Reflections From The White House

Thank goodness for frequent flyer miles.  When I received word that I was invited to the White House to witness President Obama sign the new Iran sanctions legislation, I scrambled to find a last-minute flight.  Fortunately, I found a red-eye and was off to the East Room.

The new law – the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act – provides the best hope that political and economic measures can peacefully persuade Iran to end its illicit nuclear program before it is too late.  It builds upon the recently passed United States Security Council Resolution, grants the President new authority, and strengthens a multilateral strategy to hold Iran accountable for failing to meet its international obligations.  The new law will strike at the heart of the Iranian government’s ability to fund and develop its nuclear weapons program by forcing corporations around the world, including banks and energy companies, to choose between access to the American economy or business with the Iranian regime.

On Thursday, the President walked into the East Room, where 125 people were waiting to witness history, including Members of Congress, Administration and State Department officials, Jewish community leaders, and members of the press.  And me.  It was surreal to be in the same room, alongside leaders like Congressman Howard Berman (who was the leading force behind the bill), Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congressmen Steny Hoyer, Brad Sherman and Eric Cantor, Ambassadors Dennis Ross and Susan Rice, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr, and Orthodox Union Executive Vice President Rabbi Steven Weil.

Upon reflection, I was there wearing three hats, representing three different communities.

First, I was there on behalf of the Iranian-American community.  Iranian Americans have a unique perspective on this issue.  It is well known that the Iranian government is developing nuclear weapons, brutally suppressing its own people, and sponsoring terrorism from Iraq to Gaza.  For our community, Iran was also the home of our parents and ancestors, a land rich in history and culture, whose people yearn to be free.  Over the last three years, 30 Years After has inspired thousands of Iranian-American Jews to embrace our responsibilities as Americans – to become active in the civic life of Los Angeles, to vote, and to raise our voices on issues that matter to us.  That 30 Years After was invited to the White House for this historic and timely legislative event is a reflection of the progress that the Iranian-American Jewish community is making politically.

Second, I was also a proud representative of the Los Angeles pro-Israel community.  For the last decade, dating back to my days as a campus activist, leading organizations such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), America’s pro-Israel lobby, have brought to the attention of Congress, the White House, and the American people the perilous threat that a nuclear-armed Iran would have not only to Israel but to the United States and our Arab and European allies.  Los Angeles is a hotbed for pro-Israel fundraising with countless activists, political action committees (like the World Alliance for Israel), and political networks who use their political dollars to back congressional candidates who both support the U.S.-Israel relationship and understand the Iranian threat.  A week does not go by that an out-of-state Member of Congress or candidate does not visit Los Angeles to meet with these tireless activists.  I am proud to be a part of a growing network of young pro-Israel activists who understand that the U.S.-Israel relationship is worth fighting for and cannot be taken for granted.  If it were appropriate in the East Room, I would have given a “shout-out” to my friends and colleagues that our activism helped make this important law a reality.

Finally, I was there as a Democrat, with both strong progressive and pro-Israel values.  Through my involvement with the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Bet Tzedek Legal Services, I have helped support and champion social justice issues that reflect our Jewish values of protecting the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.  I have financially supported Democratic candidates who are leading the charge on health care, immigration, and climate change reform.  However, there is a growing perception in the Los Angeles Jewish community that muscular support for the State of Israel is inconsistent with Democratic and progressive politics.  The issue of Iran disproves that notion.

Regardless of where you stand on Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem or the blockade of Gaza, Iran can and should be a priority for all progressives.  First, arguably the most cutting-edge human rights campaign and pro-democracy movement in generations has been taking place in the streets and “Tweets” of Tehran.  The Iranian people are courageously fighting against brutal suppression for the rights of women, gays, religious minorities, and a free press.  Second, for all of us who wish both to avoid a military confrontation over Iran’s nuclear weapons program and to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of Islamic extremists, we must advocate for every financial and diplomatic measure to pressure Iran to change its behavior.  The legislation imposes sanctions on individuals who commit serious human rights abuses and specifically exempts from our trade embargo technologies that allow the Iranian people to access information and communicate freely. In the spirit of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against apartheid South Africa and the human rights campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry decades ago, the campaign for a free, democratic, and nuclear-free Iran must become our generation’s cause célèbre, a sustained, broad-based campaign for justice and dignity for the Iranian people and peace for the region.

Fortunately, the legislation passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, with a vote of 99-0 in the Senate and 408-8-1 in the House.  Upon signing the bill into law, the President pledged to enforce the sanctions vigorously.  It is time to give credit to President Obama for enacting this law and support the Administration in enforcing it.  The Jewish community is broad and diverse, and, while nuanced debate is healthy and important, there are certain issues and certain moments in history that require unity.  In 2010, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran fits that bill.  And regardless of how you identify yourself – progressive or conservative, pro-Israel or pro-peace, we are one community, on the same team, fighting for the same peaceful future.

Sam Yebri is an attorney and President of 30 Years After, an Iranian-American Jewish civic organization.  He is also an active AIPAC activist and Regional Councilmember of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

Please note: this article was originally published in Jewish Journal.