Like many American rabbis around the country, I spent the most of the day yesterday leading my congregation’s noisy, joyously raucous Purim celebration, complete with a carnival and a family Megillah reading. As per usual, we read a somewhat watered-down version of the Book of Esther – one that characteristically kept the sexual hijinx and violence to a minimum. Even with our PG version, however, there was no getting around the decidedly darker aspects of the Purim story – particularly the infamous ninth chapter in which we read that the Jews of Persia slew 75,000 Persians then celebrated the day after with a festival of “feasting and merry making.”
As always, this part of the story stuck seriously in my throat. While we adults can intellectualize the more disturbing parts of the Purim narrative (“it’s irony,” “it’s a revenge fantasy,” “it’s cathartic,” “it’s not meant to be taken seriously, after all…”) I’m just not sure we do any favors to our children when we read these kinds of stories to them, even in censored form. I’m fast coming to believe it’s time to tell a fundamentally different version of the Purim story to our children – one that celebrates the venerable Persian-Jewish experience rather than cynically telling a Persian version of “when push comes to shove, all the world really just wants the Jews dead.”
I’m also mindful that there are all too many adults who are willing to take the Purim story literally. I’ve written before about the disgusting Purim violence annually inflicted against the non-Jewish population in Israel. And on a geopolitical level, leaders of the state of Israel (and many in the American Jewish establishment) have openly and unabashedly used the Purim story to frame our relationship to Iran – presenting present day Ayatollahs and Mullahs as nothing less than Haman incarnate and promoting all out war as the only way to settle the current nuclear impasse.
For all this, however, I’m happy to report that Purim ended for me on something of a redemptive note this year.
As it turns out, the Persian New Year known as Nowruz is fast approaching and last night, I was thrilled to attend a Nowruz party sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). So after I got home from my congregation’s Purim carnival, I took off my clown costume, put on a suit, and drove to a suburban restaurant where I celebrated the coming of spring with Chicago’s Persian community and supported the important work of NIAC, which among other things supports a “policy of persistent strategic engagement with Iran that includes human rights as a core issue.”
When I addressed the gathering (above), I thanked them for reaching out to me and explained that ever since I returned from a visit to Iran in 2008, I’ve always hoped to score a Nowruz party invitation from my Persian friends. I also explained why celebrating Nowruz with NIAC was for me the perfect, redemptive coda to Purim. And I added that contrary to the impression created by some Israeli politicians and Jewish institutional leaders, there were many in my community who believed that the current crisis should be settled through diplomacy and engagement and not an inexorable march to war.
Now I’m thinking there might well be something to this Nowruz/Purim celebration. Can’t think of a better way to, in words of the Book of Esther, “turn grief and mourning into festive joy….”
As the Jewish New Year beckons, Bibi Netanyahu is cravenly criticizing the US President for not drawing a “red line” in the sand that would give the US the go-ahead to militarily attack Iran. I’m tempted to vent my gall, but thank goodness for MJ Rosenberg, who hits the nail right on the head in a blog post with the awesome title, “My Rosh Hashanah Greeting to Netanyahu: Butt the Hell Out of Our Election”:
For the last three weeks, Netanyahu has been openly attacking our president and has made clear his determination to defeat him. He is demanding that the president draw a red line in the sand, one dictated by Netanyahu, and tell the Iranians that if they cross it, we, the United States, will go to war. In short, he is demanding that the United States allow a foreign country to make our decision to commit our forces on his behalf. (Not even Winston Churchill demanded that and his country was fighting for its life against Nazi Germany not some imagined threat).
Obama is not going to risk American lives because Bibi wants him to. And I don’t think Romney would either. There are limits, not even Adelson’s campaign contributions are likely to buy a war that would destroy Romney’s presidency. He is, after all, an American politician – just like Obama. American.
Right on. I’m heartened that so far Obama has resisted Bibi’s cynical attempts to use our election season for his own political benefit. As Nicholas Kristof put it so aptly in today’s NY Times, “I think Obama should indeed set a red line — warning Netanyahu to stop interfering in American elections.”
