On Wednesday the New York Times ran a fascinating piece authored by Thomas Erdbrink, dateline Tehran, under the title “Iran’s Vice President Makes Anti-Semitic Speech at Forum.” The twelve-paragraph article describes the remarks of Iranian Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi at a United Nations-sponsored conference on the illegal drug trade. For those who have not seen the article or some other report of this event, the basics are fairly plain. Rahimi said that the Talmud was responsible for the spread of illegal drugs around the world and he defied anyone, including the many European diplomats in attendance, to find a single Zionist—a code word for Jew—who is a drug addict. The Times quotes him as follows: “The Islamic Republic of Iran will pay for anyone who can research and find one single Zionist who is an addict. They do not exist. This is proof of their involvement in the drug trade.”
Rahimi added that gynecologists have killed black babies on the orders of the Zionists, that the Bolshevik Revolution was started by Jews, adding that, “mysteriously”, no Jews died in that uprising, and that the Talmud teaches readers to “destroy everyone who opposes the Jews.”
I am not as familiar with all parts of the Talmud as I would like to be, but the several hundred hours I have spent with the book has in fact not turned up any such teaching. Even those without personal knowledge of what the Talmud says and does not say, by which I mean some of the European diplomats present for this speech, understood very well what they were hearing: rank, lunatic, raving anti-Semitism—the sort of thing the common memory of Europe readily recognizes from a mere seventy years ago. The article quoted one such diplomat as saying, “This was definitely one of the worst speeches I have heard in my life. My gut reaction was: why are we supporting any cooperation with these people?” He soon answered his own question, as European diplomats are wont to do: “If we do not support the United Nations on helping Iran fight drugs, voices like the one of Mr. Rahimi will be the only ones out there.” In other words, this diplomat is implying, the entire regime isn’t anti-Semitic, only a few extremist outliers.
Unfortunately, this is not accurate. The regime as a whole is, according to its words as well as its deeds, clearly and viciously anti-Semitic. Examples are so numerous that it is hard to give an estimate of how many boxcars or football stadiums would be required to hold it all. But here is just one typical example, referencing the ever-popular Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In a speech to intellectuals in the city of Kermanshah in western Iran on October 18, 2011, Supreme Leader Khamenei said that “efforts by media outlets belonging to the oppressive world order to highlight deviant and erroneous paradigms draws inspiration from the dangerous aims of the Zionist protocols. This paradigm, developed by the media, is based in a clear, well-defined policy.” So the Jews control the American media.
Sometimes the Jews control America, yes, but other times the Americans control and use the Jews, and sometimes, even in the same text, it is somehow both. Here is an example of the West-using-the-Jews motif: In a speech given on June 16, 2010, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said: “Sixty years ago, they gathered the filthiest and greatest of criminals, who [only] appear to be human from all the corners of the earth, organized and armed them on artificial and false pretexts, fabricating information and inventing stories. They gave them propaganda and military backing so that they would occupy the lands of Palestine and uproot the Palestinian nation.”
The Iranian government’s antipathy to the State of Israel may well be based on a range of factors including tactical and diplomatic ones. Iranian attitudes expressed have made the regime reasonably popular among some segments and groups in the Arab world. But the reasons for the regime’s core fixation on extirpating Israel almost certainly include anti-Semitism.
From my perspective, Vice President Rahimi’s remarks in an open international forum are very welcome. They demonstrate to all who care to listen the true nature of the Iranian regime, and they do so at a time when the U.S. government is pressing its allies to join very stringent sanctions against Iran on account of its nuclear ambitions in the hope that some non-violent solution to this problem can be achieved. Many European governments have agreed to join the sanctions only grudgingly. They have resisted similar undertakings for years. So anything that multiplies underlying levels of support for very stringent sanctions is to be welcomed.
I am skeptical that sanctions, no matter how stringent and how protracted, can drive the Iranians into a deal that settles once and for all the dangers that their nuclear proliferation ambitions pose. But I also recognize that there is a need, for pragmatic diplomatic reasons, to exhaust all the alternatives to force before going kinetic, lest the United States and perhaps one or two other allied countries end up isolating themselves down the road. This tack long predates the Obama Administration. It was also the approach adopted by the Bush Administration before it, and even at an earlier stage in the crisis by the Clinton Administration before that. Some argue that this preparatory diplomacy has been disastrous––that it has only allowed the Iranian regime to use the time to make significant progress on breaching the nonproliferation regime, and that it never had a chance of achieving its goals. Honest people can disagree about the kinds of risks we run in this regard, and what presumptive benefits we may gain from running them. Uncertainties and trade-offs are, after all, the currency of foreign policy problems of this magnitude.
My views on these subjects are in writing and have been for years. I have no intention of rehearsing them now, but I do want to offer two comments related to the implications of the Iranian regime’s anti-Semitism.
