Category Archives: Iran

Shabbat with a Shi’ite Cleric

I spent a remarkable Shabbat lunch yesterday at the home of JRC members Mark and Margie Zivin, where I had the opportunity to meet and talk with prominent Iranian cleric, Dr. Mohsen Kadivar.  Those who assume all Iranian Shi’ite clergy are fundamentalist totalitarians would do well to learn about figures such as Dr. Kadivar, who is both a respected Muslim scholar and a vocal proponent for religious and political reform in his home country.

Among other things, Dr. Kadivar is well-known for his important three-volume treatise in which he sets forth a religious argument for the creation of an Iranian state based on the values of human rights, freedom and democracy.  He also has the dubious honor of having been jailed twice for his activism: once by the Shah and once by the Islamic regime.

During the latter imprisonment, he spent 18 months in Iran’s notorious Evin prison, where he repeatedly rejected offers of clemency if he renounced his religious ideas.  Political pressure has led Dr. Kadivar to leave his post at the Iranian Institute of Philosophy. He is currently serving as a visiting professor of Religious Studies at Duke University.

Our lunch conversation ran the gamut from political discussions of the current nuclear standoff, to human rights, to the political realities in Iran post-election.   For me, however, the most fascinating element of our discussion came when  Dr. Kadivar expressed his religious views.

Indeed, his dissent is notable because it is essentially spiritual rather than political. At the core of his critique is a challenge to the concept of velayat-e faqih, the religious rationale that was used by the Ayatollah Khomeini to grant absolute power to a Supreme Leader:

Kadivar argues that because the concept was conceived by clerics rather than by Allah, it cannot be considered sacred or infallible. And if clerics have no God-given right to rule, he says, that means that Muslims may freely select their government in a democratic Islamic republic. Kadivar has also formulated a theory on why terrorism is forbidden in Islam—an indirect reproach to an Iranian regime that is widely accused of backing terrorist groups (from Time Magazine, 2004.)

I find the notion of religious reform in Iran to be immensely exciting and I am eager to learn more. In the meantime, our conversation provided yet one more reminder for me that it is enormously important for us – as Americans and as Jews – to make the effort to understand the rich complexities of Iranian society. I am more convinced than ever that the most important way we can engage with Iran is by reaching out to and supporting of courageous individuals such as Dr. Kadivar.

Iran: Setting the Record Straight


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?

Conservative Movement: Hatikvah Instead of Shofar

The Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbinical association of the Conservative movement) distributed this letter today to its members, asking its rabbis to read the piece below in lieu of the Shofar service on Rosh Hashanah. (The shofar is traditionally not sounded when RH falls on Shabbat, as it does this year.)


On this Rosh Hashanah our brothers and sisters in Israel face the threat of a nuclear Iran – a threat to Israel’s very existence.

Today, we Jews around the world also confront the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment of the Goldstone report which blames Israel disproportionately for the tragic loss of human life incurred in Operation Cast Lead, which took place last winter in Gaza.  This unbalanced United Nations sponsored report portends serious consequences for Israel and the Jewish people.

On this holy day, which is not only Rosh Hashanah, but also Shabbat, the Shofar is silent in the face of this spurious report, the world is far too silent.

Today the state of Israel needs us to be the kol shofar, the voice of the shofar!

We ask you to write to our governmental leaders and call upon them to condemn the Goldstone report and to confront the threat of a nuclear Iran.

While the shofar is silent today, all Conservative rabbis, cantors and congregations have been asked to sing Hatikvah at this moment in the service.

We rise in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Israel.

What troubles me most about this suggestion is how profoundly it flies in the face of the very meaning of the festival itself. On Rosh Hashanah, we affirm Malchuyot – God’s sovereignty over the universe. Rosh Hashanah is the only time of the year that Jews are commanded to bow all the way to the ground and pledge our allegiance to God and God alone. We acknowledge that our ultimate fealty lies with a Power beyond ourselves, beyond any mortal ruler, any government, any earthly power.

Beyond the political arguments over such a statement, it strikes me as something approaching idolatry.

I’m curious to know your reactions, particularly in regard to its religious implications.

The UN Reports on Gaza: How Will We Respond?


The long awaited UN Human Rights Council Fact Finding Report on Israel’s war in Gaza has finally been released and its conclusions are breathtaking. The mission led by Justice Richard Goldstone (above) has concluded that serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law were committed by Israel during the Gaza conflict, and that Israel committed actions amounting to war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity.