This New Year, as I listen to these kinds of threats bandied about, I can’t help but think back to a sermon I gave to my congregation during the High Holidays four years ago – on the eve of my trip to Iran with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. This is what I had to say back then (still all too relevant today):
If we Jews truly want to avoid a “second Holocaust,” I would suggest the first step would be to stop comparing every provocation against Israel and the Jewish people in the most extreme terms possible. Iran is not the Third Reich and Ahmadinejad is not Hitler. This is not to say we shouldn’t take Ahmadinejad’s hateful rhetoric seriously, but it does mean that this is a thorny, difficult and complex crisis. And we would do well to respond to it with intelligence and understanding, not by drawing lines in the sand and increasing even further the likelihood of yet another tragic military conflict in the Middle East.
You can click here to read the entire sermon. I also blogged extensively during my trip – you can dig up those posts by going to the Categories menu on the right and clicking on “Iran Trip 2008.”
Let us all pray and work for peace in 5773.
Talks began today in Moscow between Iran and the “P5 +1″ (the five permanent member nations of the UN Security Council plus Germany). I’m hoping against hope for a breakthrough, but it’s certainly not looking good.
For a sane and balanced take on Iran, I’ve long turned to Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, and one of our foremost experts on US-Iranian relations. In a recent NY Times op-ed, Parsi identified precisely why Obama has precious little room to maneuver going into the Moscow talks. In a word: Congress.
Congress is actively seeking to make a deal on the nuclear issue impossible by imposing unfeasible red lines, setting unachievable objectives — and depriving the executive branch of the freedom to bargain.
Just before last month’s talks in Baghdad, Congress passed a resolution that endorsed the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s red line on the nuclear issue (Iran can’t have a uranium-enrichment capability), as opposed to the red line adopted by the Pentagon and the president (Iran can’t have a nuclear weapon). The problem is, Mr. Netanyahu’s red line isn’t feasible and doesn’t leave any room for negotiations…
If Iran agrees in Moscow to accept the American demand that it halt uranium enrichment at the 20 percent level — too low a level to quickly create a nuclear weapon — this would effectively obstruct any Iranian shortcut to a bomb. Congress must then give Mr. Obama the political space to be able to take yes for an answer.
Congress must make up its mind. Does it want to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb or does it want to maintain its sanctions? Going forward, it can’t have both.
As if to put a period on Parsi’s analysis, last Friday 44 senators (23 of whom were Democrats) sent a letter to President Obama demanding that he insist upon three “absolute minimum steps” for continuation of talks: shutting down the Fordow nuclear enrichment facility, freezing all uranium enrichment above 5%, and shipping all uranium enriched above 5% out of the country.
The letter concludes:
If the sessions in Moscow produce no substantive agreement, we urge you to reevaluate the utility of further talks at this time and instead focus on significantly increasing the pressure on the Iranian government through sanctions and making clear that a credible military option exists. As you have rightly noted, ‘the window for diplomacy is closing. Iran’s leaders must realize that you mean precisely that.
If you needed any evidence of Parsi’s claim that Congress is “actively seeking to make a deal on the nuclear issue impossible by imposing unfeasible red lines, setting unachievable objectives — and depriving the executive branch of the freedom to bargain,” this letter provides it. The writers and signers of this letter clearly know full well that these demands will be a non-starter for Iran.
Even more disturbing is the role of the Israel lobby in these cynical maneuvers. Mideast analyst MJ Rosenberg revealed, in a piece posted four days before the letter was released, that the letter was drafted by AIPAC staffers, pointing out that it was essentially
an AIPAC device for scoring senators in an election year. Those who sign will be rewarded or left alone. Those who don’t will hear from AIPAC and its friends. Not a pretty possibility.
