Views From Israel on the Iran Deal

Do Iran’s leaders recognize a distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism? Does it matter? Some readers in Israel weigh in.

An anti-nuclear deal tweet from the office of the prime minister of Israel, retweeted by Israeli embassies in the U.S. and elsewhere (Office of the Prime Minister of Israel)

The lobbying against the Iran deal continues. I’ve heard from readers in the following states about a blitz of anti-deal ads, aimed at Democratic senators who have not yet declared: Washington (where both Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray are still officially undecided), Colorado (same for Michael Bennet, who for the record is the older brother of our editor in chief James Bennet), Oregon (where Ron Wyden is assumed to be looking for a way to avoid voting ‘yes’), Maryland (Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski undeclared), and Michigan (Debbie Stabenow announced ‘yes’ today, but Gary Peters is still undeclared). I’ve heard about ads running even in Texas, which can’t be a very shrewd media buy (Ted Cruz and John Cornyn?). The image at top is a tweet sent out by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week and retweeted by Israeli embassies in the United States and elsewhere.

Meanwhile the list of pro-deal commitments by senators and representatives continues to mount, in a way that makes the deal’s survival seem all but assured. With that prospect in view, here are some responses from readers in Israel. They are reacting to this item last week, in which Donald Pryce, an emeritus history professor, challenged the anti-deal assertion that modern Iran can sensibly be likened to Nazi Germany.

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A crucial part of Pryce’s argument was that Iran’s leaders show, through their actions, that they recognize a distinction between anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic stances. Their rhetoric about Israel has been scorched-earth and eliminationist, while their treatment of the Jewish population of Iran has been harsh but nothing comparable. As Peter Beinart put it  earlier this month (Jeffrey Goldberg has also addressed this issue):

Three and a half decades after the Islamic Revolution, Iran boasts perhaps 60 functioning synagogues, along with multiple kosher butchers and Jewish schools …

Huckabee, Cruz, and Netanyahu claim Tehran is so desperate to murder Jews that it will use a nuclear weapon against Israel despite the likelihood that Israel would retaliate with its own much larger nuclear arsenal. Yet inside Iran itself sits a largely defenseless Jewish population. If the Iranian regime is genocidally anti-Semitic, why has it made no effort to wipe them out?

Sunday on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS broadcast, Larry Cohler-Esses of The Forward  disagreed with some parts of Beinart’s analysis but overall reported similar findings. He had recently visited Iran, as the first reporter from a Jewish media organization to be given a visa in many decades. Samples of his talk with Zakaria:

COHLER-ESSES: Among the hardliners, they make a kind of rigid compartmentalization between Jews, who they consider people of the book under Islam, and Zionists, who are a maligned international force that has nothing whatever to do with Jews or Judaism ...

ZAKARIA: Is it your sense that the Jews of Iran are living fulfilled lives or are they embattled and miserable, I guess would be the simplest way to put it?

COHLER-ESSES: They’re not miserable. But they have discriminations. One of the leaders who I quoted in my story said, we’re not oppressed, but there are limitations. And that’s true and it has many specific multiple meanings.

Under sharia, if a Muslim murders a Jew, I was told by this Jewish leader, the price is blood money. That’s the penalty. But if a Jew murders a Muslim, the price is execution. They were very proud because they are pushing back against these limitations in their own way. But they do not challenge in any way the legitimacy of sharia that gives them many disadvantages, which they then try to figure out ways around and ways to fight.

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With that set-up, here are some responses on the anti-Zionist-vs.-anti-Semitic theme. The first is from a reader who asks to be identified as “an American Jewish journalist” who recently spent 10 months in Israel. He refers both to my previous reader and to the Cohler-Esses piece for The Forward:

Your professor of history does not seem very familiar with Iran’s persecution of its Jews, or how it uses “anti-Zionism” as a flimsy cover for anti-Semitism. A few relevant data points:

The Forward recently sent [Cohler-Esses] to Iran, who came back with a largely favorable piece towards the complex country and particularly its people. Nonetheless, the piece noted, as is well established—and as Beinart no doubt was referencing in his piece—that:

“The Iranian Jewish community, whose members are today free to stay in the country or emigrate, currently numbers anywhere from 9,000 to 20,000, depending on whom you talk to, and down from 80,000 to 100,000 before the revolution. ...

“The Jews, who felt free to complain to me openly about these areas of discrimination, as they do to the government, are basically well-protected second-class citizens—a broadly prosperous, largely middle-class community whose members have no hesitation about walking down the streets of Tehran wearing yarmulkes.”

The indisputable fact that 75%+ of Iran’s Jewish community (to take the most conservative estimate) left the country in the years following the revolution should tell you all you need to know about how welcome Jews feel there. Imagine what conclusions we’d draw if 75% of Muslims felt compelled to leave the US.

