Category Archives: Iran Trip 2008

Diplomacy, Not “Red Lines,” this Rosh Hashanah

Source: Ha’aretz

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.

Iran: Setting the Record Straight

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I’ve read and heard about some silly misinformation being spread around regarding my trip last year to Iran – and I’m thinking it might behoove me to set the record straight.

I will say at the outset that I gave a Yom Kippur sermon on this topic and I blogged extensively from Iran. If you haven’t read these posts yet, please do so. They will give you a pretty good sense of the why, what and how of my Iran experiences.

Right off the bat: I did not meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Now that I’ve gotten that straightened out, I’d like to address one particular quote of mine that’s being bandied about out of context:

While I prefer not to weigh in on the rhetorical hairsplitting debate on [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s notorious 2005 threat to wipe Israel off the map, I’ll only suggest that our attitudes and foreign policy must be based on real intelligence and understanding, and not fear-based, knee-jerk assumptions.

I still think this quote should pretty well speak for itself, but apparently I need to explain further.  I know of at least two instances in which this quote was used to somehow imply traitorous intentions on my part – i.e., that I prefer not to “weigh in” on the serious threats posed by Iran toward the Jewish state.

To those who doubt where my ultimate loyalties lay, I was actually referring with this quote to the rhetorical debate over the actual Farsi meaning of Ahmadinejad’s words from this oft-quoted speech. There has been an important ongoing debate as to whether these words were intended as a threat of genocide against the Jewish state or a predication of the eventual dissolution of the “Zionist regime” from within.

A recent blog post by Juan Cole represents this point of view well:

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did quote Ayatollah Khomeini to the effect that “this Occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time” (in rezhim-e eshghalgar-i Qods bayad as safheh-e ruzgar mahv shavad). This was not a pledge to roll tanks and invade or to launch missiles, however. It is the expression of a hope tha the regime will collapse, just as the Soviet Union did. It is not a threat to kill anyone at all.

As I myself am not a scholar of Farsi, I don’t consider myself qualified to weigh in on this debate, but I do believe that “our attitudes and foreign policy must be based on real intelligence and understanding, and not fear-based, knee-jerk assumptions.” I continue to stand by this assertion – I’m simply not a fan of fear-based foreign policy.  I am well aware that there are those who will say, “maybe Iran does intend to destroy Israel or maybe it doesn’t, but can we really take that chance?” I’m more inclined to say it this way: “when we jump to conclusions and base our reactions on fear rather than true understanding, we may ultimately cause our deepest fears to actually come true.”

By the way,  I encourage you to read Cole’s entire post, entitled “Top Things You Think You Know About Iran That Are Not True.” Whether or not you agree with his analysis, I believe his perspective provides a thought-provoking corrective to so many of the fear-based assumptions currently being bandied about regarding Iran.

Here are a few excerpts:

Belief: Iran is a militarized society bristling with dangerous weapons and a growing threat to world peace.

Reality: Iran’s military budget is a little over $6 billion annually. Sweden, Singapore and Greece all have larger military budgets. Moreover, Iran is a country of 70 million, so that its per capita spending on defense is tiny compared to these others, since they are much smaller countries with regard to population. Iran spends less per capita on its military than any other country in the Persian Gulf region with the exception of the United Arab Emirates.

Belief: Isn’t the Iranian regime irrational and crazed, so that a doctrine of mutually assured destruction just would not work with them?

Actuality: Iranian politicians are rational actors. If they were madmen, why haven’t they invaded any of their neighbors? Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded both Iran and Kuwait. Israel invaded its neighbors more than once. In contrast, Iran has not started any wars. Demonizing people by calling them unbalanced is an old propaganda trick. The US elite was once unalterably opposed to China having nuclear science because they believed the Chinese are intrinsically irrational. This kind of talk is a form of racism.

PS: By the way, did I mention I didn’t meet with Ahmadinejad?