OK, I’ll say it: the role of the Israel lobby in the Iran issue has been nothing short of shameful. And at times openly, brazenly disingenuous. Among the more odious examples: the Emergency Committee for Israel, (what you might call the more “zealous” wing of the lobby) recently released a 30 second scare-ad that proclaimed, among other things, that “Iran has enough fuel for five nuclear bombs” – a spurious claim which belies that fact that Iran currently has no weapons grade material at all.
Yes, this election year gives Obama precious little room to maneuver – and the lobby is clearly doing everything it can to exploit this. But since Obama has repeatedly bent over backwards to prove his allegiance to Israel and AIPAC, I don’t see how bowing to these latest salvos will do much to significantly improve his electoral prospects. And since he’s going to be excoriated by his political rivals no matter what he does, why not stick to his own administration’s stated policy, behave like a statesman and push for a diplomatic success? After all, who should be determining Obama administration negotiating strategy – the Obama administration or Congress/AIPAC?
When you consider that the alternative is another ill-advised march to another disastrous Mideast war, the stakes could not possibly be higher.
Pray for a breakthrough in Moscow this week.
PS: I’m honored to be discussing this issue further in a dialogue with Trita Parsi entitled “Can War with Iran be Averted?” on Thursday, June 28, 7:00 pm at Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL. Click here for more details.
Just happened to glance at a blog post I wrote during the 2008 Presidential General Election campaign entitled “Go Rabbis for Obama!”
Man, what a difference four years makes. I think I can safely say it will be impossible for me to summon the kind of excitement I expressed in that giddy blog post just four short years ago.
Actually, if truth be told, it was just one year into his presidency when I concluded that Obama, from a foreign policy point of view at least, was essentially Bush 2.0. Now as his first term comes to a close, I’m daring to consider the possibility that he might actually be worse.
I’ve already written a fair amount about my disillusionment on this score – most pointedly in my Yom Kippur serrmon from earlier this year:
For some Americans the most salient lesson of 9/11 was that the world is a dangerous place and we must use military power to mitigate the danger. I include myself among those who learned a very different lesson: 9/11 taught us that when we intervene militarily abroad, we beget blowback here at home.
Many of us had hope that Obama truly believed this as well – that he would turn back the Bush doctrine and steer our nation’s foreign policy toward a saner course. But as it has turned out, the very opposite has happened. He has embroiled us in even more Mideast wars and has deployed even larger numbers of special operations forces to that region. He has also transferred or brokered the sale of substantial quantities of weapons to these countries and has continued to build and expand US military bases at an ever-increasing rate.
He also promised to prosecute the so-called “War on Terror” with greater attention to civil liberties, but that hope has been fairly dashed as well. During his campaign, note what he had to say about this subject:
“As president, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.”
Well, it’s over two years later and Guantanamo is still open. This past March, the Obama administration announced it would be resuming military tribunals there. And just last week, we learned that our President did something truly unprecedented – our President actually approved the extra-judicial assassination of an American citizen in Yemen.
And it’s gotten even worse since then. More recently, we’ve learned that Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Obama has been personally been maintaining a drone “kill list” which, according to the NY Times:
counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. (Emphasis mine).
Even more recently, the NY Times has revealed that President Obama has been secretly overseeing a massive cyber-war initiative against Iran (known as “Olympic Games”) that, among other things, almost assuredly represents the official kickoff to a global cyber-weapons race. As the article correctly concludes, the blowback to our nation from Obama’s cyber-adventures could potentially be devastating:
(No) country’s infrastructure is more dependent on computer systems, and thus more vulnerable to attack, than that of the United States. It is only a matter of time, most experts believe, before it becomes the target of the same kind of weapon that the Americans have used, secretly, against Iran.
But my disillusionment in the Obama administration is most profound when it comes to its handling Israeli-Palestinian peace process. I’ve written about this issue over and over as well – but if you still need more convincing that this administration has utterly caved to the Israel lobby and has abdicated any semblance of “honest broker” status in this process, it was recently reported that Obama unabashedly assured a group of Jewish orthodox leaders that his administration is “decidedly more attentive to Israel than it is to the Palestinians.”
