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Jewish Journal

Cooling down the the Iran rhetoric can help get real results

by James D. Besser

June 7, 2007 | 8:00 pm

The Jewish community is just as concerned as ever about the menace of a nuclear Iran, but it is starting to temper its red-hot rhetoric on the issue.

The reason: a growing sense that calling Iran the new Nazi Germany, its madman leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Hitler reborn, is hurting the community-wide effort to ratchet up the diplomatic and economic pressure on the Tehran regime.

Few are sanguine about the Iranian threat, but there is a growing realization that a war-weary nation may be hypersensitive to political arguments that sound a lot like calls for yet another war.

Talk to a random sampling of Jewish leaders and one thing leaps out: There is almost wall-to-wall agreement that a nuclear Iran represents a major threat to nations across the Middle East and Europe, to U.S. interests around the world and in particular to Israel, a country Ahmadinejad thinks should be erased from the globe.

The prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of the anti-Israel terrorist groups Iran has so recklessly supported is terrifying; so is the specter of that country's growing missile arsenal.

But is the suggestion that this is the worst Israel has ever faced justified? Does a nuclear Iran automatically mean atomic war in the Middle East and a death sentence for the Jewish state? Probably not, but that's the impression conveyed by major Jewish groups.

The experts aren't so sure. Many say that despite Ahmadinejad's threats, the Iranians are not, in fact, suicidal. Even Ahmadinejad understands that any nuclear attack against Israel, with its assumed second-strike capability, would result in his country's utter destruction.

That leads to this question: When does high-octane rhetoric work, and when does it become counterproductive?

It may be true that the Nazi comparisons from Israeli leaders such as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively mobilized Jewish activists across the political spectrum.

Israel has overcome so many dire threats over the years that there is complacency among many American Jews; framing Iran's nuclear quest as a likely precursor to a new Holocaust rallied disparate organizations to the cause.

And let's be honest; sounding the air raid sirens about Iran is good for fundraising, a unifying factor in a Jewish community torn by many questions of Mideast policy.

But that rhetoric has risks. Once started, it tends to build on itself as leaders and organizations try to outdo each other.

It also tends to isolate the Jewish community, especially in the current anxious political environment.

Americans have soured on the war in Iraq -- which, after all, started with exaggerated claims involving weapons of mass destruction and misrepresentations about Iraq's role in Sept. 11.

Apocalyptic talk about Iran may sell in Washington, which is used to verbal overkill, but it doesn't work well in state legislatures and city councils across the country, where the ever-growing Iraq body count is more real and immediate.

And increasingly, that's where the most effective action is taking place, as local and state governments take up selective divestment resolutions aimed at Iran.

International sanctions are too easily punctured by a handful of countries eager to reap profits in dealing with Iran, but targeted divestment against companies that work in Iran's oil sector is a way to hit the Iranians where it hurts.

Some Jewish leaders say that what local politicians want to learn about is how Iran threatens U.S. interests, and how local bodies can act to help reduce that threat while also reducing the chances of another war.

And they say the hyperbole of Nazi comparisons, which imply that war is the only answer, turn off potential coalition partners and make it harder to build political support for local and state divestment efforts.

Polls show a strong majority of American Jews is opposed to U.S. military action to stop Iran. But that doesn't come across when Jewish leaders talk about the new Nazis in the Middle East, since only those who have taken leave of their senses believe diplomacy would have stopped Adolf Hitler.

Still, the strident rhetoric keeps coming from Jewish boardrooms -- in part because of uncertainty over what Israel's leaders want.

Officials in Jerusalem are not pumping for U.S. military action, but they have made it clear they do not want the Bush administration's hands tied when it comes to that option -- the reason pro-Israel groups have generally opposed congressional efforts to force President Bush to come back to them for additional authorization before any Iran strike.

And in a recent Anti-Defamation League poll, 71 percent of Israelis surveyed said the U.S. "should use force" to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities if diplomacy and economic sanctions fail.

But around the country, local Jewish leaders are starting to realize that a measured, pragmatic and rhetorically temperate approach to Iran may be the best way to win allies in the effort to generate effective economic pressure on Iran.


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