It is an irony that one of the first American Jewish groups to push the threat from Iran to the top of its agenda did so to placate a dovish Israeli leader’s demand that it reduce its involvement in Israeli-Palestinian issues.
In 1993, shortly after his election triumph, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin came to Washington and told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee he did not require its services as an intermediary on Israeli-Palestinian issues, recalled a prominent Jewish activist.
“Rabin did not trust AIPAC,” he recalled. “This is the root of it all. They knew these guys were hard-liners. So, when Rabin became prime minister, he wanted to yank their franchise. He read them the riot act.”
But AIPAC insisted it wanted to work with him. So, on the theory that “idle hands are the tools of the devil,” Rabin told AIPAC leaders, “OK, Iran is our biggest threat. We have to keep it from getting the bomb,” this Jewish leader related. “They picked up the Iran issue and were far more energetic with it than he intended or imagined.”
The Jewish activist, who discussed the AIPAC issue with Rabin then, spoke only on condition of anonymity, citing his continued involvement in Jewish issues.
AIPAC soon became a primary force behind the successful push in Congress to pass the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 — one of the first serious sanction measures against the country based upon its alleged threat as a source of weapons of mass destruction. This was six years before an Iranian dissident group alerted the international public to the existence of two secret Iranian nuclear sites then under construction.
Very soon, however, AIPAC was far from alone. In many ways, said Shoshana Bryen of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, as the perceived threat of an Iranian nuclear weapons program grew, it became — like Soviet Jewry issue in the 1980s — a unifying rallying point for most of the organized Jewish community.
“Iran announces itself as a threat,” she said. “It is so easy for Jewish organizations and people to find a common point of reference on this issue. Whether from the left or the right in Israel, or Reform or Orthodox here, everyone can say, they’re a threat.”
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, agreed. “In a world where Jews are deeply divided over domestic politics and, mostly, over Israel, this was an issue everyone could rally around,” he said.
The crucial status of Iran as a unifying force was consolidated with the election of hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, followed soon after by his call for Israel’s liquidation as a Jewish state and his reference to the Holocaust as a “myth.”
Many voiced confidence that Iran would retain its unique standing for American Jewry even with the release of a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate this week that concluded the country had suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. They pointed to Iran’s support for anti-Israel terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
But others said the singular status Iran attained was, at least in part, due to the unique existential threat it represented thanks to its perceived drive to develop nuclear weapons.
“All the groups that made it their top foreign policy initiative clearly now have a question on their hands,” said Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum. “What were they relying on? And are they now going to disagree with the American assessment or not?”
Many Israeli leaders, such as Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have directly rejected the U.S. findings. But with an Israeli-Palestinian peace process now getting off the ground and a “boogey man that does not seem to be in precisely the same position he was before,” said Berenbaum, “We must look at the possibility we may not have the same type of coherence without the same kind of external enemy. … They’re not going to get apocalyptic unity now.”
Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the Iranian threat until this week was its ability to evoke horrific images of the Holocaust, and a readiness among some Jewish leaders to advocate preemptive war, if necessary, to stop this. It was Israeli Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu who sounded the first alarm at a Jewish conference in Los Angeles a year ago, warning “It’s 1938, and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs. Believe [Ahmadinejad], and stop him.”
Now, said Shoshana Bryen of JINSA, “Those who have been wedded to the idea that in the next year the United States and/or Israel had to decide whether to drop a bomb on Iran have a big problem. They will now find themselves without legitimacy in the U.S. government.”
Few had called openly and directly for military action. But by their repeated invocation of Holocaust imagery, apparent pessimism about economic and political sanctions and impatience with any impediments to war, some implied little room for other alternatives.
At a meeting of the General Assembly of Federations last month, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrachi, president of The Israel Project, criticized Democrats in Congress for wanting “to sing ‘Kumbaya’” when it came to Iran.
At its Washington conference last spring, AIPAC compared the situation with Iran today to 1938 — the year before World War II — in varied and repeated ways, from the rhetoric of its speakers to posters in the convention hall profiling AIPAC leaders.
“Iran poses a threat to the state of Israel that promises nothing less than a nuclear holocaust,” keynote speaker Pastor John Hagee of Christians United for Israel told several thousand cheering conference participants. “It is 1938, Iran is Germany and Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler.”
AIPAC also lobbied successfully last spring to prevent the Democrats from submitting legislation that would have required the President to seek authorization from Congress before initiating an attack on Iran.
The apocalyptic rhetoric did not go unchallenged. Individuals such as Bryen on the right and Mark Rosenblum of Americans for Peace Now on the left warned that the language being used shut down important options — as did the Jewish Week on its editorial page.
Others talked in no less apocalyptic terms about the Iranian threat but employed sobering language in discussing the challenges of actually implementing a military attack that could end it.
“It will be very complex,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told an audience of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles last March after comparing the Iranian threat to Hitler and Haman. Iran, he noted, had learned important lessons from Israel’s successful 1982 attack on Osirak, Iraq’s nuclear weapons development site. It had spread out its facilities widely, hidden many of them deep underground or in mountains, created redundancies so one plant could pick up from another.
“It’s not as simple as people think — that they can just go and bomb and get out of there,” he said.
Hoenlein stressed the potential of increased sanctions, especially from Europe. “That’s the way you do it,” he said. “You don’t need a military strike to change this government. But you should never take it off the table.”
Bryen agreed. Iran, she said, “is a threat at various levels — its nuclear potential, it sponsorship of terrorism, its ballistic missiles — that were never going to be alleviated by military action.”
With the new situation ushered in by this week’s intelligence estimate, it remains to be seen whether, and how, Jewish groups will adapt to this reality.