By Thursday afternoon, September 3, the list of U.S. Senators in favor of the Iran nuclear deal had grown to 37—by adding one from New Jersey. The airwaves blared that Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) endorsed the deal just before The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)-hosted community gathering was getting underway at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, New Jersey.
Still, there was a respectable crowd in the main Kushner auditorium on Thursday evening, where the speakers rallied for a better deal. The enthusiasm was palpable, even though there would not be the senatorial votes needed to override a presidential veto of a bill opposing the agreement. Before the speeches, Shepard Presser from Rahway said he “called the AIPAC office in Manhattan and they said that Sen. Booker needs to know how the community feels.” Presser came to the rally to learn something he didn’t know before, after observing, “This agreement didn’t accomplish the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities.” He thought that was supposed to be the goal.
As former Sen. Lieberman (I-Conn.) walked into the auditorium, AIPAC area director for New Jersey Alexa Silverman took to the stage proclaiming, “This is a challenging time for those pro-Israel, but the majority of American people are with us.” The announcement that Sen. Booker had come out in favor of the agreement brought jeers from the crowd, but they were quickly halted as Silverman thanked those who came to express disappointment with Senator Booker’s decision. Before introducing the first guest speaker, she noted, “Still dozens of members of Congress are undecided.”
The next voice was Rabbi Daniel Cohen, senior rabbi at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, a Reform synagogue in South Orange. Cohen announced that he is “a liberal democrat” and “vehemently opposed to this deal.” While opinions and perspectives are important, he said he was “disheartened by the tone on the national level since the Iran nuclear deal was announced.” He cautioned, “Respectful disagreement is a core Jewish value.” Approvingly, he added, “AIPAC made it about policy—not personality.” In his opinion, “This deal does not do what it set out to do…at best it delays Iran coming out with a nuclear bomb.” Last week, Cohen announced, he was at an AIPAC gathering of over 300 rabbis and he plans to be in Washington, D.C., again next week—the week before Rosh Hashanah. He quickly added some levity to the serious talks, “I’m a congregational rabbi—this is the busiest time of year for me, but I felt it is that important.”
A 15-year-old sophomore from Livingston High School and Chairman of the New Jersey High School Democrats, Aylon Berger awed the crowd with his words. He announced that he is “a proud American, and a proud Zionist” who “cares about Israel’s shared future.” “The most important decisions on global security come from the United States government,” he added. Berger noted that “Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who recently gave a 44-minute speech, hardly mentioned Israel,” but rather, how the deal “affects the national security of the United States.” “This agreement sets back Iran’s nuclear program a mere 15 years,” he insisted, “2030 will be here in the blink of an eye…it’s almost as [close] as 9/11.”
Jose Arango, Hudson County Republican Party Chair, who knows Sen. Booker personally, appeared on stage next and announced that he was there as a Cuban who understands oppression. He proclaimed, “We live in a historical moment. The entire world is in danger.” He warned, “This is the biggest mistake we’re making in foreign policy.” Arango went on, “This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. This is a homeland security issue.” Seeking action, he gave food for thought, “If you believe in freedom…,” lauding AIPAC, he ended his speech by insisting, “We believe in the State of Israel.”
A former senior advisor to retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, Executive Director of Veterans Against the Iran Deal, Michael Pregent pelted, “This is a loosen-your-tie event tonight.” The vote will be 10 days from now, he reminded everyone, and “This deal does nothing but empower an enemy.” Working for Intelligence, he insisted we can say, “Iran has, Iran is, and Iran will.” Pregent insisted, “We believe we have a very strong argument and can still change minds.” Announcing the next speaker, he admitted, “This movement would be nothing without this man…they tried to kill him…he died on the operating table three times…”
With a standing ovation and cheers, retired Staff Sergeant Robert Bartlett, an Iraq War Veteran, walked on stage. He reiterated, “I died three times…time stopped for me. Now you have the time to volunteer and do things. One hundred and fifty billion dollars is going to Iran in one day…to the very man who killed me and my friends.” Bartlett spent 4 ½ years at The Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) getting “rebuilt.” While downplaying the outcome of his facial reconstructive surgeries, a woman hollered out, “You look great to me!” followed by rousing applause.
