Obama and his American critics on Irans anti-Semitism …

Posted By on June 3, 2015

Something unusual has begun in the Washington-New York corridor. Journalists and policy analysts have begun a critical public discussion about President Obamas understanding (or misunderstanding) of the significance and nature of the anti-Semitism of the Iranian regime. They are asking how his view on that subject affects prospects for a nuclear deal to stop the ayatollahs from getting the bomb. Insights about the history and nature of anti-Semitism that we historians have elaborated over the years are finding their way into the pages of several of our major newspapers and at least one important policy-related international relations journal.

The President himself, apparently stung by criticism that his approach to Iran is facilitating rather than preventing its path to the bomb and that he bears primary responsibility for the tensions in American-Israeli relations, initiated this discussion when he recently gave an extensive interview to The Atlantic magazine journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. The interview was published on May 21. Then, on May 22, the President spoke at Adas Israel, a Conservative Washington, D.C. synagogue whose congregants include many of the citys politics and policy leaders. There, the President spoke of unbreakable bonds and a friendship that cannot be broken between the United States and Israel. He said he was interested in a deal that blocks every single one of Irans pathways to a nuclear weapon every single path. The President eloquently recalled the role American Jews played in the Civil Rights Movement and spoke of the values we share. A week later, foreign policy analyst Michael Doran, whose excellent commentary about Iran I have discussed previously in this blog, wrote a Letter to My Liberal Jewish Friends in which he argued that the existence of shared values, though important, was not the key issue. It was, instead, the necessary criticism of Obamas policies towards Irans nuclear program.

In the interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, the President finally laid out in public for the first time his view of the role of anti-Semitism in the government in Tehran. As a historian who has written a great deal about anti-Semitism, I welcome this terribly belated public discussion of anti-Semitism in the American foreign policy world. A year ago almost to the day, on June 2, 2014, I published Taking Irans Anti-Semitism Seriously in the American Interest magazine. Adam Garfinkle, that journals fine editor, combines an insiders grasp of US foreign relations with an understanding of the nature of anti-Semitism, which he discussed in an essay in 2012. In my essay, I wrote:

The scholarship on the history of anti-Semitism hasnt yet had a significant impact on the policy discussions in Washington about Iran. Perhaps too many of our policymakers, politicians, and analysts still labor under the mistaken idea that radical anti-Semitism is merely another form of prejudice or, worse, an understandable (and hence excusable?) response to the conflict between Israel, the Arab states, and the Palestinians. In fact it is something far more dangerous, and far less compatible with a system of nuclear deterrence, which assumes that all parties place a premium on their own survival. Irans radical anti-Semitism is not in the slightest bit rational; it is a paranoid conspiracy theory that proposes to make sense (or rather nonsense) of the world by claiming that the powerful and evil Jew is the driving force in global politics. Leaders who attribute enormous evil and power to the 13 million Jews in the world and to a tiny Middle Eastern state with about eight million citizens have demonstrated that they dont have a suitable disposition for playing nuclear chess.

On April 6 I returned to these themes in this blog: The Iran Deal and Anti-Semitism. Here I expressed concern about Obamas reference to the practical streak in the Iranian government. So I was very pleased to see that Goldberg had decided to raise precisely this issue in his now much-discussedwithin some circlesinterview with the President. Goldberg thought it was difficult to negotiate with people who are captive to a conspiratorial anti-Semitic worldview not because they hold offensive views, but in his words because they hold ridiculous views. Obama responded as follows:

Well the fact that you a re anti-Semitic, or racist, doesnt preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesnt preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesnt preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesnt mean that this overrides all of his other considerations.

In reply to Goldbergs oblique comment that anti-Semitic European leaders had made irrational decisions, Obama stated:

They may make irrational decisions with respect to discrimination, with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool. At the margins, where the costs are low, they may pursue policies based on hatred as opposed to self-interest. But the costs here are not low, and what weve been very clear [about] to the Iranian regime over the past six years is that we will continue to ratchet up the costs, not simply for their anti-Semitism, but also for whatever expansionist ambitions they may have. Thats what the sanctions represent. Thats what the military option Ive made clear I preserve represents. And so I think it is not at all contradictory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semitism in the core regime, but that they also are interested in maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their own country, which requires that they get themselves out of what is a deep economic rut that weve put them in, and on that basis they are then willing and prepared potentially to strike an agreement on their nuclear program.

Because Goldberg spoke vaguely about European leaders, the President either did not have to or did not choose that moment to speak about his understanding of the role of anti-Semitism in the Nazi regime and during the Holocaust. That is unfortunate, because it seemsto this historian at leastthat his grasp of the subject leaves something to be desired. The consensus among the numerous scholars who have worked on the subject is that for the Nazis, anti-Semitism was not primarily a form of discrimination or an organizing tool. It was an ideology that justified mass murder and did so not for the ulterior purpose of organizing others but because they believed that exterminating the Jews in the world would save Germany from destruction and eliminate the primary source of evil in the world. The extermination was carried out for the sake of these beliefs. Nor was this ideology at the margins of Nazi policy; it was at its center. The Presidents comments to Goldberg raise questions about whether the President fully or accurately understands the link between ideology and policy during the Holocaust. As I wrote in The Jewish Enemy, the Nazi leadership interpreted the entire Second World War through the prism of anti-Semitic paranoia in such a way as to interpret the war as one, incredibly, launched by world Jewry to exterminate the German people. Anti-Semitism then was a key interpretive framework that the Nazis employed to misunderstand the political realities of the time. If the President understands this dimension of anti-Semitism it was not evident in his interview with Goldberg.

Of course, Nazi Germany is gone and Hitler is dead. So a policy question facing any President of the United States now and in years to come remains the following: What is the place and the nature of anti-Semitism in the Iranian regime, and what impact does this ideology have on its foreign and military policy toward the United States and its allies, including Israel? For the first time in his six years in office, the President publicly acknowledged what scholarly observers of Iran, such as Tel Aviv Universitys Meir Litvak, among others, have pointed out for the past two decades, namely that indeed there are deep strains of anti-Semitism in the core regime. Aside from the obvious rejections of Mahmoud Ahmadinejads Holocaust-denial circus, this may have been the first time that any official of the United States government during the Obama years has said anything remotely approaching the Presidents remark about deep strainsin the core regime. On the contrary, during this era of euphemism, even pointing to the regimes radical anti-Semitism could raise suspicions of Islamophobia. So President Obamas long-overdue acknowledgment of what has been obvious to informed observers for decades is most welcome. Yet, in the same sentence in which he acknowledged this inconvenient truth, he suggested that the ideological imperative would give way to practical and rational interests in maintaining power. In so doing, he diminishes the impact of the ayatollahs radical anti-Semitism on the whole spectrum of Irans foreign and military policy.

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Obama and his American critics on Irans anti-Semitism …

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