In an Al Jazeera interview, one of the more moderate ministers in the current government, Dan Meridor, conceded that a notorious phrase widely attributed to Iran’s leaders including Pres. Ahmadinejad, that Iran would wipe Israel from the map, is false. Though Meridor, a senior cabinet member in the Netanyahu ruling coalition, believes that Iranian statements about Israel being a cancer in the region are equally distressing to Israel, he acknowledged that neither of Iran’s current leaders had ever called for destroying Israel. That of course, didn’t prevent him from lapsing back into precisely the same claim not once, but twice later in the interview. It seems that some tropes are so engraved in a nation’s consciousness that a politician can intellectually know they are false, publicly admit it, and then contradict himself.
The interview proved interesting as well for exposing some of the underlying assumptions of Israeli attitudes and policy toward Iran. When asked about the unique dangers that Iran posed to Israel or the Middle East, Meridor claimed that Iran has introduced a dangerous element into the region: religion. Now, there’s no question that Islam is a critical element of the Iranian regime. But was Iran the first to introduce such religious nationalism? What about that notion of Israel being a “Jewish” state? Seems to me that is a clear expression of it as well. Of course, Israelis will argue that the character of religious expression in the Iranian state is fanatical, intolerant and homicidal, while the character of religious expression in Israel is moderate and tolerant. That may be what Israelis would like to believe. But is it true?
One of the primary elements of Israeli national purpose these days is the settlement enterprise. The justification for it is purely religious in nature. God gave us the land and commanded us to settle in it and warned us never to part with it. That’s more or less the gist of the argument. So if the Muslims and Arabs of the Middle East see such a fundamental element of Israeli nationhood underpinned by religious theology, what are they to think?
Further, when Bibi Netanyahu lays out his argument for Israel attacking Iran what language does he use? The Holocaust. Once again, this is discourse that is fundamentally religious in nature. A Jew may argue that the prime minister has no choice because the Jews were exterminated during the Holocaust for their religion. But the plain fact is that Netanyahu has many arguments he could wield in making his case. The fact that he’s offered this one hundreds of times over the years indicates not only that he finds it a powerful one, but that it resonates deeply inside him as a Jew, and he believes it will affect his domestic and international audience in a similar way.
If I were to have to isolate one of the most important parts of my mission in writing this blog it’s to point out to both sides, but especially to Jews and Israelis, that whatever fanatical notions you seek to attribute to the other side, you better look in the mirror first, because it’s more than likely that your co-religionists and fellow citizens have expressed thoughts equally as fundamentalist in nature.
In yesterday’s Times, James Risen reveals a certain western awkwardness about the injection of religious rhetoric into political discourse. He says that Ayatollah Khamenei’s statements about Iran’s nuclear intentions are shrouded in a “fog” of theological terms:
Ayatollah Khamenei, who is not only the leader of Iran’s government but also the final authority on Islamic law, often uses religious language when he talks about the nuclear issue, which can jar Western analysts trying to gauge the meaning of such strong statements.
This is a further indication of how clueless secular western journalists can be to the role of religion in regions like the Middle East. The unstated implication of such statements is that because Iran’s leaders are religious fanatics their word may not be trusted, nor can we ever know for sure what they really mean. A further implication is that western secular leaders, when they make political statements, are speaking clearly in a language every reasonable person can understand.
This assumption is riddled with unsupported cultural assumptions. If this were only a case of cultural misunderstanding, that wouldn’t rise to the level of an issue worth being overly concerned about. But the fact is that western misimpressions of the states, cultures and religions of the Middle East has caused round after round of mayhem throughout history. And we may be walking into yet another one.
Risen also makes the following racist claim:
…Some analysts say that Ayatollah Khamenei’s denial of Iranian nuclear ambitions has to be seen as part of a Shiite historical concept called taqiyya, or religious dissembling. For centuries an oppressed minority within Islam, Shiites learned to conceal their sectarian identity to survive, and so there is a precedent for lying to protect the Shiite community.
Why is it that some otherwise excellent reporters (Risen’s reporting on the NSA spying scandal during the Bush administration was first-rate) seem to lose their heads when writing about this subject? Note Risen refuses to tell us who “some analysts” are so we can judge the credibility of this. Further, while I’ve seen neocons, anti-jihadis and other crackpots make this claim about Shiites, I’ve never heard anyone support it with any proof that any Shiite has ever used taqiyya as justification for lying in a political context. Just as Jews may annul vows in a purely religious context on Kol Nidre, I’m sure taqiyya is a similarly religious-based precept having nothing whatsoever to do with politics. This is at best shoddy journalism and at worst outright racism.