The Jews of Iran: Beyond the Rhetoric

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I was pleased to read two particularly intelligent Iran-related op-eds in the NY Times today: one by columnist Roger Cohen on the Iranian Jewish community and another by Iranian journalist Ali Reza Eshraghi on the importance of engaging diplomatically with Ahmadinejad.

From Cohen’s piece:

Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran — its sophistication and culture — than all the inflammatory rhetoric.

That may be because I’m a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran. Or perhaps I was impressed that the fury over Gaza, trumpeted on posters and Iranian TV, never spilled over into insults or violence toward Jews. Or perhaps it’s because I’m convinced the “Mad Mullah” caricature of Iran and likening of any compromise with it to Munich 1938 — a position popular in some American Jewish circles — is misleading and dangerous.

Cohen’s report is very much in line with my own experience. When I attended an interfaith delegation to Iran this past November, we spent considerable time with the Jewish community – and among the many surprising impressions we received was their obvious sense of comfort and safety living as Jews under an Islamic regime.

American Jews are invariably astounded when I tell them that I myself wore a kippah publicly throughout Iran without a moment’s nervousness. (Once we were approached and asked by an Iranian man if we were Jewish – he turned out to be a Jew himself and he promptly invited us to his shul for Shabbat). I’m not being facetious when I say that in retrospect, I realize I actually felt safer as a Jew walking the streets Tehran than I often do in Israel – the only place in the world, frankly, where Jewish lives are under constant threat.

I took the picture above, by the way, at the Jewish community center in Shiraz. Just another assumption-busting Jewish Iranian image: the obligatory Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamanei hanging on the wall above a classic Jewish quote from Pirkei Avot in Hebrew and Farsi: “Every assembly that is for the sake of heaven will endure.”

(To those who live in the Chicagoland area:  I’ll be speaking about my experiences in Iran tomorrow evening, Tuesday, February 24, 7:00 at the Chicago Chapter of the American Friends Service Committee

Home From Iran, Final Thoughts

brant-ayatollah1During our final night in Iran, I was interviewed at length by two reporters from a Tehran newspaper. I mentioned to them that during my High Holiday sermon to my congregation, I noted that Americans (and especially American Jews) chronically misunderstand Iran. I told the reporters that ironically enough, I learned on this trip that I really hadn’t understood Iran nearly as well as I had thought myself.

The most essential thing I’ve learned is in some ways the most basic: Iran is a beautiful country with a venerable history and wonderful, gracious people. It is also a powerfully complicated country, marked by a myriad of cultural/political/religious/historical layers.  I am now more convinced than ever that we in the West harbor egregiously stereotypical assumptions about this country – and that we harbor them at our mutual peril.

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We spoke to many Iranian citizens during this trip and probably the most common comment we heard was that they had no problems with Americans – and that the real problem lay with our respective governments. (On more than one occasion, I heard this said in regard to Israel as well).  While I realize that these statements like these probably reflect characteristically Iranian t’aarof, (“graciousness”), I don’t underestimate the abiding truth of comments such as these. I do believe that we ultimately have more in common than not. I do believe that our respective governments continually misunderstand and misuse one another.  And I do believe that true communication and reconciliation between our two nations is not only possible, but utterly essential.

The challenge of communication was driven home to us over and over during the course of our formal meetings and dialogues. It became fairly clear to us fairly soon that even with direct face to face conversation, even with decent interpreters, miscommunication was virtually inevitable. And though these kinds of miscues might have seemed to us to be fairly benign at the time, we came to appreciate that even subtle misunderstandings had important implications.

More often than not, these barriers were due to cultural differences where words/idioms could not be simply translated literally in a single rendering.  And I can’t help but believe that many of the more ominous assumptions we hold about Iran and Iranians are due less to substance than to cultural misunderstanding. While I prefer not to weigh in on the rhetorical hairsplitting debate on Ahmadinejad’s notorious 2005 “threat” to “wipe Israel off the map,” I’ll only suggest that our attitudes (not to mention our foreign policy) must be based on real intelligence and understanding, and not fear-based, knee-jerk assumptions.

