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With tens of thousands of Jews living in Iran, why is Bibi calling their rulers Nazis?

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.  

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    1. aristeides

      To Bibi, the only real Jews, the only Jews who matter, are in Israel and New York.

      Just like the only Israelis, the only ones who matter, are Jews.

      The wacko is calling the kettle a Nazi.

      Reply to Comment
      • Piotr Berman

        This is quite unfair. Real Jews can also live in Boca Raton etc. Even Las Vegas (where does Adelson live anyway? he probably has a gazillion of properties).

        Reply to Comment
      • Piotr Berman

        This type of disconnect is all too typical for a large proportion of Israelis, and I dare say that the art of connecting facts together is seriously deleterious to your political carrier (or even journalistic carrier as Larry himself had experienced).

        As a “half-Jew” from Poland I know a bit about the Polish angle. On one hand, for some reasons Poland and Poles are used as the epitome of anti-Semitism and are vilified roundly and regularly. Then when something actually happens the there is “huge disappointment” and waves of articles expressing “concern”. One could naively think that they should choose: you hate Poles (with reason or not) or you expect them to be concerned about the welfare of Israel and Jews.

        Most recently some type of slaughter was outlawed in Poland (so non-vegetarian observant Jews have to get meat from Czech Republic, or Germany etc., rather easy in EU), actually against the recommendation of the government, and once more, wave of lectures that because Poles did not prevent concentration camps they should be particularly tolerant of whichever way of throat slitting some Abrahamic religions may require.

        One could imagine that less boorish diplomacy could actually help the community of kashrut keeping Jews dwelling in Poland (it was a close vote, actually) but quite typically, it was the least consideration.

        Actually, a Jew with a Polish passport is pretty automatically a very suspect individual, not worthy of consideration, but definitely a good target of a lengthy chat at the airport, and I imagine that Iranian Jews are even worse.

        By the way, the reasons that “Jews are left alone” in Iran is not to make a “showcase”, but mainly because Iranian clerics view Sharia very seriously. They actually believe in that stuff.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Danny

      “Still, among the field of Iran-fighters, Netanyahu is Muhammad Ali – in a class by himself.”

      I would actually liken him to Mike Tyson – an ignorant street thug who used brute force to win his fights, and when that stopped working, as when he met up with good fighters who knew how to defend against his sucker punches, his career quickly unraveled.

      When Netanyahu calls Iran’s leadership a “wild cult”, I wonder how many of his brain cells get the irony that, examined objectively, it is zionism that is a wild cult of wild-eyed lunatics, and that he is one of their deranged leaders. I’m no psychologist, but it sounds like a classic case of projection pathology – i.e. cursing another for those attributes that one secretly abhors in himself.

      Reply to Comment
        • Joel

          Neither of your points has the least bit to do with my post.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Ah, that damned demographic problem… what else can Netanyahu do?
      Let the tension rise, throw in a couple of false flags and fresh Jews will be pouring in to Israel, again.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Richard

      This piece sounds borderline deranged – filled with false dichotomies and terrible reasoning. As long as Netanyahu believes that Iran uses its Jewish population as a fig leaf, which it absolutely does, he’s not wrong or lying when he says the regime is antisemitic – your idea that he would have to expect Iran to retaliate against Iranian Jews for his speech in order to believe that the regime is antisemitic is unhinged nonsense. The Jews are left alone because they’re powerless, and useful for propaganda – this piece is a perfect, unwitting example. And how does it follow that Iran’s government or political class is not antisemitic, and does not desire the physical destruction of Israeli Jews, because they happen to have a small poplution of politically repressed Jews in their own country? Their hatred is based on the idea of a conspiratorial, machinating Jewish power, represented by Israel, and a desire to physically destroy it. This is antisemitic in every basic and historical sense, and the existence of a disempowered runt of the former community confirms only that Iran does not share Hitler’s view of the Jews as a racially poisonous disease that must be wiped clean from the earth. This hardly merits saying they are not antisemitic, or that their very real desire to kill Israelis is not based on antisemitism. The existence of antisemitism in Iran is not black or white, all or nothing, all Nazi or no Nazi – you totally, willfully, ignore the complexity of Iranian antisemitism (its not even that complex) just to rip on Netanyahu…again. I’m not a big fan either, but your obessive hatred of Netanyahu is severely warping your picture of reality and your ability to reason.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bibi was on Charlie Rose a day or two ago. You can see that here: http://www.charlierose.com/

        I try and watch Rose nightly and was rather disappointed to find Bibi there, just because I spend too much time on Israel anyway (yes, I know, then go away). Anyway, what I see in this interview is a kind of arrogance toward his audience (here, have another sound bite which will do all your thinking for you) which is as well a kind of snobbery, not so well hidden, in my viewing, at one point, directed at Rose himself. I can see how such a man would enrage, given his rather remarkable extended political success.

