An Iran Attack Could Endanger American Jews

The impact of Israeli strategic decision-making on the physical safety of Diaspora Jewry is one of those borderline-taboo topics in American Jewish life. For obvious reasons, Israelis, and their Jewish supporters abroad, don't want to have undermining thoughts about a theoretically negative consequence of Zionism, a movement that is meant to make Jews safer, not more threatened.

The problem is simple: Muslim extremists often conflate Israel and the Diaspora. They do this for two reasons: One, they are anti-Semites, and so tend to see all Jews, and not merely "Zionists," as their enemies; the second is a practical one -- it is easy to strike at soft Jewish targets outside of Israel, easier, certainly, than executing mass terror attacks against Israeli targets these days. And so what you have, on occasion, is an attack like the one directed against the AMIA Jewish center in Argentina in 1994, in which eighty-five people were murdered.

That operation was almost certainly sponsored by Iran through its proxy, Hezbollah; it is reasonably certain that the recently-assassinated Hezbollah external apparatus chief, Imad Mugniyeh, was involved in the bombing; and it is generally believed that the attack was meant to avenge the Israeli assassination of Abbas Mussawi, the former leader of Hezbollah, two years earlier. Of course, Hezbollah doesn't need excuses to kill Jews, but excuses are useful for public relations.

There have also been cases in which lone gunmen, out to punish Israel for its alleged sins, have taken out their vengeance on non-Israeli Jewish targets. The attack at the Seattle Jewish Federation in July of 2006, in which a man named Naveed Haq killed one person and wounded six others, is a case in point.

The leaders of American Jewish organizations are generally hesitant to bring up the subject of Diaspora blowback when they talk to Israeli officials, and not without justifiable reason: Israel is a sovereign state, and makes decisions based on the needs of its national security. And Israeli officials bridle at the thought of Diaspora Jews telling them what to do. They also bridle at the idea that the existence of Israel actually endangers Jews in the Diaspora, rather than strengthens them. I would never argue that Israel hasn't strengthened, in particular, the American Jewish community, giving it both backbone and meaning. And I wouldn't argue that Israel should refrain from acting as a rescuer of persecuted Jews worldwide simply because it blurs the line between the interests of the Diaspora and the interests of the Jewish state.

But the existence of groups like Hezbollah means that Israel should weigh, among other factors, the potential impact of a strike on Iran on Diaspora Jewish institutions. Already, I've been told, Jewish institutions across South America are on alert for a "revenge" attack because of the assassination of Imad Mugniyeh. Jewish institutions in North America are another story. Outside of New York, in particular, most institutions are fairly oblivious to some very obvious threats, and most Jewish leaders don't realize that Iran, or Hezbollah, or for that matter, al Qaeda, think about their institutions as legitimate targets for terrorist attack. (In April, the number-two official in al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued an audio recording calling for operations "against Jewish interests," promising to "strive as much as we can to deal blows to the Jews inside Israel and outside it, with Allah's help and guidance."

I'm not naive enough to think that Israel won't act in its perceived national security interest simply because its actions might endanger Jews overseas. And I wouldn't like to see Israel paralyzed into inaction out of such a fear -- though, on this particular issue, the threat of the Iranian nuclear program, I'm far from convinced that Israel should act militarily.

The only thing that can be done is for Jewish institutions to prepare themselves for attacks that would almost certainly be launched in the wake of an Israeli strike. And, as of right now, the American Jewish community is not prepared at all.