Debates still rage over the actions of American Jewry during the Holocaust. Given the outcome, however, it is hard to dispute that the earlier generation of leaders failed. While today’s threat is not the same as the one faced then, the danger posed by a nuclear Iran is considered an existential one by Israel. The question is whether we are repeating the mistakes of the past and placing Jews at risk of another catastrophe.
The community has done a good job of educating the public about the threat posed by Iran. Polls indicate Americans understand and support strong action, including the possibility of a military strike, which means the environment in which to act is far more conducive than it was in 1981 when Israel was pilloried by the United States for its strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor.
One impediment to the campaign against Iran is the fear of looking like war-mongers. The specious charge that Jews were responsible for the U.S. decision to go to war with Iraq no doubt gives pause to anyone considering advocating military action against Iran. There is a palpable fear of an anti-Semitic backlash if America engages in what will be portrayed as another war for Israel.
Sound strategic reasons do militate against a military strike on Iran, such as the difficulty of knocking out the Iranian facilities and the potential consequences of such an attack. Without a consensus, or clear signal from Israel that this is the only solution, it is difficult for the establishment to lobby for this approach.
Even if it were clear that a military operation was the only solution, it is doubtful American Jewry would be willing to advocate it so long as it was opposed by the Obama administration. In this respect, little has changed since the Holocaust. At that time, Jews were petrified to take on the president, who they overwhelmingly supported, and who argued that he was doing what was best for the Jews by defeating Hitler. Jews did not want to be accused by the president of doing anything to hinder the war effort, even if it ultimately meant abandoning their brethren.
The Jewish community has been at the forefront of the effort to secure sanctions against Iran in the hope they would obviate the need for military action. Obama, however, opposes the sanctions Jews now advocate because he is afraid they will hurt the Iranian people (who one might argue need to feel the pain so they will have an incentive to change their regime).
The Jewish community has rarely been willing to take on presidents. Many of us remember when George H.W. Bush publicly complained that he was “one lonely guy” facing “something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill” in reference to Jews opposing his policy linking settlements and loan guarantees. Obama was the overwhelming choice of Jewish voters and few are willing to criticize him, even on issues of Jewish and Israeli consensus such as the right of Jews to build homes in their capital, so if he ultimately decides, as Hillary Clinton has intimated, that the U.S. can live with a nuclear Iran, will Jews stay silent out of fear of offending him?
To judge whether we have done enough, ask this question: Since our efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program, have they gotten closer to achieving a bomb or not? Intelligence agencies differ in their estimates, but most now agree Iran has the capability to build a bomb. We also argue for the urgency of stricter sanctions based on Iran’s progress toward getting a bomb. Clearly, then, we have, to this point, failed miserably.
The question then is what to do now. Do we advocate military action, which might not work and/or have serious consequences at the risk of sounding like war mongers and challenging Obama, or do we risk Israel’s future by continuing to support the administration’s unsuccessful effort to negotiate and to lobby for sanctions that are unlikely to have any impact? Is there another option?
The American Jewish establishment cannot be accused of inaction or failing to appreciate the gravity of the Iranian problem. Nevertheless, if in the end Iran succeeds in building nuclear weapons, we may have to answer our grandchildren when they ask why we failed to prevent Iran from attacking Israel with nuclear weapons when we had the chance.
Mitchell Bard is the author of 20 books including Will Israel Survive? (Palgrave) and 48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/ Dawn of the Holocaust (Lyons Press)