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Iran and the Myth of Anti-Semitism

Iranian rhetoric isn’t anti-Semitic—it’s anti-Zionist.

BY Roy Isacowitz

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Iran, even in the most fanciful flights of rhetoric of some of its leaders, is not threatening to kill Jews, as Goldberg intimates. It is threatening to dismantle a system (the Zionist regime) that it regards as brutal and illegitimate.

Jeffery Goldberg of The Atlantic is a respected and well-connected American commentator on U.S.-Israel affairs and regional issues such as the nuclear deal with Iran. His access to top Administration officials like President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry is among the best in the business.

When he wrote a few months ago that a senior Administration official had described Benjamin Netanyahu as “chickenshit,” it caused gigantic waves in both Washington and Jerusalem. People in the know take Goldberg seriously.

So what is one to make of his latest effort, which propels the Iranian regime’s attitudes to Jews and Israel into the forefront of the ongoing debate (or virtual war) over getting the nuclear deal through Congress?

Goldberg’s confusion is evident from the start. The article is headlined “Why Iran’s Anti-Semitism Matters,” while the sub-headline is “A close read of Obama and Kerry’s comments on whether Iranian leaders seek Israel’s destruction.”

In other words, seeking Israel’s destruction—if that indeed is what the Iranian regime is after—is synonymous with anti-Semitism. But is it? And is there a consequential difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism (or anti-Israelism,) or is it OK to conflate the two, as Goldberg does?

(Being a journalist I know that writers are very often not responsible for the headlines attached to their article and are at the mercy of less-stringent copy editors. But that’s not the case here. Anti-Semitism and anti-Israel are used interchangeable by Goldberg throughout the piece, as in “Does the Iranian leadership seek the elimination of Israel? I had already discussed the nature of Iranian-regime anti-Semitism with Obama in a May interview.”)

Merriam-Webster defines anti-Semitism as “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic or racial group.” Oxford defines it as “hostility to or prejudice against Jews.”

The Anti-Defamation League defines it as: “The belief or behavior hostile toward Jews just because they are Jewish. It may take the form of religious teachings that proclaim the inferiority of Jews, for instance, or political efforts to isolate, oppress, or otherwise injure them. It may also include prejudiced or stereotyped views about Jews.”

The only reasonable conclusion is that, to be defined as anti-Semitism, a statement would, at the very least, need to refer to Jews. Is that the case with the Iranian leadership as quoted by Goldberg in his article?

The answer is no. The only statement quoted by Goldberg—Iran’s Supreme Leader saying “This barbaric, wolflike, and infanticidal regime of Israel which spares no crime has no cure but to be annihilated,”—does not mention Jews. But he is thoughtful enough to link to another piece from March this year which is full of quotes.

I counted 17 quotes in the second article, only one of which makes any mention of Jews—and that was from Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon and not an Iranian at all. Hezbollah may be an ally and client of Iran, but I doubt whether the proud Persians would have him speak for them.

The other quotes—from Iran’s Supreme Leader, previous presidents, military leaders and so on—make abundant mention of Israel and the “Zionist regime” and are replete with words such as “destroy” and “eliminate,” but they include not a single mention of Jews. Nothing.

Goldberg, it turns out, is deploying a new, extra-dictionary definition of anti-Semitism which goes something like this: In addition to hostility and prejudice against Jews, anti-Semitism also covers any statement or action against Israel that could be regarded as anti-Semitism if it were targeted at Jews. He anchors that by regularly referring to Israel as “the sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East,” thus creating the Israel-Jew symbiosis.

It’s a sub-set of Netanyahu’s definition of anti-Semitism, which covers any and all criticism of his government. In 2014, Netanyahu denounced all supporters of boycotts against Israel as “classical anti-Semites in modern garb”—a definition that includes many Jews and Israelis, myself included, who believe that only concerted pressure on Israel from outside will compel Israel to end the occupation.

Goldberg doesn’t go quite as far as Netanyahu, but his definition is still highly problematic.

The accepted view of classical anti-Semitism is that it cannot be attributed to any Jewish action or mechanism. In other words, whatever Jews may have said or done over the years—killing Jesus, usury and so on—they are not a valid basis or justification for anti-Semitism. Anti-Jewish prejudice is a pathology, abstracted from the actions of individual Jews or any groups they may comprise.