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None of this is to sugar-coat the more disturbing aspects of the Islamic Republic. If our delegation was ever tempted to do so, we received a hard dose of reality when we read in the Tehran Times about a public hanging of two men convicted of bombing a mosque that was scheduled to take place in Shiraz shortly after we were there. Yes, we are justified in recoiling from reports such as these – and we’d be foolish to deny that there are troubling human rights issues that Iran would do well to address. But at the end of the day, the solutions to these problems are certainly not ours to impose.

As a matter of fact, the Iranian human rights community has been confronting these issues for some time. And it is worth noting that their fight for peace and justice serves as a challenge to us as well. On the final night of our stay in Iran several women from our delegation met with members of Iranian Mothers for Peace, an anti-war NGO founded by courageous women, many of whom  have done time in Iranian prisons for speaking out against the injustices of the  Islamic Republic. But they have also gone on record against the US war in Iraq and in particular against a potential US attack on Iran.

From one of their public letters:

To all peace-loving mothers of America,

We are addressing you from the Middle East. Our motherly instincts compel us to share a common pain with those of you whose children are fighting in the Iraq war. Iranian Mothers for Peace is an independent organization that was established in October 2007 to object the war and warmongers both in Iran and the United States of America. We are diverse in terms of ethnicity, religion, and ideology. Iranian Mothers for Peace opposes war, human rights abuses, injustice, and poverty…

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are costing each American family $25,000 a year during a time in which the United States is in an economic crisis, with many citizens still lacking health care and economic stability.  Once again American Government officials are singing the ominous song of war – this time against Iran. It is unjust for our children to be killed and murdered while the weapons manufacturers and oil monopolies collect blood money.

Therefore, we are asking all of you peace-loving American mothers to oppose the war and those who are inciting the war in order to prevent this mistake from happening again. Please do not let our children draw weapons against each other. Please do not allow the decision makers to force Iranian, American, Iraqi, and Afghani mothers to suffer from pain and heartbreak for their children forced into fighting unjust wars.

As I read these words, I’m reminded of the many remarkable, inspired individuals we met on our journey:  Dr. Raffi, committed to serving a Jewish community that makes its home in an Islamic Republic; Habib, who seeks peace by bearing witness through his art; Dr. Rasoulipour, who devotes his life to religious understanding and tolerance, but to name a few.

So in the end I find myself returning to the subject of understanding – a concept that seems to be in such painfully short supply these days. If anything, I believe our trip highlighted for us the critical need for mutual understanding. Such a simple thing, yet somehow still so tragically elusive in our world.

There’s so much more to say, and perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to say it somehow down the line. For now, these are the impressions that will live with me forever: a beautiful country with an exquisite heritage. A gracious, poetic people who showed us the true meaning of honor and hospitality. And perhaps the most important: a reminder, despite all reports to the contrary, of our common humanity.

I can only hope that our experience can, in its small way, help bring this blessing to a world that needs it now more than ever. Inshallah…p1000128

Pickup at Hafez’s Tomb

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We’ve spent the last two days in Shiraz – and among other things our experience in this beautiful city gave us a still deeper into to Persia’s soul.

We’ve been told that while Esfahan is generally considered to represent Iran’s historical spirit, Shiraz reflects Iran’s cultural spirit. Indeed, while Iran is an Islamic Republic, Islam is not the only defining aspect of Iranian identity.

Among our many visits in Shiraz was a visit to Zoastrian Fire Temple. Zoastrianism was the religion of the ancient Persian empire and remained so until the Arab conquest converted Persia to Islam in the 7th century. Today, although the active Zoastrian community of Iran is extremely small (there are approximately 1,000 in the country) it continues to occupy an important place in Persian culture. All Iranians regardless of their religion identify with the traditions of Zoastrianism, which is in a sense regarded to be their “native religious culture.” The festival of Yalda, which occurs during the Winter Solstice and Noruz, the two week spring celebration of the Zoastrian New Year, are universally popular national holidays.

