A. He’s lying; B. He’s reckless; C. He’s both.
If Netanyahu really believes the Iranian regime is another Nazi Germany, if he really believes its creed is “death to the Jews” as he said in his speech this week to the UN General Assembly, why does he heap contempt on the regime and its leaders, why does he threaten to bomb the country, when there are, depending on the estimate, between 15,000 and 35,000 Jews living there?
In his speech, he named “Supreme Leader” Khamenei and his predecessor Khomeini as “dictators.” He called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and Ahmadinejad a “wolf in wolf’s clothing.” He referred to Iran’s “savage regime” and its “savage record.” He likened it to the “radical regime(s) with global ambitions” of “the last century” (a milder version of his 2006 statement, “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany”). He described it as a “rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us off the map.” Finally, he warned, “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone,” and everyone knows what that means.
With 15,000 to 35,000 Jews living in Iran, how can he say all that in such a high-profile international forum, with the Iranians listening to every word? If he believes what he says, it stands to reason he would fear that the regime will pay the country’s Jewish community back for the unrestrained contempt that he, the leader of the Jewish state, showed it – and not for the first or the hundredth time, either. Unless you believe Netanyahu actually intends to bring persecution down on the Jews of Iran, which I think is a ridiculous, mindless idea, then either he doesn’t believe that the Iranian regime is the Nazis incarnate, which means he’s been lying all this time; or he believes it, but puts it out of his mind because the thought of endangering Iranian Jews would cause him to tame his rhetoric, which he doesn’t want to do, and Netanyahu is one of those people who has immunized himself against any thought that might impede him from doing what he wants to do.
The first explanation, that he doesn’t believe what he’s saying, makes him out to be lying. The second, that he does believe it, makes him out to be playing recklessly with the fundamental well-being of Iran’s Jewish community. Which one is correct? They both are. It’s a combination of lies and recklessness that allows Netanyahu to let fly in such a personalized, incendiary way against Iran’s powers-that-be, even though tens of thousands of Iranian Jews are completely vulnerable to them. (Netanyahu’s predecessors going back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution also attacked the country’s leadership, and Ehud Olmert likewise threatened to bomb its nuclear facilities, and none of those prime ministers, nor any other Israeli politician, seemed to consider what effect their campaign might have on Iranian Jews. Still, among the field of Iran-fighters, Netanyahu is Muhammad Ali – in a class by himself.)
So what is it about the presence in Iran of a sizable Jewish community that makes Bibi’s depiction of the country’s ruling establishment first of all a lie? It’s that if the Iranians really were Nazis, if they really did believe in “death to the Jews,” those 15,000 to 35,000 Jews would have joined the 100,000 or so others who’ve left the country, many going to Israel, since Khomeini took over. The Jews in Iran can leave; whatever financial difficulties might be involved wouldn’t count if Iran was the anti-Semitic swamp Netanyahu says it is. (Meir Javedanfar, who left Iran for Israel in 1987 and is a leading authority on the Islamic Republic, wrote this week: “In Iran the chant after the revolution was ‘death to Israel’ and not ‘death to Jews’ as Netanyahu said. As reprehensible as both chants are, it was not state policy to state “Death to Jews.”)
If Iran was another Nazi Germany, there wouldn’t be some 60 active synagogues in the country, including about a dozen in Tehran. If Iran was another Nazi Germany, the head of the Jewish community wouldn’t have sent a letter to Ahmadinejad in 2006 reproaching him for his Holocaust denial. If Iran was another Nazi Germany, the Jewish community would not have weathered the regime’s outrage at Israel for apparently orchestrating the assassinations of several Iranian nuclear scientists.
And if Iran’s hatred of Israel was such that it was prepared to be annihilated for the privilege of nuking the country – which would make it even more anti-Semitic than Nazi Germany – it would not be able to make the distinction it makes between the Jewish state on the one hand, and Jews and Judaism on the other.
So the Jews in Iran, and the life they live, prove that Bibi – not just Bibi, but mainly Bibi – is lying when he says the Islamic regime’s animus toward Israel grows out of genocidal anti-Semitism. That’s massive demagoguery.
But here’s where the element of recklessness comes in: the Iranian Jewish community, while not a persecuted minority, is an intimidated one, with traumatic memories of being targeted lethally by the Islamic Revolution. In 1979, the unofficial head of the community, Habib Elghanian, was executed on charges including “friendship with the enemies of God,” meaning Israel. Two other Jews were executed on charges of spying for Israel in 2008 and 2010. In 2000 the regime sent 10 Jews to prison for years on such accusations.
During the heroic, tragic “Green Revolution” in early 2010, I interviewed some Iranian Jews who’d recently left the country, and the phrase I kept hearing was: “As long as they stay away from politics, Jews live very well in Iran.” That means they don’t dare say a good word about Israel around strangers, nor a bad word about the regime’s anti-Israel rhetoric. Then they’re safe, but they’re not secure. Anti-Semitism isn’t a motif in Iranian life, but it exists. There are anti-Semites in positions of power, there are people who do not distinguish Israel from Jews and Judaism, and because of this the Jewish community remains wary.
Is it possible that Netanyahu’s speech to the UN, which featured the most explicit threat of military attack on Iran ever made publicly by an Israeli leader, along with personal attacks on Khomenei, Khamenei, Rouhani and Ahmadinejad, did not increase Iranian Jewish anxiety? Is it possible his speech didn’t increase the ardor of Iran’s anti-Semites? And to those Israeli hardliners who say a tough stance will protect Iran’s Jews by putting a scare into the regime, I’ll remind them that such a stance didn’t stop the mullahcracy from executing supposed Jewish spies before.
So I think Bibi should control himself. To quote Javedanfar again, “I strongly disagree with Netanyahu’s use of the term ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing.’ In Iranian culture comparing someone to an animal in any way shape or form is deeply offensive.” Netanyahu doesn’t have to be nice to the Iranian leadership, he doesn’t have to hide the truths about this genuinely dark regime, but he should stop with the Nazi analogies, the general demonization of its treatment of Jews, and the contemptuousness toward its leaders past and present. He should do this both for the sake of Iranian Jewry, who don’t need an Israeli prime minister inciting against their rulers, and for the sake of Israeli Jewry, who don’t need to be brainwashed into supporting another paranoia-driven war.