All this to say that I’m in a very different frame of mind as Obama now runs for reelection. The giddiness has been replaced with a dose of hard, cold realism about the role of the President in the 21st century national security regime:
Again, from my Yom Kippur sermon:
I’m focusing these observations exclusively on our Commander-in-Chief, but of course I realize that this issue is much, much larger than just one man. I know it’s natural to look to our primarily to our President, but in truth what we call “Washington” is really a massive bureaucracy that includes a myriad of interests. It’s a far reaching power elite that includes not only the federal government but the national security state, as well as the intelligence and federal law enforcement communities. It also includes big banks and other financial institutions, defense contractors, major corporations and any number of lawyers, lobbyists former officials, and retired military officers, all of whom hold enormous influence over our foreign policy.
So as we swing into summer and we listen to Obama and Romney trade salvos over foreign policy, don’t be fooled – at the end of the day there is less than an inch of daylight between the two. Mideast analyst Aaron David Miller, in a Foreign Policy post entitled “Barack O’Romney” only half jokingly suggested that if reelected, Obama ought to consider making Mitt Romney his new Secretary of State. Another respected analyst, MJ Rosenberg, has gone as far as to suggest that President Obama would actually be more likely to bomb Iran than a President Romney.
What should we do with all this hard political realism? As for me, I’m taking my cue from the classical Jewish text, Pirke Avot:
Love work. Hate authority. Don’t get too friendly with the government. (1:10)
And for good measure:
Be careful with the government, for they befriend a person only for their own needs. They appear to be friends when it is beneficial to them, but they do not stand by a person at the time of his distress. (2:3)
The events of these last four years have provided a painful education for me. I’ve learned more than ever that it is not politicians who create socio-political change – it is, rather, the people and the movements who make it impossible for them not to.
Yes, there are some important domestic issues at stake in this election (not least of which are potential Supreme Court appointments) but let’s not be fooled into thinking that the future of US foreign policy fundamentally depends on who we choose to be our Commander in Chief.
The real difference will depend on our readiness to hold him accountable once the election is over.
Tonight I won’t need to drink anything to tell the difference between Bibi and Daffy Duck.
The Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council has just released the following statement, below. If you are a rabbi or cantor, please consider signing on.
We, the undersigned American Jewish clergy, are deeply concerned about reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu will demand of President Obama, at their meeting at the White House today, that either the United States attack Iran, or else, Israel will.
We do not welcome the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. We call on all the military forces in the region – including Israel’s – to divest themselves of their nuclear armaments and renounce any belligerent nuclear aspirations.
The State of Israel refuses to acknowledge its own nuclear arsenal or to submit to international monitoring. We believe it is hypocritical of Israel to demand of Iran what it refuses to agree to itself.
Most of the people of the State of Israel oppose Prime Minister Netanyahu’s military threats against Iran. They fear the consequences of an attack on Iran. As Jewish leaders, we too believe that the path of wisdom towards achieving peace and stability in the region is through dialog and engagement and not through acts of war. We call on the United States government to safeguard the interests of the people of Israel and Iran.
Nine years after the United States launched a war against Iraq that is widely recognized as having been badly executed and unjustified, Israel would have the U.S. implicate itself in a new war in the region, this time against Iran. We believe that Jews, and other Americans, will not support more reckless adventurism in the Middle East.
In this election year, we call on President Obama not to give in to warmongering. As Jewish leaders we cannot endorse an Israeli act of war against the people of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Bible teaches us: “bakesh shalom v’rodfehu - seek peace and pursue it.” We urge President Obama to stand firm and to use his power as Israel’s chief supporter to draw Israel to the path of peace and justice.
In the meantime, I strongly recommend MJ Rosenberg’s analysis of Obama’s much-anticipated speech at the AIPAC conference yesterday:
The President, in the middle of an election year, offered AIPAC no more than the bare minimum. In order to get away with that, he larded up the speech with embarrassing professions of love for Israel. I say embarrassing because no other country in the world demands such endless coddling. If a president spoke about Canada or the United Kingdom (two far closer allies) the way Obama does about Israel, he might be considered seriously off his game. Not to worry, he won’t.
