Windows and Doors

Windows and Doors


Jews, Iran and American Foreign Policy

posted by Brad Hirschfield

The Obama administration has repeatedly commented on its desire to engage Iran more constructively. And while the possibility of success can be debated, it seems that failing to try would only guarantee the current unacceptable status quo. The New York Times’ Roger Cohen returned from a trip to Iran and reaches similar conclusions, but for very bad reasons — ones which suggest the acceptability of racial and religious bias which should never be acceptable.
Cohen is correct about both the failure of what he calls Green Zoneism, advancing Middle East policy based on the conditions and partners we wished existed instead of those who really do. But basing his conclusions on his experiences in Esfahan’s Palestine square could not be more wrong. He reports on the lives of Jews who admit that they live, in their own words, as a “tolerated” minority. Hardly something which either Mr. Cohen or anybody else should find comforting.
Jews in Iran live as a permanent underclass that must constantly prove their loyalty to the nation in which they live by shouting the loudest about the actions of fellow Jews in other countries. They are like German Jews in WWI, who were especially proud of the French and English Jews they killed because it demonstrated that they were “really” German. That’s tragic. It’s shameful to see it repeated in the 21st century and hardly the basis upon which to build a new and smarter foreign policy.
It’s not that I believe Cohen’s informants were insincere in their comments to him; simply that they were coerced, either overtly or more subtly.


That kind of subtle coercion is the by-product of toleration as opposed to genuine equality.
To be sure, Iran’s Jews are not prisoners there. They choose to stay. And there is, as Mr. Cohen points out, a big difference between being a Jew in Iran and being a Jew in the Arab world. But making that distinction is akin to claiming that it was better to be a Jew in 19th century Germany than it was in 19th century Russia — neither was without its problems, to say the least.
As for those who would compare the lot of Jews in Iran with that of Palestinians living under Israeli control, we should be clear. No more people would choose to live as Jews in Iran than would choose to live as Palestinians in Israel and that should not be ignored. But, Israeli Arabs have the right to protest, publish and politic more at will, than not. This includes the right not only to critique the state in which they live, but to call for its end. Can Iran’s Jews do the same?
If our eagerness to move past one form of Green Zoneism simply invites another, then we will have moved forward not at all, and may have actually taken a giant step backward. We do need change as regards American policy on Iran, but not that kind.



  • Robert

    So any Jew who is critical of Israel has to have been coerced?
    I really don’t think so.
    And it’s fine for Israel and allies to stand the entire world on end (killing hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of Iranians, spreading radioactive dust, disrupting oil supplies, leading to starvation in some quarters) just so its enemy won’t have one of the nuclear weapons of which it has hundreds?
    I really don’t think so.

  • JB

    Yes Robert, the whole world is turned upside down all because of the Jews.
    Obsesss much?

  • New Age Cowboy

    Your Beliefnet cohort, Aziz Poonawalla, has a current blog: “Baha’i persecution in Iran” from Sunday February 22, 2009. So Jews are not alone in being persecuted in Iran:
    “Several leaders in the Baha’i faith — that other other other other Abrahamic monotheism — have been charged in Iran with espionage and other crimes, with possible death penalty exposure. These were generally seen as pretext charges for a broad official chronic program of persecution. The charges are regarded as probable pretext most especially because Baha’i have little access to secrets, being denied official employment, and also because the alleged country of espionagery, Israel, is naturally going to have relatively extensive ties with the Baha’i leaders because the city of Haifa, Israel is the site of the Baha’i Vatican.”
    I’m very proud to live in the United States where our religious persuasions are supposed to be separated from government activities. I truly believe that separation of religion and state is the best model to prevent discrimination of any religious or ethnic minority. Most important, is that the seperation encourages the use of reason and compromise. (This is really lost on the religious right.)
    Nothing against Jews or Christians; but I’m not real nuts about the States being referred to as a Judeo-Christian country. Actually, I think that’s an insult to the two traditions. If we were a Judeo-Christian country then Jews and Christians would have to answer for slavery, ethnic clensing of indigenous groups, the Civil War, etc.
    Jews, Baha’i, and Muslims all contained within U.S. borders enjoy incredible freedom to practice and express themselves. They’re not hell-bent on destroying each other here either, at least not as far as I know. For me, I think most any earthling is decent and that it takes too much energy to hate. Most decent folk are preoccupied with reasonable daily concerns, like feeding their families.
    As far as Iran goes, I think we better deal with the real situation. The rosy and jingoistic Bush practices made Hamas and Hezbollah a lot more powerful. The Iraq invasion and occupation has only emboldened Iran.
    One thing about Iran that most western media rarely acknowledge: Iran is a state capable of acting reasonbly in its own self-interest. Iran did not retaliate in-kind when Iraq used chemical weapons.
    It’s sad that Jews, Christians, and Baha’i are persecuted in Iran. But, a hyperfocus on this aspect of Iran may be blinding us to other realities. And, sadly, Iran isn’t the only country where Jews are treated poorly.
    Brad thank you for pointing out the following: “To be sure, Iran’s Jews are not prisoners there. They choose to stay. And there is, as Mr. Cohen points out, a big difference between being a Jew in Iran and being a Jew in the Arab world.”