“Christian, Jew, Hindu, Muslim,” he continued, “are all together in one fight…guns don’t discriminate.” Remarking that he could, “still smell the smell in the jeep, the burning smell, the smell of hair burning, flesh…turning and seeing [his] friend dead…” Bartlett questioned, “America is burning right now, where is your bucket of water?” He implored, “Please help Veterans Against the Iran Deal, please help AIPAC.” Chillingly, he put forth, “Russia and China are not our friends and they’re behind this deal.”
AIPAC’s Steven Klinghoffer introduced the evening’s keynote speaker, former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Chairman of United Against A Nuclear Iran, saying that he opposes the Iran nuclear deal. He was invited because he “speaks his conscience…gets things done for all people in America.”
The crowd stood and cheered Lieberman onto the stage. “Some people thought people wouldn’t come out because of Booker’s decision. I think this is a great crowd,” Lieberman began. He continued, “Thank you for coming out. If AIPAC were here in the 30s/40s…here in America…history may have been different.” “This is an understanding, not a written agreement,” he informed those gathered, as he went on endorsing the hosts by adding, “AIPAC has built credibility and strength…”
Lieberman told the audience he is a winner ready to go on for the next fight. He remarked, “Booker really disappointed all of us,” admitting, “I’m a friend and admirer of Cory Booker.” Lieberman insisted, “We are dealing with one of the most radical countries in the world…we cannot settle for something when we may have gotten something better. Self-reportedly progressive on social issues and tough on defense, to underscore his stance, Lieberman made reference to John Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, “we’ll pay any price…” The full quote from JFK’s speech is “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
The proposed deal “guarantees the success of one of the most non-democratic tyrannical regimes,” Lieberman cautioned. Heartbroken and feeling abandoned by the Democratic Party, he made sure to acknowledge Menendez and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) for their stand against the deal.
Lieberman pressed the need to come to a diplomatic settlement, stating that if “we end economic sanctions against Iran and they get to have their nuclear weapons, it could cause a war in the Middle East.” With the current Senate count, he reconciled, “It’s all about the filibuster.” The question remains, “Will the senators stand up and vote against the deal or will there be a filibuster?”
Firmly stating, “I want to appeal to Cory,” Lieberman assured the crowd, “I think he’s a fair man, but he made a mistake today.” “We need to call Cory and all Democratic Senators…then the majority votes of members of both houses will reflect the opinion of the majority of Americans. The second thing is that it will send a message to Iran.”
Lieberman referred to the famous Churchill quote, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” With that thought, he insisted, “Our fight has just begun to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.” We want to “ask Congress to monitor inspections of Iran’s compliance with this agreement,” and he cautioned, “It is not smart to go back to Iran and do business.”
Before stepping down for a meet and greet, Lieberman thanked the crowd again for coming out and asked for “help ensuring the security of America, Israel and the future of our children.” He ended by referring once again to the words of Winston Churchill. This time paraphrasing from Churchill’s, “Never Give Up” speech, Lieberman concluded, “You and I are never going to give up, and I promise you, Iran will never get nuclear weapons.”
After the hour of enlightening speeches, Jerry Hirschman, a Korean War Veteran said, “Lieberman inspired the crowd.” His wife Elaine, who came with her husband from Somerset, said that she and others around her cried while listening to Staff Sergeant Bartlett tell his firsthand account of the attack, which caused him to “die…” and be brought back three times, then spending years of his young life convalescing at WRAMC.
Presser commented, he was “struck by the sacrifices of the military guys who saw up-close what happens.” He said, “Someone who experiences it is different from someone who hears about it.” He hopes Lieberman continues to work for a deal where the nuclear infrastructure in Iran is destroyed.” Presser felt “it was worth coming to the rally” and he was “glad they had a good crowd.”
By Sharon Mark Cohen