewish community. In the following months, the progressive advocacy organization where I worked, along with one at which I previously interned, would be accused of anti-Semitism for criticizing Israeli policies. Although the attacks were directed at a small handful of individuals, the entire organizations became targets, and there were calls for Jewish donors to stop supporting them. I had colleagues who did not understand the Jewish experience or grasp what Israel means to an overwhelming number of Jews, but they were far from anti-Semites and did not work on issues related to Israel anyway. Still, the idea that I could be associated with anything anti-Semitic, even wrongly, was painful and terrifying.
With all of this in mind, I crafted my response to the email, focusing on why I did not believe Stephens was arguing in good faith. I reminded him of the performance at AIPAC, which he had acknowledged disagreeing with, and of the subsequent op-ed. “I know he’s not stupid,” I wrote, “so I concluded that he was being purposefully dishonest.” I danced around the substance of the column, saying I was less interested in Obama’s friends than his record and argued that the president’s public clashes with the Israeli prime minister had been unfairly exaggerated by people who were “trying to turn Israel into a political wedge issue.” The next morning, I received an email thanking me for my “thoughtful and purposeful response” and revisiting certain details of Obama’s earlier speech — namely that it did not rule out a Palestinian right of return, an objection that was largely ignored in all the outrage over “Auschwitz borders.”
By the time that email arrived, however, I was putting the finishing touches on a follow-up elaborating on what I really thought. My problem with the column was not that I believed Obama’s friends were irrelevant; rather, I was offended by the notion that holding dovish views somehow disqualified them from representing Jewish thinking. “On a personal level,” I admitted, “I always feel more anxious than I let on about being at AIPAC because I feel like the questions and doubts I have are not welcome — though I appreciate that you always treat them as legitimate,” which he did. “That doesn’t mean I agree with those other organizations,” I added, “but the campaign to delegitimize opposing points of view, instead of engaging with them, is a powerful turn-off.”
Finally, I let it all out: “I strongly identify as Jewish and care deeply about Israel’s future — I hope you don’t doubt either of those things. Unfortunately, I suspect that Stephens would lump me in with Beinart as a ‘liberal scourge of present-day Israel and mainstream Zionism.’ Others, like those at the Emergency Committee for Israel, would outright label me ‘anti-Israel,’ maybe even a ‘self-hating Jew.’ And that’s what is really so troubling to me: Many of the people who claim to be arbiters of what is really ‘pro-Israel’ are telling me that I’m not, and encouraging me to stop caring or risk being labeled an outcast.”
Hitting the send button was cathartic, but I worried about what he would think, so I gave him a call. He told me that he appreciated my honesty and hoped that I never felt pressured by him. He also reminded me of what he said at my wedding — that when I married his daughter I became his son — and that nothing I believed would ever change how much he loved me. And he said that he wanted to discuss it further and better understand my views, but that we should do it in person when he was feeling better.
We never had that conversation. I was riding the Metro to work one morning in June when my wife called and told me to get on the first plane to Chicago. The next few hours were a blur. When I arrived at the hospital, I made a beeline for my wife and hugged her for I don’t how long before I even noticed the rest of the room. Her mom and sister were sitting next to the bed, where her dad was lying unconscious. We waited for hours, as a parade of extended family members broke down and said their goodbyes. It took a while, but I found the nerve to say mine, too. I threw up twice. His best friend — who was also his doctor and one of the few people to know he was battling cancer for twenty years — came in around midnight and whispered something to the nurse. A few minutes later, he was breathing, and then he stopped.
People called him a hero. He was intensely committed to the causes he believed in and the people he loved, unfailingly generous with his time and energy. As the rabbi told me before our wedding, he was the “moral compass” of his community. On the day of his funeral, the synagogue was overflowing with people who came to pay their respects, including two members of Congress, one of whom later memorialized him on the House floor. Everybody had a story of how he had helped them. “If there was a God in my life,” one of his nephews said, “it was him.”
For a son-in-law — or a son — the universal reverence could be uncomfortable, especially because we often disagreed. But it was those disagreements that truly made him a hero, at least to me. Not because he was right, but because he wanted to understand why I thought he might be wrong. Because even though most people deferred to his judgment, and even though he spent years immersed in issues I was just beginning to study, he was open to the possibility that he could learn from me — that learning from each other could make both of us better. Because people listened to him, and he was interested in listening to me.
Bret Stephens says the Iran deal is “worse than Munich.” I have some thoughts about that, but mostly I just miss my father-in-law.
Matt Finkelstein works for a political organization in Washington, DC. His writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, Esquire, Inc.com, and several other outlets. He is a native of Baltimore, MD.