Some background: Justice Richard Goldstone, who is Jewish, is a highly respected international jurist. He is a former member of the South African Constitutional Court and former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. His mission compiled a 574 page report, which contains detailed analysis of 36 specific incidents in Gaza, as well as a number of others in the West Bank and Israel.  According to the UN press release announcing the report:

The Mission conducted 188 individual interviews, reviewed more 10,000 pages of documentation, and viewed some 1,200 photographs, including satellite imagery, as well as 30 videos. The mission heard 38 testimonies during two separate public hearings held in Gaza and Geneva, which were webcast in their entirety. The decision to hear participants from Israel and the West Bank in Geneva rather than in situ was taken after Israel denied the Mission access to both locations. Israel also failed to respond to a comprehensive list of questions posed to it by the Mission. Palestinian authorities in both Gaza and the West Bank cooperated with the Mission.

Here is what the Mission concluded:

In the lead up to the Israeli military assault on Gaza, Israel imposed a blockade amounting to collective punishment and carried out a systematic policy of progressive isolation and deprivation of the Gaza Strip. During the Israeli military operation, code-named “Operation Cast Lead,” houses, factories, wells, schools, hospitals, police stations and other public buildings were destroyed. Families are still living amid the rubble of their former homes long after the attacks ended, as reconstruction has been impossible due to the continuing blockade. More than 1,400 people were killed during the military operation.

Significant trauma, both immediate and long-term, has been suffered by the population of Gaza. The Report notes signs of profound depression, insomnia and effects such as bed-wetting among children. The effects on children who witnessed killings and violence, who had thought they were facing death, and who lost family members would be long lasting, the Mission found, noting in its Report that some 30 per cent of children screened at UNRWA schools suffered mental health problems.

The report concludes that the Israeli military operation was directed at the people of Gaza as a whole, in furtherance of an overall and continuing policy aimed at punishing the Gaza population, and in a deliberate policy of disproportionate force aimed at the civilian population. The destruction of food supply installations, water sanitation systems, concrete factories and residential houses was the result of a deliberate and systematic policy which has made the daily process of living, and dignified living, more difficult for the civilian population.

The Report states that Israeli acts that deprive Palestinians in the Gaza Strip of their means of subsistence, employment, housing and water, that deny their freedom of movement and their right to leave and enter their own country, that limit their rights to access a court of law and an effective remedy, could lead a competent court to find that the crime of persecution, a crime against humanity, has been committed.

According to the JTA, the Israeli government and the American Jewish establishment has wasted no time in pouncing on the report. But from what I’ve read so far, none of the respondents have addressed its substance. Not surprisingly, they’re only interested in attacking the UN – in particular, the UN Human Rights Council. 

Israeli Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said, “The same U.N. that allows (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) to announce on a podium its aspiration to destroy the State of Israel has no right to teach us about morality.” According to ADL Director Abe Foxman: “This is a report born of bias. What do you do with an initiative born of bigotry?”

AJC Director David Harris:

Let us not forget that this commission was a creation of the Human Rights Council, arguably the U.N.’s most flawed body. The Council has consistently demonized Israel, while giving a free pass to some of the world’s worst tyrants, from Sudan to Iran.

My two cents:

It is worth noting that this “flawed, biased” commission had this to say about Palestinian human rights abuse during the Gaza war:

The Fact-Finding Mission also found that the repeated acts of firing rockets and mortars into Southern Israel by Palestinian armed groups “constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity,” by failing to distinguish between military targets and the civilian population. “The launching of rockets and mortars which cannot be aimed with sufficient precisions at military targets breaches the fundamental principle of distinction,” the report says. “Where there is no intended military target and the rockets and mortars are launched into civilian areas, they constitute a deliberate attack against the civilian population.”

The Mission concludes that the rocket and mortars attacks “have caused terror in the affected communities of southern Israel,” as well as “loss of life and physical and mental injury to civilians and damage to private houses, religious buildings and property, thereby eroding the economic and cultural life of the affected communities and severely affecting the economic and social rights of the population.”

The Mission urges the Palestinian armed groups holding the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to release him on humanitarian grounds, and, pending his release, give him the full rights accorded to a prisoner of war under the Geneva Conventions including visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Report also notes serious human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial executions of Palestinians, by the authorities in Gaza and by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

So much for the accusations of bias.