Moreover, though the Forward does not note this, the Iranian regime regularly uses “Zionist” as a code word for Jew, in an effort to place a thin veneer over its otherwise obvious anti-Semitism. Indeed, Khamenei’s public rhetoric and social media accounts are rife with classical anti-Semitic imagery and claims masquerading as anti-Zionism. (A classic example.)

In other words, the regime does not really distinguish between hating Judaism and hating Zionism, contrary to your correspondent’s odd assertion that ‘Iran does not oppose Jews for what they will not change, their identity, it opposes Israel for what it does, something that is subject to change.’ Given the regime’s Holocaust denial, attacks on the Talmud, and denial of basic rights to Jews because they are Jews, this claim is undeniably false.

I bring this up not to nitpick, but to make a broader, crucial point: There’s no need to whitewash the Iranian regime’s anti-Semitism to support the nuclear deal. On the contrary, a clear-eyed understanding of that regime will be key to overseeing and enforcing the deal and ensuring the regime is not tempted to cheat. Pretending it is something it is not, on the other hand, will lead to overlooking things we shouldn’t, and the likely failure of the deal, which is in no one’s best interest.

I wrote back to ask the reader whether I could use his real name (he said he’d prefer not), and to add that I thought he had missed the point both Peter Beinart and the history professor were making. My note to him:

The logic of the “existential threat” argument is that Iran’s regime cares more about being able to kill Israelis and Jews than anything else, including its own survival. Thus it would be willing to contemplate national suicide in a nuclear retaliatory strike, if it could destroy Israel in the process.

That they’ve harassed, discriminated against, and forced-into-exile significant parts of their own Jewish population is undeniable. But if the drive to eliminate either Israelis or Jews were as powerful as assumed, wouldn’t they have moved further against the groups where they could do that with virtually no immediate risk to themselves?   

He replied:

This is a better argument than the professor’s. He’s basically saying the regime isn’t so anti-Semitic, when it demonstrably is. You’re saying it is, but that doesn’t mean we can’t deal with it, recognizing anti-Semitism is not the only impulse at work within the regime.

That’s exactly the logic Israel itself has relied on when striking peace accords with countries whose clerics, politicians and state media remain viciously anti-Semitic (Egypt, Jordan). To me, that’s the more interesting argument, and one that gets to the heart of the disagreement between deal critics and deal supporters: namely, is Iran’s state anti-Semitism categorically different from the state anti-Semitism of other countries that Israel has successfully negotiated with? Deal opponents say yes, backers say no.

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Next, on the same theme, a note from Shlomo Somerstein in Israel, whose name I am using with his permission:

I'll just pose a few questions for you,  since this seems to be your preferred way of arguing for the deal.

If the Iranian regime is merely anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic,  why do they couch their opposition in terms of “death to Israel”?  That sounds like a lot more than simply policy opposition.

Also,  why is America the “great Satan”?  Just because of her support for Israel?

Why does the Iranian regime support hizballah in Lebanon?  What do they have to do with treatment of Palestinians?

Assuming that Iran was in fact behind the bombing in Argentina,  why?  

The answers to the first few questions are implicit in the exchange with the American Jewish journalist, above. On the ones about Hezbollah, Palestine, and Argentina my reply would be: that’s not what the deal is about. It’s a negotiation with one goal only: to reduce the chance that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon. It leaves many other issues unaddressed, except that they would be even harder to solve if Iran were nuclear-armed.

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And finally, from a medical doctor in Beer-Sheva:

Ah, I feel so relieved after reading the esteemed Professor Pryce’s article, Khamanei couldn’t have expressed it any better. Anti-Semitism? We love and respect Jews! It’s only what they DO that we oppose. Now I understand, silly of me.

The Iranians (and Muslims in general) long for the good old days when the Jews were dhimmi, a “protected” underclass who were permitted to live and worship their religion in Islamic countries as long as they realized their place—including paying a high tax to the ruler. But when Jews do things like returning to their ancestral homeland to establish a state—that is over the top. Let’s get real—if a peace treaty with the Palestinians is signed tomorrow, Iran would (perhaps even could) still not stomach the thought of a “Zionist” entity in the Middle East.

Sorry for the reality check. Perhaps another professor will submit a treatise saying that the Iranians are not homophobes—they are only against what homosexuals do!

Reminds me of the days when our Arab neighbors used to say: How could we be anti-Semitic? We are Semites ourselves!

As far as the Professor’s theses that there is an important distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism—fifty years ago Martin Luther King said “don't talk to me about anti-Zionism—you’re talking anti-Semitism!”

In any case, the argument about whether Iran is anti-Semitic should not be the deciding factor whether to be in favor of the agreement or not. Let us just stick to the facts.

On the last point, I agree. The agreement should be judged on whether it does more to obstruct Iran’s nuclear ambitions than any real-world alternative. You can find a full index of posts on that topic here.