Another interesting side issue that arose in the Meridor interview was a reference by the reporter to a statement by Avigdor Lieberman during Cast Lead that Israel should level a crushing blow upon “Hamas” (by which he meant Gaza) that would destroy its will to resist. He likened such a blog to the atom bombs that the U.S. dropped on Japan to end WWII. Meridor claims Lieberman never made the statement, and clearly believes the interviewer is making it up. Unfortunately, he is not and Maariv provides the proof.
In the context of the interview, Lieberman’s statement is important because it shows that Israeli leaders have spoken with bellicosity equal to anything Iran’s leaders have said about Israel. Israel has used homicidal, if not genocidal rhetoric in reference to its Arab neighbors no less than Iran may have. I would actually argue that no matter how troubling or hostile some of Iran’s rhetoric may have been, Iran has repeatedly said that it had no plans to attack Israel pre-emptively. Israel has repeatedly threatened to do precisely that to Iran. So whose rhetoric is worse?
In the interview, Meridor repeats another false claim often made by Israeli leaders and journalists: that the IAEA report released a few months ago says that Iran “has” a military nuclear “plan.” At another point, he says that Iran is “aiming” at building a “nuclear warhead” for its missiles so that they might reach Israel. At another point in the interview he claims the IAEA has said:
Yes, they [the Iranians] are going for nuclear weapons…They are after nuclear weapons. They [the IAEA] described the plan very well.
This is at best a wild overstatement of what the report actually said and at worst a tissue of outright lies. The report said there are indications that Iran may have such a program. After the interviewer points out to Meridor that all of the U.S. intelligence establishment believes that Iran has not made a decision to get a nuclear bomb, the Israeli minister says:
They said, if I remember correctly, that Iran is going after nuclear weapons…A general understanding between us and American, I think, and Europe–England, France, Germany–is, with no doubts whatsoever, that Iran has made a decision to go there…
Er, well no, they didn’t say that nor do any of the countries named believe that. Of such errors are wars made.
Then Meridor surprised even me, by tearing a page right out of Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes and invoking Kulturkampf to explain Iran’s supposed desire to wipe out Israel and the entire western world. The grandiose conspiratorial nature of his thinking reveals just how delusional is the mindset of some of Israel’s key decision-makers:
I think that the standoff between America and Iran, and the Muslim world is a sort of Kulturkampf, a clash of civilizations. And some groups that are not nationally based, but religiously based–call them Al Qaeda or Jihad or Taliban and others–who think that this is a way to stop the west and the domination of those ideas, will have a real boost in a victory of Iran over those westerners that are trying to change the course, the historical course…
With thinking like this coming from one of the more moderate and supposedly sophisticated members of the Israeli governing coalition, you might as well have Anders Breivik making Israel’s strategic decisions. There doesn’t appear that much difference in thinking between Meridor and Breivik regarding the threat posed by the Muslim world.
Not to mention that Kulturkampf is a Nazi-era term with absolutely no resonance in the Middle East. It is of course used slyly to invoke the Nazi bogeyman and associate Iran with it via Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In this usage, Meridor does violence to current Middle East reality, in that Iran has nothing to do with any of the Islamist groups he mentioned. In fact, Al Qaeda is Sunni-based, not Shia. And Iran is playing no role in Afghanistan.
Even if Iran “wins” to use the Israeli politician’s inapt phrase, it would have no impact on Islamist groups, since Iran isn’t pursuing a nuclear program on behalf of Islam, but rather to advance it’s own national interests.
When the Al Jazeera reporter asked Meridor whether Israel shouldn’t join the NPT protocol and lay its own nuclear program open to the same inspections that Iran allows. The Israeli almost laughably says that Israel’s refusal to join is a “sound and good” policy and “does not bother anyone seriously.” He also states that the question of whether there will be a war in the Middle East is “in the hands of Iran.” This reminds me in a number of ways of the thinking of the bullies, child abusers or wife beaters who tell their victims that the question of whether they will beat them up is solely in the victims’ hands. At the very least, it seems like putting the cart before the horse.
On a related note, the single most comprehensive debunking of the “wipe Israel off the map” claim is this article from the Washington Post.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.