  • Robert

    JB, I didn’t say the world was turned down by the Jews. But I am saying a strike on Iran could do just that, and that it’s not equitable, and possibly not necessary–although I’m not totally convinced of that last point. And as long as Jews are as dismissive of their critics as you were of me, there will be Jews in trouble with the rest of the world.

  • Gerard Nadal

    Rabbi Hirschfield,
    While I would agree with you on Obama’s approach to diplomacy, were it with any other Islamic state, I simply disagree with you on Iran. Your good will and the good will of the world is lost on the malignant mullahs and ayatollahs of Iran. They will use the process of negotiation to buy time. Nuclear capability, blackmail and elimination of israel is their goal. We are fast approaching the point, if we’re not already there, where the issue is not how best to avoid bloodshed. It will be whether to act preemptively, trading a couple of million lives for tens of millions of lives. God help us then.

  • Jewboy

    Robert, we’ve read a lot worse from you here. Don’t think we’ve forgotten how you said we should all be strung up because of Madoff.
    But you should be complimented: at least you managed not to break the Rules of Conduct this time.

  • Robert

    Jewboy, regarding Madoff, I have never written any such thing. And I do not apologize for my belief that an Iranian might rightly fear Israeli nuclear might and it is reasonable for them to aspire to have their own weapon. It is not desirable for them to aspire to have their own weapon, but it is reasonable. And the attitudes one encounters in this microcosm of Jewry, tiny though it may be, makes it even more reasonable.

  • Your Name

    This, by the way, was my comment on Madoff:
    “And please don’t aggrandize the Holocaust by insisting the Jewish experience is unique. Cambodia, Dafur, the atrocities in El Salvador, the list should not be limited to the Jewish holocaust. But I agree with you, comparing Madoff with Hitler is stupid at best and antisemitic at worst.”
    There is something in this that says you all should be strung up? Or is anybody who sympathizes with anyone but you your enemy, Jewboy?
    I at least don’t suppose you speak for anyone other than yourself. Good night, folks.

  • Jewboy

    Then there is another Robert who posts here and says worse. Sorry if it wasn’t you.

  • Robert

    “We are fast approaching the point, if we’re not already there, where the issue is not how best to avoid bloodshed. It will be whether to act preemptively, trading a couple of million lives for tens of millions of lives. God help us then.”
    Uh-huh.
    You are looking to trade a couple million non-Jewish lives for many more millions of non-Jewish lives, is that what you are saying? Are you forgetting that Israel has the capacity to nuke all of the Middle East, and the US, too? Why is a nuclear weapon in the hands of a country that does not make hot war on its neighbors more a threat than several hundred in the hands of a country that promises–and in Gaza recently carried out–disproportionate retaliation?
    I am no fan of Iran. They seem to be involved in actions against Israel that not only are morally wrong, they backfire. But Israel is capable of doing the same thing. And if some commenters here think I am anti-Semitic, I frankly don’t care. I think I am ultimately pro-Israel but I do not see it as today’s light to the nations.

  • Robert

    And while I’m taking my break,
    “They are like German Jews in WWI, who were especially proud of the French and English Jews they killed because it demonstrated that they were “really” Jews.”
    Rabbi, sincerely, what is the evidence of this?

  • Martin

    I could not help the insight, prompted by your little essay, that Avigdor Lieberman is promoting virtually the same kind of underclass for Israeli Arabs that you describe for Jews in Iran. So that appears to be Lieberman’s model. In that light, his stance is even more disgusting, and the fact that he placed third in the recent Israeli elections is that much more terrifying.
    Beyond that, your observations about Roger Cohen’s article are very sharp and helpful.

  • Your Name

    if they live as second class citizens, why don’t they leave and go to Israel..Are they forced to stay against their wills and with no passports..I know Iranians who are not happy with the regime but tell me that there are elections and they hope to change radicalism into a more modern and open-society. I don’t know but I wish someone could find a way for us to live together in peace.