It has struck me in recent years how reluctant supposedly serious analysts are to credit the significance of the Iranian regime’s anti-Semitism in their assessment of the dangers inherent in the Iranian nuclear program. Without going into detail, the basic argument in broad schematic form has been between those who believe that the Iranian regime is rational and therefore can be deterred by the same mechanisms that deterred nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and those who believe that those mechanisms cannot effectively or reliably be superimposed on very different circumstances.
Those who believe the former are not especially worried about Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons. We can learn to live with such weapons, they say. They are not especially worried about the mousetrap effect of breaching the nonproliferation regime in the region, so presumably they think that deterring nuclear war among three or four or five countries in the region, essentially forever, is no big deal. The current issue of Foreign Affairs features a lead piece by the well-known international relations academic Kenneth Waltz arguing that it would actually be a good thing for Iran to get the bomb. This is an extension of an old theory of his arguing that nuclear proliferation is stabilizing. Only an academic could write such nonsense, and I must say that this is the stupidest lead piece I have ever seen in Foreign Affairs over more than forty years.
Specifically as to the question of rationality, I and others have argued that even if the Iranians are 99 percent rational, and hence presumably deterrable (although everyone by now should realize that successful deterrence does not depend on rational factors alone), they are at least 1 percent irrational, and that irrationality is bound up in their rabid anti-Semitism and pointed at Israel. Those who take the more sanguine view of the applicability of classical deterrence theory to the Middle East are inclined to argue that the Israelis are the ones who are behaving irrationally. They are making a big fuss, it is alleged, about nothing—or perhaps, to give the Israelis the benefit of the doubt, next to nothing. (How one assesses the dangers and how one speaks about them publicly are, however, two different things.) Indeed, especially in Europe but also here in the United States in some quarters, Israel is blamed for the crisis over Iranian nuclear proliferation, not Iran, and Israel is regularly scolded for doing things that it has not yet actually done (and, by the way, does not want to do and may never do). This is, of course, bizarre. But it is, after all, no more bizarre than the very popular blood libel accusations of earlier centuries, which featured a similarly twisted logic of blaming the likely and future victim for his own victimization.
I am a Jew, and I have lived in Israel, so to some people that makes me hopelessly biased by definition. I’m not, but if that is what you think, you have my permission to stop reading at this point. Otherwise, let me only point out that when armed governments threaten the mass murder of Jews, and the words and tone of those threats resemble the ravings of mentally disturbed people we know so well from the World War II era, it is not reasonable to expect Jews inside the State of Israel and outside to assume that there is no problem. No one, I think, would expect a similarly blasé attitude from Armenians, Rwandans, Poles, and other historical victimized peoples under roughly similar circumstances.
So it is frankly astonishing to me that educated people in the West and elsewhere, a mere seventy years after a cataclysmic war that was decisively shaped if not begun by anti-Semitic madness, can blithely dismiss the role that anti-Semitism can play in political life both domestic and international. The only explanations I can think of for such blindness are: first, a breathtaking degree of historical ignorance; second, an absurd conceit insisting that our times are fundamentally different from those times; third, a proclivity to think of Jewish blood as cheap; and fourth, something else I just can’t get my head around.
The second comment I want to make leans somewhat in the other direction. Not knowing the historical background, many people might assume that Iranian anti-Semitism, as well as contemporary Arab anti-Semitism and other varieties of Muslim anti-Semitism like that vividly on display in Pakistan, is rooted very deeply in Islamic theology and culture. This is not the case.
I do not mean that there are no anti-Jewish stereotypes within various Islamic cultures. There are, which is natural to a religious tradition that, like Christianity, sees itself as transcending the original Abrahamic civilization. There can only be one “chosen people” or “true religion” at a time, and if Muslims are it, Christians and Jews can’t be it. The Quran is a beautiful and capacious book within which one can find some Judeophilic elements as well as some anti-Jewish elements. This is inherent in the way the Quran retells stories from the Hebrew Bible to suit the needs of its authors. In that regards it is not different from the way the New Testament (mis)characterizes its precursors. In many hadiths and in the sira literature, stereotypes brought from the Quran’s historical narratives are elaborated and deepened. It is also true that over many centuries during which Jewish communities existed within Dar al-Islam the second-class citizenship of Jews (and other minorities) put generations of social flesh on the skeletons inherited from scriptural narratives.
But this is not anti-Semitism as we have come to define it in the modern era. Anti-Semitism has a specific clinical definition as a particular form of bigotry displaying clear signs of mental derangement. This mental derangement is parallel, but different in specifics of course, to extreme bigotry directed against blacks, Gypsies, Chinese expatriate communities, and many others. Traditional Muslim anti-Jewish bias produced special tax burdens, a need to wear distinctive clothing in many cases, limits on the number and height of synagogue buildings, and much else besides. But with only exceptionally rare cases, like that of the mad Fatimid Caliph Hakim in the early 11th century, it did not produce mass expulsions or mass murders. Genuine anti-Semitism, as opposed to mere anti-Jewish cultural biases, is capable of producing mass violence, so the distinction is not merely semantic.
