Iran and the Myth of Anti-Semitism

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

Roy IsacowitzAugust 13, 2015

(Peter Stevens / Flickr)

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.

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.

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 régime’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 régime 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-régime 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 régime 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 régime” 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 régime. 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 régime) 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 régime. The Repub­li­cans in Con­gress still threat­en to dis­man­tle the Cuban régime. In fact, the U.S. has a glo­ri­ous his­to­ry of régime 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 régime 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.

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