Obama Is Wrong About Iran’s Anti-Semitism

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U.S. President Barack Obama bows to applause at the end of his remarks on Jewish American History Month at the Adas Israel Congregation synagogue in Washington May 22, 2015. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

This morning in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama spoke to Adas Israel Congregation.

It is a rare occurrence for a sitting President to speak at a synagogue. The official reason for the speech was that today begins solidarity Shabbat (Sabbath)—a day of solidarity in different parts of the world to fight the growing wave of anti-semitism.

The president used this speaking opportunity to express his commitment to Israel. He touched on the question of Iran and stated, once again, that he would not sign any agreement that will allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon.

He also touched on the disagreements he has had with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Further, the president spoke about his commitment to a two state solution, saying that only a two state solution could ensure that Israel remains a true democracy and that Palestinians have the right to a state next to Israel.  

He acknowledged that it is not easy, saying that “Palestinians are not the easiest partners” and that “Israelis lives in a tough neighborhood.” Thus, any agreement with the Palestinians could not put Israel’s security at risk.  

Obama gave an excellent speech designed to appeal to liberal Jewish audiences.  

While I found President Obama’s speech interesting, it was an interview that the president gave earlier this week and published yesterday in The Atlantic online by Jeffrey Goldberg that I found more interesting. That interview was widely reported in the Israeli press and has been the object of much discussion here in Israel.

One particular exchange between the president and Goldberg triggered an “Aha moment” for me. Suddenly, I understood the conceptual chasm that exists between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

In contrast to many Israelis, I have always felt President Obama cares about Israel and has Israel’s best interests at heart. However, most Israelis—starting with Netanyahu downward—have never believed they could rely on President Obama to negotiate an acceptable deal with Iran.

Without getting into the pro and cons of the Iranian nuclear deal, I believe Goldberg’s interview clarified the fundamental difference in world views of U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  

Here is a brief except from Goldberg’s interview.

Goldberg:

“You’ve argued, quite eloquently in fact, that the Iranian regime has at its highest levels been infected by a kind of anti-Semitic worldview. You have argued—not that it even needs arguing—but you’ve argued that people who subscribe to an anti-Semitic worldview, who explain the world through the prism of anti-Semitic ideology, are not rational, are not built for success, are not grounded in a reality that you and I might understand.

“And yet, you’ve also argued that the regime in Tehran—a regime you’ve described as anti-Semitic, among other problems that they have—is practical, and is responsive to incentive, and shows signs of rationality. So I don’t understand how these things fit together in your mind.”

Obama:

“The fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations.”

After being challenged further by Goldberg, Obama went on to say:

“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.”

Israelis would take issue most with that last sentence. To Israelis, Jewish history is filled with instances of nations taking actions against their national interests that were fueled by their virulent anti-semitism.

Did it serve Spanish national interests to expel the Jews from Spain? Was it in the national interest of the Russians to allow endless pogroms (murderous attacks against Jews) to take place? And, of course most recently, how was it in the national interest of Nazi Germany to pursue its genocidal hatred of Jews?  

A few years ago, I heard the noted Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer give a lecture in which he posited that the Holocaust was not a by-product of World War II. Bauer asserts that perpetrating the Holocaust against the Jews was the major reason Hitler fought the war.

While historians might disagree, what is not a matter of dispute is the fact that Nazi Germany took many steps that were counter to its national interest in pursuit of its policy of annihilating the Jews—so much so that it clearly impacted the outcome of the war.  

Historical hindsight has molded the Israeli Jewish perspective on anti-semitism, i.e. that while much anti-semitism takes place primarily on the fringes of society, it can also be transformed into a national policy; a policy that can, and has, led to genocide.

Furthermore, when one is referring to Iran—a country that has publicly and repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction—this form of “irrational hatred” cannot be written off as “something that would not collide with a state’s national interest.”  

Obama compares anti-semitism to the fight for civil rights. The president told Goldberg: “There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law. These things are indivisible in my mind.”  

While all that is true, to Israelis the parallel is clearly not complete. Israel was created as a place where Jews could defend themselves—after centuries of being victims. Israelis take the mindless hatred of anti-semitism seriously, and fear deeply in their hearts that it can easily lead to genocide.

To many Israelis, when they hear Iranians calling for Israel’s destruction, in their mind’s eye they see Hitler calling for the destruction of the Jews. There are those who say that the parallel between Iran and the Nazis is not accurate—that may be true, and President Obama could very well make that argument.

However, as long as President Obama uses the argument that anti-semitism does not result in nations taking irrational actions, he will fail to win over the Israeli people. To say that nations do not take irrational actions because of anti-semitism is historically incorrect, and saying so only lessens potential support for an agreement with Iran.

Marc Schulman is the editor of historycentral.com.