If Foxman, Harris, et al have any problems with the procedural process of the Mission (with which Israel refused to cooperate) I’m interested in hearing it. And if they have any evidence that counters the findings of the report, then let them bring it. Until this happens, I’m not sure their general opinion of the UN is germane to the matter at hand.

 Based upon comments and e-mails I get on a daily basis, I know I will be considered by some to be a self-righteous simpleton at best and a traitor to my people at worst. But here goes: as a Jew, I am devastated by these findings.  The moral implications of this report should challenge us to the core. And I am deeply, deeply troubled that the primary response of our Jewish communal leadership is to attack the source of the report while saying absolutely nothing about its actual content.

Yes, there are other human rights abusers in the world. And yes, some of them are even worse than Israel. Yes, the structure and governance policy of the UN is far from perfect. And yes, nations tend to use the UN for their own self-serving ends. But do these facts give us a pass on holding Israel up to the most basic standards of human rights and international law?

Iran for Iranians


In my final post from my visit to Iran this past fall, I wrote the following:

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.

I felt that passionately then and as I watch the Iranian people take to the streets day after day to demand justice in their country, I feel it even more passionately now.  I’m also immensely proud that our President refuses give in to the misguided voices that urge him to force himself on this process as it unfolds. Our country seems to finally be learning that imposing our “democracy” on other countries might not be the most effective foreign policy.

This is particularly the case with Iran, a nation that has experienced its share of empires meddle in its affairs over the centuries. Indeed, even as thousands of the Iranian people bravely demonstrate for democracy, you can be sure that it is lost on none of them that the last country to overthrow an Iranian regime was none other than the United States. The Islamic Republic may be odious in any number of ways, but at the end of the day, we must remind ourselves that it is the first Persian regime in centuries that truly belongs to its people.

Yesterday, I read a letter to the editor of the NY Times that said simply: “The Islamic Revolution has become the shah.”  A horribly mistaken analysis. For Iranians, the Shah was not simply an oppressive ruler – he was an oppressive ruler who was installed by the Americans after they took it upon themselves to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister.

Take a look at the picture above (also from the New York Times.) It’s very telling: a demonstrator’s sign juxtaposes the Ayatollah Khomeini with Mir Hossein Moussavi (who was himself one the leaders of the 1979 revolution. An interesting article in today’s NY Times, in fact, explores the historically close relationship between Khomeini and Moussavi.)

This is enormously important for us in the West to understand: whatever we might think about Khomeini, in the eyes of many Iranians, he was the one who gave their country back to them. Whatever we might think about the republic to which the revolution gave rise, it is the Iranians’ republic. Those who demonstrate in the streets are not rebelling against the revolution – they are demanding that it live up to its promise.

“Justice, justice shall you pursue.” This is what precisely what we are witnessing in the streets of Iran. We can surely support their pusuit in any number of ways, but in the end, this particular justice is theirs’ to pursue and achieve – not ours’ to dictate.

PS: Among the many blogs and e-news outlets I’ve been following, my favorite is a photo blog called Tehran 24 that updates daily with astonishing pix of the demonstrations. Definitely worth a thousand words…

The Power of the Word


I’m going to step back from my regularly scheduled cynicism and simply savor the profound and deeply inspiring message that Obama offered the world today. Yes, he is a politician, and yes, every word was carefully calibrated with political implications, but my God, what a tremendous blessing to have an American President who would end a speech with words such as this:

All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort — a sustained effort — to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.

It’s easier to start wars than to end them. It’s easier to blame others than to look inward. It’s easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There’s one rule that lies at the heart of every religion — that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples — a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian or Muslim or Jew. It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions around the world. It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today.

I know, as the pundits are already reminding us, they are ultimately only words. But don’t discount the power of words. After all, don’t all three of these respective religions teach that an entire world was created through the power of the word?

I know, I know, now the real work starts. Tomorrow we’ll have to make the hard decisions in order to make this vision a reality. But for tonight I’m content just to savor the resonance of this particularly exquisite vision…

Six Months and Counting

250_bibiIt’s no longer speculation to imagine an Israeli military attack on Iran. Following his visit to Washington, Netanyahu has made his ultimate intentions perfectly clear:

These are not regular times. The danger is hurtling toward us. The real danger in underestimating the threat.  My job is first and foremost to ensure the future of the state of Israel … The leadership’s job is to eliminate the danger. Who will eliminate it? It is us or no one.

