An Iranian stamp commemorating World Children’s Day, 1991
Ideological Exceptionalism
Taking Iran’s Anti-Semitism Seriously

When U.S. policymakers focus on Iran, they tend to look at technical issues—its military capabilities, its economy, its nuclear ambitions. But they seldom pay enough attention to its ideological beliefs.

Published on: June 2, 2014
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the department of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. His most recent book is Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009).
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  • dubiyarden

    Alternative explanation: Obama and his leading officials do not care if Iran (i) gets the bomb; and/or (ii) uses bomb on Israel, perhaps because it leads to instantaneous “success” in resolving the Arab/Israeli dispute – the linchpin of all Middle East conflict, as Obama/Kerry profess to believe.

    Excellent essay. Cassndra could have written this.

  • Andrew Allison

    Our so-called “leaders” cannot comprehend the fact that if and when Iran gets the bomb it will be used, either by Iran or a surrogate, and not necessary against Israel.

  • S.C. Schwarz

    The key question here is, how would a discussion of Iranian antisemitism help to elect democrats to congress? Answer: It wouldn’t. Jews vote democratic anyway.and the country in general is understandably war-weary.

    The possibility of a nuclear holocaust in Israel is irrelevant to Obama.

  • …Ever consider ‘because strategy?’ Note that the North Koreans have held onto their nuclear program despite years and years of international condemnation and pressure, and they’ve been acting crazy that whole time. Pretend to be an unstable, ideologically-charged regime, and suddenly, paradoxically, the world will start taking your threats more seriously, not less- especially when you have the potential to set off ad device they fear more than death itself.

    This by no means is a suggestion that anti-Semitism isn’t real or is merely a facade being put up by clever individuals. I believe whole-heartedly that there are Iranians bent on seeing the destruction of the State of Israel (and probably of Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and Qatar, and Pakistan…) and it is clear that they have a voice in politics. Sometimes that voice gets particularly loud, as it did under Ahmedinejad’s Presidency.

    But bear in mind that the real power in Iran lies with the Grand Ayatollah, who has thus far appeared reasonable and at times even conciliatory on the Israel issue. President Rouhani, a man deeply committed to the Iranian national interest, has been even more placid, and though he faces competition he is still supported by vast populations of the Iranian populace. For crying out loud, Iranian Jews are represented in the Majlis. This is not anywhere near a reincarnation of Nazi Germany.

    I appreciated that Dr. Herf suggests we need to start looking, again, at the role of ideology in national decisionmaking, lest we go blind to reality. Were his tone more obtusely hawkish, I would have recommended an article with the title on this one to The National Review or The Weekly Standard.

    • Avi_in_Jerusalem

      Dear Luke, The Nazis did not invent Jew hatred. They just took it to a new level. They were Germans and had no feel for acceptable civilised behaviour. Once they started, everybody else saw they could get away with it, so they joined in. This is within living memory.
      Historically it was enough to murder a few Jews here and there and generally keep us in a state of inferiority. This was true in the Christian and the Moslem worlds. The system has worked well from the time of the Hellenistic Greeks onwards. The Iranians don’t need to be Nazis, they are doing quite well on then historical scale of Jew hatred.
      Therefore, when we see Iranian state sponsored hatred, mass demonstrations and direct and indirect Iranian sponsored killing of Jews by terrorists all over the world, we tend to take things on face value.
      I would suggest that look at the facts themselves and their context rather than dismissing them if they conflict with your hoped for world view. Unfortunately, most people in the world, especially the leaders, are not the products of a liberal arts American or European college education.

      • “They were Germans and had no feel for acceptable behavior.”
        Do you hear what you’re saying???

        I reiterate, I’m not downplaying anti-Semitism and saying that it doesn’t exist. But to presume that anti-Semitism drives Iranian strategic thought, as the author has implied, is to discount reality.

  • Hard Little Machine

    The reason the Obama administration ignores Iran’s terrorism, nuclear ambitions, antisemitism and calls for genocide is that at best, at the very best, the administration is indifferent if they succeed. More typically though, most of Obama’s administration is quietly endorsing it, Thankfully Obama is a woefully bad President who relies on his own paranoid love of his own charisma to accomplish anything and so he remains ignorant of the fact that he’s only a hero in his own mind. Iran has been a nuclear power in practical terms, since about a year ago when it likely reached a detente with the US before the election. In exchange for not announcing, Obama agreed to patently ignore it. This way Obama was given a leg up in the election. With sanctions erased and 20-40 billion dollars/year flowing into the Iranian economy, Iran will finish the technical work on the bomb and missiles to deliver it. They will continue to direct and foment terrorist activities and civil wars in the region and will form what is essentially a confederation of regional power that reaches from the Mediterranean to the Pakistani border and from the Caucuses to the Indian ocean. If this ends in a nuclear attack on Israel then Obama will wait a day or two, then hold a press conference in the Rose Garden uttering some vague condemnations.

  • anonymous

    Why is it only the leadership? Is this only true of 1 or 2 or 50 or 1,000 leaders? You are falling into the same trap people do today about Germany. It was not the Germans who believed in the Jewish inferiority and therefore participated in the Holocaust, it was the “Nazis.” Who were the Nazis? The leadership that now is dead. The problem is not the leadership of Iran; antisemitism is endemic to Iranian people. It is part and parcel of being Iranian. There are exceptions; as there were in Germany and through all antisemitism in the world. But the vast majority of the people cling to these negative views of Jews. If you have any doubt, just look at the ADL recent survey of Iranian population

  • Pingback: Iranian anti-Semitism | Matters Of The Day()

  • Winston Pickett

    I find this long-overdue analysis inspired, cogent and maddening in equal measure. I have long argued that policymakers who ignore ideology do so with parlous consequences. I also think the author has missed a trick by not referencing Robert Wistrich’s monumental “A Lethal Obsession. Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to Global Jihad” [Random House, 2010], the last two chapters — more than 100 pages — of which [pp. 830-938] is devoted to the political, theological and ideological antisemitism of modern Iran. Taken together these writings, together with the Litvak citation, are must reading for every policymaker in this area. Kudos to Jeffrey Herf for this wake-up call.

  • Hussam Imtiaz

    National Council of Resistance of Iran, a broad coalition of democratic Iranian organizations, groups, and personalities, was founded in 1981 in Tehran, Iran on the initiative of Massoud Rajavi, the leader of the Iranian Resistance. For more info visit

  • mollysdad

    It seems clear that the Iranians must either change their religion or be wiped out if Israel is to survive. There’s no third alternative.

  • iakovos

    The Socialist Anti-Semitic Myth of the Creation of Money out
    of Thin Air

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