But the lard doesn’t mean much except to smooth his way to the substance of the speech which Obama knew that neither AIPAC nor Prime Minister Netanyahu would like.
A few voices of sanity as the drumbeats for a US and/or Israeli military strike on Iran reach a fever pitch. First, here’s Gary Sick’s smart blog post addressing Ronen Bergman’s egregiously alarmist cover story in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday:
Bergman’s dramatic statement that “I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012,” is also nothing new — it simply changes the date. We heard the same thing a year ago from Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, and two years before that from uber-hawk John Bolton, who confidently predicted that the U.S. and/or Israel would strike Iran before George W. Bush left office. It is becoming almost an annual ritual.
Why do these false alarms keep going off? Bergman suggests an answer with disarming honesty: “Some have argued that Israel has intentionally exaggerated its assessments to create an atmosphere of fear that would drag Europe into its extensive economic campaign against Iran…” To this, the ubiquitous “senior American official” adds that “It is unclear if the Israelis firmly believe this or are using worst-case estimates to raise greater urgency from the United States.” In other words, Israel benefits by keeping the pot near the boiling point so that no one can ignore the Iran issue, even for a moment.
The only issue seriously discussed in this country is: How exactly can we do it, or can we do it at all (without causing ourselves irreparably greater harm)? Effectiveness, not legality or morality, is the only measurement. Few in our own little world (and who else matters?) question our right to do so, though obviously the right of any other state to do something similar to us or one of our allies, or to retaliate or even to threaten to retaliate, should we do so, is considered shocking and beyond all norms, beyond every red line when it comes to how nations (except us) should behave.
This mindset, and the acts that have gone with it, have blown what is, at worst, a modest-sized global problem up into an existential threat, a life-and-death matter. Iran as a global monster now nearly fills what screen-space there is for foreign enemies in the present US moment. Yet, despite its enormous energy reserves, it is a shaky regional power, ruled by a faction-ridden set of fundamentalists (but not madmen), the most hardline of whom seem at the moment ascendant (in no small part due to US and Israeli policies). The country has a relatively modest military budget, and no recent history of invading other states. It has been under intense pressure of every sort for years now and the strains are showing. The kind of pressure the US and its allies have been exerting creates the basis for madness – or for terrible miscalculation followed by inevitable tragedy.
And this one is a few weeks old already, but it’s still haunting my dreams: Mark Perry’ deeply disturbing expose for Foreign Policy that describes how Israel recruited members of a terrorist organization to fight their covert war against Iran. If you have any doubt about how reckless Israel has become in its determination to bring down the regime in Iran, please take the time to read this one.
While many of the details of Israel’s involvement with Jundallah are now known, many others still remain a mystery — and are likely to remain so. The CIA memos of the incident have been “blue bordered,” meaning that they were circulated to senior levels of the broader U.S. intelligence community as well as senior State Department officials.
What has become crystal clear, however, is the level of anger among senior intelligence officials about Israel’s actions. “This was stupid and dangerous,” the intelligence official who first told me about the operation said. “Israel is supposed to be working with us, not against us. If they want to shed blood, it would help a lot if it was their blood and not ours. You know, they’re supposed to be a strategic asset. Well, guess what? There are a lot of people now, important people, who just don’t think that’s true.”
How did this one slip in under the media radar (pun intended)?
From the Jerusalem Post 12/20:
Israel is moving forward with plans to hold the largest-ever missile defense exercise in its history this spring amid Iranian efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.
Last week, Lt.-Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of the US’s Third Air Force based in Germany, visited Israel to finalize plans for the upcoming drill, expected to see the deployment of several thousand American soldiers in Israel.
This is not the first example of US military presence on Israeli soil. Back in 2008, it was reported that 120 US military technicians and advisers were permanently in Israel to help operate a new early-warning radar system that was designed to ward of a potential Iranian missile attack.