  • Daniel Perry

    Being an “english jew” and examining written history for what it is and being oppressed by stereo type among other things i say good job Roger Cohen!

  • linda ramadn

    bbc did a documentary about jews in Iran and it seemed that they were quite free to practice and live as they would like to..i know some iranians who tell me that they do not like the radical government but that through elections, they will change the society and it will become more westernized and open in outlook..one should always be hopeful and positive and rather than build walls to isolate ourselves from those whom we disparagingly call terrorists, maybe we should try to understand that we have taken their land through occupation and rough tactics do not bring about love.

  • max

    Poster Martin makes a very cogent point. Considering the recent Israeli elections, the Israeli public is shifting in the direction of a more racist approach to minorities. And as evidenced by Germany and Iran, one election can have world changing consequences. Just because we are Jews does not make us immune from the behavior of other regimes.
    Secondly, Rabbi, have you ever been to Iran? Assuming Cohen’s subjects were coerced would hold weight if you could show evidence. You’ll of course point out the historical and modern reported oppression of Jews. But unless you’ve been to Iran and can report back, I think making assumptions is highly suspect.

  • Your Name

    Can people not understand, that the Jews are God’s chosen people.
    And yes we should be able to live in peace, and one day we will.
    People need to stop wanting to harm the Jew, and stop talking like they are the skum of the earth, and yes even Christians (NOT ALL)
    hate the Jew.
    So for one to say they hate a Jew, then they hate God as well.
    If we look back in history, we are all desendents from Abraham,
    so does not that make us Jews as well?

  • Gerard Nadal

    Robert,
    I’ve been called an anti-Semite too. It unfortunately speaks to the limitations of the ones who throw that label at anyone who may have a reasoned point of disagreement. It’s overuse actually takes the sting out of it, as the ones who use it so glibly would label 96% of the world as anti-Semitic. That’s more than unfortunate, it’s dangerous, because there ARE serious anti-Semites on the prowl. It’s the boy who cried wolf…
    Do I think Iran seeks nukes because it fears Israel? Hardly. They seek first strike capability, precisely because, as you noted, Israel has the means to immediately obliterate them. When leaders such as the Iranian president say that Israel should be wiped off the map while he is pursuing nukes, well, as we say in Brooklyn, that’s a clue.
    Suppose Iran strikes first. Perhaps Israel will retain retaliatory capacity, but it will be a hollow victory. Israel would be gone. But Iran would be killing millions of muslims too, some might say. I would respectfully point to the suicide bombers and the wholesale slaughter of muslims by muslims in Iraq. All of which has been financed by the malignant mullahs and ayatollahs in Iran. Fratricide is but a means to an end for these evil and twisted men.
    If mothers and fathers encourage their children to strap on bombs in order to kill fellow muslims and Jews, what will happen when they are in possession of nukes. They will effect “The final solution to the Jewish Question.”
    Throw into the mix that many muslims believe that this will usher in the arrival of the 12 th Imam.
    No, I do believe that more than a few leaders are considering preemption as the lesser of two evils. A nuclear tipped Iran is simply unthinkable.

  • Robert

    “Do I think Iran seeks nukes because it fears Israel? Hardly. They seek first strike capability, precisely because, as you noted, Israel has the means to immediately obliterate them. When leaders such as the Iranian president say that Israel should be wiped off the map while he is pursuing nukes, well, as we say in Brooklyn, that’s a clue.”
    Yes, it indeed is. And 80 years ago such clues were too long ignored.
    Having a nuke and having first strike capacity, however, are two different things.
    My mother died many years ago. She was a graduate student of the “father” of the Israeli nuke, who commuted across the Atlantic to teach here. As a child, now nearly 50 years ago, I heard the stories of how Israel built its first atom boms in a sub-basement below a shoe factory. So it is credible to me that Iran, which apparently does not assemble nuclear weapons in shoe factories, could achieve its goals.
    The question seems to hinge on whether you think those who actually control Iran, and I do not suppose that is its elected president, would be of such mind to martyr themselves, not just others. A good measure of defense against just this sort of thing is more than prudent. On the other hand, sending the whole world into ruin just to make sure Iran cannot get first-strike capacity hardly seems prudent, either. And do I want either Israel or Iran determining my fate on the other side of the world?
    These ambiguities will not be resolved in our time, but get further down the road to the time they will be with comments such as yours. Thank you.

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