This is not the place to detail the clinical definition of anti-Semitism. If you’re interested in a careful delineation, I invite you to read chapter 3 of my 2009 book Jewcentricity: Why the Jews Are Praised, Blamed, and Used to Explain Just About Everything. But it is the place, I think, for a brief recapitulation of how modern Muslim anti-Semitism came about (again, those in search of more detail can read chapter 13 of Jewcentricity).
In short, contemporary Muslim anti-Semitism is, like much else in the region, a 19th– and 20th-century European import. (The philosopher George Williams once said, “Be cautious when you choose your enemy for you will grow to be more like him.” No wiser warning has ever been offered.) It is a mutation that has built upon pre-existing folk biases in the context of a turbulent 19th– and 20th-century Muslim encounter with Europe and the efforts and successes of the Zionist movement. So it is at most a century or so old, and it exists in variations depending on the histories of Muslim-Jewish encounters in various places; that history is very different in Morocco than it is in Syria, for example, and than it has been in Iran or Turkey.
There are very good reasons why clinical anti-Semitism has not existed in the Muslim world until recently. First, Islam considers Jews and Christians to be “people of the book”, protected people with a certain status. When Muslim rulers got angry and violent in the earlier centuries of Islam, they tended to go after other peoples. Second, on those occasions when Muslim leaders did not spare the people of the book they tended to go after Christians rather than Jews. The reason was that Christians were for a long period associated with geopolitical threats emanating from Christian Europe, and there were always more Christians inside the Muslim world than there were Jews.
Third, note that anti-Semitism in Europe went through a series of stages, beginning as religious prejudice but later entwining with the social role of Jews in premodern European societies, then becoming entangled with the role Jews played in early capitalism during the transition from feudal to early modern times. And then it merged with modern scientific racism producing the viral anti-Semitism of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Islamic social and intellectual history is completely different from that of Europe: Jews were not the only significant non-Islamic element in the Muslim world as they were the only significant non-Christian element in the Christian world; Islamic societies remained precapitalist in economic organization; and the tradition of Western science that was distorted in the 19th century into scientific racism never emerged in Islamic lands.
So what changed? As the Muslim world was forcibly modernized, urbanized and pluralized under the pressures of European colonialism, it began to look and be more like Europe, and so began to take in more European ideas—including anti-Semitism. It is no coincidence that if you go into bookstores in the Muslim world looking for anti-Semitic literature, what you find is mostly not writings original to the region but rather translations of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and, also very popular, America’s own contribution, Henry Ford’s vicious anti-Semitic tracts from the 1920s, like The International Jew.
As traditional Muslim anti-Jewish folk bias became transmuted into genuine anti-Semitism, a significant inversion took place. It used to be that everything that was Jewish was evil because it was not Islamic, but Jews stood in line with other non-Islamic peoples and religions in this regard. Now, everything evil is “Jewish.”
Note, too, that, as was never the case in Europe until recently, Muslim anti-Semitism is mostly a case of anti-Semitism without actual Jews. It is very abstract and thus very flexible, so that it fits with the conspiracy-theory mentality so prevalent throughout the region. Since there are no actual Jews living in significant numbers in the Arab world (although there are about 20,000 Jews living in Iran among a population of about 74 million) the pretexts for anti-Jewish hatred are essentially unfalsifiable by reference to actual Jews.
And finally, in this admittedly very brief and inadequate discussion of a rich and complex subject, it is worth noting that many governments in the Muslim world have actively engaged in anti-Semitic propaganda as a means to deflect discontent onto others. This has been true of the Egyptian government for many years even despite the fact that Egypt and Israel have been formally at peace since March 1979. It is, I think, very true of the Iranian regime today––which does not mean that the mullahs don’t actually believe the outrageous nonsense they propagate, of which Mr. Rahimi’s recent speech is a run-of-the-mill example.
I will leave it to experts to analyze anti-Jewish bias in traditional Shi‘a Islamic beliefs, but the point we need to recognize here is that the Islamic regime in Iran today is not traditional. Ayatollah Khomeini turned many Shi‘a traditions on their heads, creating an admixture that is as political in inspiration as it is theological. It is into and through this novel version of Shi‘a Islam that genuine anti-Semitism has crept.
The bad news here is that this anti-Semitism is truly intrinsic and even central to the Iranian regime’s belief system. The better news is that, given how unpopular the regime is in wide strata Iranian society, there is no reason to think that this virulent form of anti-Semitism has sunk deep roots into Iranian society. If European diplomats were shocked at Mr. Rahimi’s rantings, so I am certain were many normal and sensible Iranians. One of these days, soon I hope, we’ll all be able to sit together and thank heaven that this barbarous regime is no more. In the meantime, Iran will continue to show signs of being a “crazy state”, to use Yehezkel Dror’s well-known concept, with all of the attendant dangers in train.