But the deployment of “several thousand American soldiers” in Israel is something else entirely. Could there be any more ominous sign of the “special relationship” between these two military-industrial juggernauts?
BTW, shortly after this report was issued, the chief of the Mossad publicly stated a nuclear Iran would not pose an existential threat to Israel. And still the drumbeats grow ever louder.
This one hasn’t trickled down to the mainstream media yet and clearly needs more independent confirmation. But for those hoping against hope that 2012 would be a more peaceful year, I’d say things are off to a pretty dismal start…
Netanyahu is seeking support in his cabinet for a military attack on Iran. Shimon Peres has just said an attack is “more and more likely.” This, despite the fact that numerous leaders in Israel’s security establishment, including former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, feel that such action would be disastrous.
Make no mistake: this has nothing to do with any imminent threat and everything to do with politics. Even Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said publicly he doesn’t believe Iran would ever drop a nuclear bomb on Israel.
So why this latest panic? Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar hits it right on the head: Netanyahu knows that Obama is politically hamstrung on this issue and he smells serious blood in the water:
(Newt) Gingrich…declared at the week’s end that if the Israeli prime minister reaches the conclusion that the country is in danger, no American president could doubt it and expect Israel to sit with its arms folded and face the danger of another Holocaust. One of his rivals for the candidacy, Rick Perry, then hastened to announce that if Israel decided to attack Iran, he would demand that the United States stand behind it.
What do they have to lose? If this is a false threat designed to goad the United States into exerting more pressure on Tehran, they can wave their support. If a military assault is a new version of the last war in Iraq, they will be able to place the blame on President Barack Obama.
The problem with all this political saber-rattling, as Iran analyst Trita Parsi correctly points out, is that the more Israel presses its cynical “another Holocaust” narrative against Iran, the harder it will be “for any Israeli politician to walk back the threat depiction without losing critical political capital at home.” In other words, all this political bluster could well create a disastrous military fait accomplis.
Last word to David Remnick, who recently posted an important piece on this subject in the New Yorker blog:
A unilateral attack from Israel…would be a grave mistake for all the reasons made plain by Meir Dagan and so many others. It is terrible enough to imagine what might happen if Iran came to possess a bomb; but an attack now would almost certainly lead to a tide of blood in the region. The Middle East today is in a state of fragile possibility, full of peril, to be sure, but also pregnant with promise. A premature unilateral attack could upend everything and one result of many would be an Israel under fire, under attack, and more deeply isolated than ever before.
Moshe Yaroni, writing in Zeek, offers an extremely eloquent answer to the question “Why is there so much attention on Israel’s human rights abuses when there are so many other worse offenders, including Iran and any number of Arab states?”
This is a tired argument. Few states enjoy such close cooperation in the diplomatic, industrial, political and economic arenas with the United States than Israel. None of these countries have the kinds of human rights violations allegations made against it that Israel does due to a forty three year long occupation, one that has only grown harsher and more complex in its severity since the peace process first began in the early 1990s.
Israel is welcomed into the family of Western democracies, by the US and Europe, and therefore enjoys many benefits that Arab states and Iran and other states do not. Israel’s recent admission to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is the latest example. These benefits should carry with it raised expectations—Israel is supposed to behave better than Iran or Saudi Arabia.
The occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza are very serious issues. They are sources of immiseration and exploitation, with enormous global consequences. It is a fallacy to suggest that these issues, which involve American governmental and corporate support to a much greater degree than many other issues, cannot be protested simply because there are worse problems in other places.
Finally, few human rights issues around the world affect Americans to the extent that the Occupation does. Not only do they complicate American diplomatic and military efforts in the Middle East (even Dennis Ross, who wrote, with David Makovsky, the strongest argument against what they called “linkage” recently admitted this) but Israel is a close ally on many levels and is a focal point for the faiths of a majority of religious Americans. There is every reason for Americans to focus on this conflict.