For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel always faces the same enemy. Call it Amalek, call it Haman, call it Nazi Germany – it seeks the same thing: The destruction of the Jewish people.
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In his 2000 book A Durable Peace, Netanyahu wrote that the idea the Palestinians are “a separate people that deserves the right of self-determination” is “borrowed directly from the Nazis.”
In 2002, he urged the United States to invade Iraq, because “we now know that had the democracies taken preemptive action to bring down Hitler in the 1930s, the worst horrors in history could have been avoided.”
In 2006, he said, “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany.” In 2010, he vowed that “we won’t forget to be prepared for the new Amalek, who is making an appearance on the stage of history and once again threatening to destroy the Jews.”
So it was in this week’s speech to Congress. Netanyahu started by comparing Iran’s regime to Haman, Amalek’s genocidal heir from the Book of Esther, and ended by comparing it to Nazi Germany. “The days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies,” he declared, “those days are over.”
Netanyahu did not invent this way of thinking. From the beginning of the Hebrew Bible to the end, Jewish texts speak of an eternal, implacable enemy: Esau, Amalek, Agag, Haman. On Tisha B’Av, Jews link the catastrophes of our history – from the destruction of the Temples to the beginning of the First Crusade to the Expulsion of Jews from Spain – by insisting they occurred on the same day. And, of course, less than a century ago, the mightiest power in Europe did try to exterminate the Jewish people – and succeeded in butchering one-third.
But Jewish tradition also warns against allowing analogies with the past to obscure our understanding of the present. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently noted, Maimonides insisted that since the nations Jews fought in biblical times no longer exist, we cannot identify any contemporary nation with Amalek. (Or, by implication, with Amalek’s heir, Haman).
In his speech to Congress about Iran, Netanyahu violated that tradition. And he violated the obligation of any wise leader: To see current foes not as a facsimile of past ones, but as they really are.
Both at home and abroad, Iran is a brutal, malevolent regime. I hope its quest for regional power fails, and I hope Ayatollah Khamenei and his henchmen end their lives in jail. But Iran is not Amalek, Haman or Nazi Germany. It poses a threat to Israel’s position in the Middle East, not a threat to the existence of the Jewish people.
How do we know? By examining what the Iranian regime has actually done. The Islamic Republic took power 36 years ago. Were its leaders hell-bent on exterminating Jews, they had an easy place to start: with the roughly 20,000 Jews who live in Iran itself. Do those Jews suffer serious discrimination? Absolutely. Have they suffered anything close to genocide? No. Were Iran’s regime the equivalent of Nazi Germany, Amalek, Haman or, for that matter, ISIS (also known as ISIL), it is inconceivable that after three decades in power, Iran’s Jews would be operating 11 synagogues and two kosher restaurants.
The truth is that while Netanyahu has been analogizing Israel’s foes – the Palestinians, Iraq and now Iran – to the Nazis since he entered politics, Israeli policymakers have never treated Iran like a suicidal, genocidal regime.
In the 1980s, Iran was even more rhetorically bloodthirsty than it is now. And yet Israel sold Iran weapons to fight Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, whose greater proximity to the Jewish state made it – in Israeli eyes – the greater danger.
In his book, "A Single Roll of the Dice," Trita Parsi quotes David Menashri, who runs the Center for Iranian Studies at the University of Tel Aviv, as saying, “Throughout the 1980s, no one in Israel said anything about an Iranian threat – the word wasn’t even uttered.”
As Parsi notes, Israeli leaders began focusing on the Iranian threat in the 1990s, not because of a change in Iranian rhetoric or behavior, but the Soviet Union’s collapse and Iraq’s Gulf War defeat left Saddam far weaker. Iran, and its nuclear program, now represented the primary danger on Israel’s eastern front.
That danger is real. But it is the danger posed by a nasty regional competitor, not by what Bibi has called a “messianic apocalyptic cult.” Yes, Iran has armed terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, but it has also restrained them for fear of provoking too ferocious an Israeli response. In the words of my Haaretz colleague Aluf Benn, recent behavior “by Hezbollah and Iran [has] demonstrated self-control and cautious risk-benefit calculations, not madness.”
That’s also the assessment of Israel’s security and intelligence chiefs. In 2012, Meir Dagan, who between 2002 and 2010 oversaw the Iran file as head of the Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency, called the Iranian regime “rational.” Tamir Pardo, Dagan’s successor in that job, has said “the term existential threat is used too freely.” Yet another former Mossad head, Ephraim Halevy, last month declared that when it comes to Iran, “it is a terrible mistake to use the term ‘existential threat’ because I do not believe there is an existential threat to Israel.”
Israel’s military leaders have said much the same thing. In 2012, Benny Gantz, who last month stepped down as head of the Israel Defense Forces, said, “The Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.” That same year, one of his predecessors in that job, Dan Halutz, said, “Iran does not pose an existential threat to Israel.”
Behind these sober statements lurks a realization utterly missing from Bibi’s speech to Congress: that Jewish history offers no good parallels for the situation Israel finds itself in today. It’s not just that after 2,000 years of statelessness, Jews have created a country. They have created a country with hundreds of nuclear weapons, whose military might dwarfs those around it.
Israel is a dominant, democratic, status quo-oriented power facing an authoritarian competitor that wants to upend the regional balance, in part by breaking Israel’s nuclear monopoly. “Iran’s nuclear program seeks to create a nuclear duopoly in the Mideast that would reduce Israel’s power,” writes Benn. “This is why we’re fighting it.”
Jewish history offers no analogue for such a situation, but American history does. In the late 1940s, America entered the Cold War era in an utterly dominant position, just as Israel entered the post-Cold War era. Like Israel in the Middle East, America enjoyed a nuclear monopoly. And like Israel, it saw that monopoly threatened by a dictator who, through his nuclear program, sought to shift the power balance in his favor. That dictator, Joseph Stalin, a man with even more blood on his hands than Iran’s ayatollahs, made frequent, terrifying predictions about America’s eventual demise. So did his successors. In 1958, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev asked then-U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey where he was from. When Humphrey pointed out Minneapolis on a map, Khrushchev said, “I will have to remember to have that city spared when the missiles start flying.”
In the early decades of the Cold War, many Americans saw the Soviet Union as a facsimile of Nazi Germany. Yet policymakers who knew Russia well, like George Kennan, recognized that beyond Moscow’s frightening, revolutionary rhetoric lay a regime that, while brutal, exercised caution because it wanted to stay in power.
Hopefully, Israel will not lose its nuclear monopoly, as the United States did – first to the U.S.S.R. and then to Mao’s China – since a nuclear Iran would be bad for not only Israel, but for the region and the world. But Israel can learn far more from America’s experience in the early Cold War than from the experience of stateless Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto or biblical Persia. Judging by the sober, measured way many top Israeli security officials discuss the Iranian threat, they already understand that. Unfortunately, they weren't the ones who addressed Congress on Tuesday morning.