Never thought I’d  live to find myself saying this, but here goes: the voice of sanity on this issue comes from the US Secretary of Defense:

The only way we can prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is for the Iranians themselves to decide that it’s too costly. And that it absolutely detracts from their security rather than enhances it.

If we or the Israelis or somebody else strike (Iran) militarily, in my view, it would delay the Iranian program for some period of time, but only delay it, probably only one to three years. You would unify the nation, you would cement their determination to have a nuclear program, and also build into the whole country an undying hatred of whoever hits them.

I have a sinking feeling about this. The Obama administration has painted itself into a corner by giving talks with Iran a six month deadline – a daunting task by any reasonable standard.  Are Netanyahu’s threats mere bluster? I for one wouldn’t want to test that theory.

Pray for the peacemakers…

On Clowns and Illegal Hothouses


I know I promised to pontificate on this week’s UN World Conference on Racism in Geneva, but I don’t know that I have anything to add that hasn’t already been said about this particular circus. (And I mean this literally – see above.)  For what it’s worth, I found Cecilie Surasky’s dispatches for Muzzlewatch to be the most incisive and helpful reporting on conference doings.

On a completely unrelated topic, I noticed this small news piece in yesterday’s Ha’aretz:

Five Border Policemen were wounded on Thursday in a clash with hundreds of residents of the Israeli Arab town of Kafr Qasem.

The violence broke out when security forces arrived to demolish a concrete surface upon which a hothouse was due to be built illegally. They were met at the scene by about 400 Kfar Kassem residents who had turned out to protest the move.

I suppose its just a minor news story in the scheme of things – still, it did remind me that the media’s impact is often less powerful for what it says than for what it leaves out. In this case, that would be the fact that almost all new building in Israeli Arab villages is technically “illegal” since Israel has made it virtually impossible for its Arab citizens to receive building permits.

From a New Israel Fund report:

There is a lack of planning for Arab neighborhoods and towns that has led to ongoing difficulties in obtaining building permits, and as a result, the demolishing of illegal buildings in the Arab sector. Since 1948, almost no Arab neighborhood or town has legally been permitted to expand.

Also left out of the article is any mention of this particular village’s  tragic history – and why a demolished hothouse is really just the latest chapter for the citizens of Kafr Kassem. Click here to learn more.

The Plight of Roxana Saberi

340x-121Several people have asked me, now that Iranian-American Roxana Saberi has been sentenced to eight years in Iranian prison, if I have reconsidered my opinions about Iran and the importance of American-Iranian diplomacy. If anything, this current crisis has only deepened my convictions on both counts.

As I’ve written here before, I certainly don’t harbor any illusions about the more odious aspects of Iranian politics. In fact, I wrote precisely that upon my return from my trip to Iran this past fall:

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.

How do we further Saberi’s cause and for all who suffer from human rights abuse within Iran? The answer is the same as it ever was: by choosing to speak out and by supporting the grassroots efforts of those citizens and groups on the ground who are directly affected by these violations.  However if we make this choice, we cannot do it selectively – we must apply the same criteria to all human rights abuse whenever and wherever it might occur.  Indeed, that’s what makes the current diplomatic dance over Saberi’s fate is so complex and delicate. For at the end of the day, we Americans must be willing to admit that we are on fairly slippery moral ground whenever we speak out against things like wrongful arrest, imprisonment without due process, and the absence of legal transparency.

Many analysts are suggesting that Saberi is being used as a political pawn between Iran’s hard line judiciary and President Ahmadinejad, whose administration seems to be inclining toward diplomatic engagement with the United States. Others point out that Ahmadinejad is all too happy to exploit this impasse as a feather in his cap in Iran’s current election campaign. Either way, Roxana Saberi’s plight seems to be a symptom of some significant growing pains within the Islamic Regime as well as in their relationship to the international community. The long-term stakes are high – all the more reason that this crisis must be handed with diplomatic skill and care rather than the tired, counterproductive saber-rattling of old.

Speaking of nasty international diplomatic imbroglios, I’ve got some thoughts about the loud noises coming out of Durban II.  More on that later…

Addendum 4/21/09: Click here to send a personal letter to Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, urging him to review Saberi’s trial and conviction and to release her immediately from prison.

The Jews of Iran: Beyond the Rhetoric


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