Using the term anti-Semitism with regard to Israel means, therefore, that Israel is above criticism. It means that, whatever its policies or its actions, Israel cannot be held accountable—and that all those who try to hold it to account are beyond the pale. Sick, perverted human beings.

But history says otherwise. In the two or three decades following its foundation, Israel was the darling of the world (with the exclusion of the Arab and Muslim states,) including of many Western progressives. That slowly changed as Israel cemented it grip on the occupied territories, undertook wide-scale settlement, employed brutal and often-fatal measures against Palestinian civilians and made it quite clear to anyone who was prepared to listen that it had no intention of ever relinquishing the land it conquered.

Israeli action alone turned the world-wide admiration of the Fifties and Sixties into the antipathy and even hatred that we saw on the streets of Europe during last year’s Gaza war and the burgeoning activism of the boycott movement. The same goes for the increasing calls for recognition of Palestine in European parliaments and the evident exasperation of most European governments after almost 50 years of occupation.

It is disingenuous and deeply mistaken to equate anti-Israel sentiment with anti-Semitism. The latter is a pathology, a deformity, while the former is a legitimate political position stemming from the repeated actions of successive Israeli governments over the past half-century.

It suits Netanyahu’s purposes to reduce all criticism to pogroms and the Holocaust, but what’s Goldberg’s excuse?

I imagine he would say that there’s a difference between garden-variety anti-Zionism and the exterminatory rhetoric of members of the Iranian regime. Or, as he put it in his article, “If, in the post-Holocaust world, a group of people express a desire to hurt Jews, it is, for safety’s sake, best to believe them.”

It takes an extraordinary degree of geo-political obliviousness (not to mention cognitive dissonance) to distill Israel, a powerful country with a large non-Jewish minority, into Goldberg’s “Jews,” evocative as they are of the imperiled and defenseless victims of the Holocaust. His starting point is the “post-Holocaust world,” but his Jews are the same, old, pre-Holocaust Jews.

Goldberg’s Jews are a threadbare stereotype. They are not Israel and Israel is not them. Not everyone in Israel is Jewish and not all Jews are Zionist. In the early days of the state, as Uri Avnery wrote recently, Jewishness was barely mentioned. ‘Everything pertaining to the Jewish community in the Land of Israel was ‘Hebrew.’” That has changed in recent decades, as the state mutated into a Jewish alien under the influence of the settlement enterprise. But there remains a world of difference between Israel and global Jewry.

Iran, even in the most fanciful flights of rhetoric of some of its leaders, is not threatening to kill Jews, as Goldberg intimates. It is threatening to dismantle a system (the Zionist regime) that it regards as brutal and illegitimate. There are many others around the world who aspire to the same goal.

And that’s OK. The United States and the Soviet Union spent decades threatening to dismantle each other’s regime. The Republicans in Congress still threaten to dismantle the Cuban regime. In fact, the U.S. has a glorious history of regime dismantlement (think Mosaddegh in 1953.) And Israel itself has not been shy to support insurrectionists when it suited its purposes. Ask the Christians in Lebanon or the Kurds in Iraq.

Israel and Iran are ideological enemies and regional rivals. Behind the bluster from both sides is a struggle for hegemony and influence. Being the sole regional superpower is a strategic imperative for both. Neither truly believes it can eliminate the other, but the lack of nuclear balance—currently very much in Israel’s favor—is dangerously destabilizing.

The purpose of the nuclear agreement is to reduce tensions in the regime by averting a nuclear arms race (or preventing it from reaching a tipping-point.) That’s a good start, but for it to have true long-term benefit, it needs to be accompanied by regional nuclear disarmament.

Instead of peddling the worn anti-Semitism shibboleth, Goldberg should look beyond Netanyahu’s fear-mongering and Holocaust obsession. He could start by calling out Obama and Kerry whenever they talk of Iranian anti-Semitism, as they are wont to do. The water is heavy enough without being muddied by disinformation.

This post first appeared at The Kibbitzer.


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Roy Isacowitz is a journalist and writer living in Tel Aviv.

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