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It would have been extremely interesting to dialogue with members of the Zoastrian community, but alas, we learned at the last minute that they were not available to meet us at the Temple. Still, it has been impossible for us to ignore the impact of this ancient religion upon present day Iran. The image of Ahura Mazda, the Zoastrian God, is ubiquitous throughout the country, not only at the ancient ruins of Persepolis (above), but on travel signs, office buildings and souvenir stands.

An interesting anecdote in this regard: when we were at Mofid University in Qom, one young student of Islam proudly showed me his Ahura Mazda necklace, and told me this image was an important part of his history. When I asked if any of his clerical teachers objected, he emphatically shook his head. “It is an important part of our history,” he said. To be sure, more than one person has told us that the Islamic regime is lenient about such things because it understands the importance role Zoastrianism plays in the cultural life of Persia

Another central aspect of the Iranian collective soul, of course, is their poetry. Iranians are justifiably proud of their literary tradition; every Iranian child is read Ferdowsi’s epic “Shahnameh” as well as national poets such as Hafez, Saadi and Rumi.  The more time we spend here, the more I realize we can never underestimate the depth of pride that Iranians have in their national/cultural traditions. It is a modern-day nation can literally experience its own history back across thousands and thousands of years. And though they have been dominated by countless empires over the centuries, they have never surrendered their unique connection their culture, their heritage, their history, their language.

This is something that is very difficult for Americans in particular to grasp – our national history goes back little more than 200 years and most of us ultimately originate from somewhere else. While we study American history, our connection to it is nowhere near as profound at that of Iranians to theirs’.  At the same time, for most Americans, Iran is just another Islamic nation in the Middle East. However, you have only to spend a small amount of time here to understand that this country is much, much more.

I’m sure this sounds like a cliché, but it’s true: in order to understand Iranians, you must understand their poetry. Or at the very least, to their deep connection to their poetry that truly sings in their soul. For example, among the most important cultural landmarks in Iran are the tombs of their poets, which serve as almost quasi-sacred sites. Last night we went to two of the most important in Shiraz: the Tomb of Saadi and of Hafez. I’m still at bit mind-blown by our experience at Hafez’s tomb in particular (top pic), which was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s an immensely popular site for Iranians, particularly young Iranian young people, whose idea of a great evening is to visit Hafez’s tomb and read his spiritually passionate poems of wine, longing and romance (see below). It’s also something of a romantic hot spot, where young people can mingle, meet and (I imagine) maybe even get lucky…

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We’ve heard that the social atmosphere in Shiraz is a bit looser than in other Iranian cities, and that the regime’s “Morality Police” tend to let things go there a bit more easily. And apparently the Tomb of Hafez is one of the few places in Iran where young people of the opposite sex can mingle together publically without few of official harassment.

This certainly seemed to be the case last night. Throngs gathered near and around the crypt, reading poems, laughing and chatting. We spent a fair amount of time meeting and talking to folks and wouldn’t you know it, inevitably someone from our group got hit upon. Sarah Bassin reported later that a young man approached her, asked her where she was from, told her about how bad his marriage was, then proclaimed to her: “Your face is delicious.”

After teasing Sarah mercilessly about her quintessentially Persian encounter, we all agreed that our brief sojourn at Hafez’s tomb was unexpectedly and deeply moving. I’d say there is much we Americans can learn from a culture as profound as this one.

Farewell to Esfahan

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We’ve spent the last two days in Esfahan and we’re leaving for Shiraz early tomrrow morning. There is much to say about our stay in this gorgeous historic city – most of our time has been spent touring exquite 17th century mosques, hiking about massive, majestic Imam Square which stretches out for more than 80,000 square meters and is one of the largest city squares in the world. Have also been speaking extensively with the locals. All of the above has been richly and profoundly rewarding.

For this one, I’ll just let the pictures do the talking…

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