        While I think Richard here has gone overboard in his use of “deranged,” and generally find him not as open minded as self suggested (although who is), the extended case against Iran vis a vis Israel is very strong. This does not mean that the new President is anything like the old; I think obviously not. And I think Bibi shows the general national right tendency to color all of a class (here, the Iranian State, elsewhere, WB resident Palestinians) identically. For example, Hamas is Sunni, and has a real internal dilemma over Syria right now, yet Bibi ignores this completely in the interview to create a surrounded by Iran effect. Nuance is difficult when employing sound bites.

        I wouldn’t want to be a Jew living in Iran; I wouldn’t want to be secular computer programer there either. But I don’t think one should create alternative sound bites to Bibi’s; that is what he wants, to reduce thinking to phrases (yes, I know, what about “apartheid,” much better to have no words at all). There is structural conflict within Iran beyond simple oppression; there is obviously also a powerful military presence, accentuated by the prior President. The question is whether the US can indirectly aid, through diplomacy, some involved in that conflict. This same debate, all one color vs internal conflict, framed US discourse on the USSR. Conservatives thought the USSR would never change; liberals that it had potential change within it. Ultimately it fell internally, for internal reasons, helped along by conservative American military spending.

        It is not that the “answer” is somewhere in between these two views. It’s that circumstances change which answer is probably right at the moment. Silencing one as a matter of almost cultural policy, which I think the great danger in Israel these days, is a mistake.

        Reply to Comment
        • Richard

          To color the leadership of Iran, which begings first and foremost with the Supreme Leader, not the President, as being more or less uniformly in favor of a military solution to the Zionist problem, is no over-generalization. Netanyahu’s personality, attitude, cadence, and everything else about his outward appearance is pretty much just not worth talking about when Iran is on the verge of fundamentally altering the balance of power in the middle east by shattering the international regime against nuclear arms by testing one of its own. Whoever doesn’t want to stop this, and wants to talk about Bibi’s thoughts and feelings instead, is either malicious, ignorant, or foolish. US hegemony is by far the best option for everyone in the middle east right now, even if its not politically correct to say so, and its time that people who write about the region to look around at the alternatives, consider the situation in an adult manner, and acknowledge it.

          Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            US hegemony is the worst thing for the US right now, despite the derangement of the neocons who want us to conquer the mideast for Greater Israel.

            Go find your own hegemonist.

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard

            US hegemony in the Gulf is a pillar of stability for the world economy. It’s got very little to do with Israel. Its got to do with confidence, in the market, that the oil will keep flowing. Iranian nukes will destabilize the Gulf and threaten the economic interests of the entire developed world. Every US President until Obama understood this. Or maybe Obama doesn’t care, or maybe he’s a fool.

            Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            The US has been destabilizing the Gulf for over 50 years in the foolish pursuit of hegemony. Time to end the folly.

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard, Richard, we are all not as smart at you. Some of us need pithy phrases to think with.

            US hegemony is a bit silly, especially as Obama, hegemonist-in-chief, doesn’t quite want to do what you seem to want him to (which is why Bibi, praise, came out for Romney). But making people think rightly on the internet is part of the shield of, well, correct thinking.

            I have outlined on this site how I think the Supreme Leader might deviate from some of the military, using the new President as a foil. But I see no give on Syria therein. I am no fan of what Iran has become. But I was writing more to Larry than you in any case. Maybe with a few more cups of coffee I will be able to get righteous.

            Reply to Comment
    5. sh

      This month marks the 27th anniversary of the day Vanunu’s story hit the Sunday Times. If correct, one can’t help thinking that if anyone knows how – as Netanyahu put it – to have your yellow-cake and eat it, it would be an Israeli Prime Minister. So yes, he’s lying, but he believes it’s for the benefit of the Jewish State of Israel. As the guardian of the State of Israel he believes himself to be, lying through the teeth is a small price to pay that he files under the heading diplomacy.

      The Charlie Rose interview was interesting. Distrust is Netanyahu’s first principle. The second and third: dismantle and verify, are valid for “rogue regimes” only and applying them to Iran is, to him, worth every hypocrisy a limited imagination can confect. So he knows very well that the Iranians are not Nazis and that Iranian Jews can leave if they want to, but don’t.

      Unfortunately, everything he’s saying about Iran is being said by Iran and thought by more and more perplexed countries, about Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Leila

      I am a bit surprised with the number of jews as stated in this article. The number of tens of thousands is both overestimated and factually incorrect. A 2012 census put the figure at about 8,756.

      Reply to Comment
    7. luckylarrysilverstein

      “The Jews in Iran are completely marginalized and are virtual prisoners to the regime.”

      The Arabs in Israel are completely marinalized and are virtual prisoners to the Zionist regime!

      Reply to Comment