Washington — The timing this week was hard to ignore. A do-or-die confrontation over Iran between two influential leaders, with the fate of the Jewish people at stake.
I’m not just referring to the Obama-Netanyahu showdown at the White House on when and whether to strike at Tehran’s nuclear sites, but to an encounter centuries ago between Queen Esther and King Ahasveros in ancient Persia — today’s Iran — and her plea that he reverse the wicked Haman’s death sentence for the Jewish population.
Fortunately the ever-thrilling Purim story had a happy ending, and we still celebrate it with great merriment. And so it is that this week, even as the specter of Iran’s existential threat to Israel’s existence hangs in the air, Israeli children and their parents — and Jews around the world — dress up in costumes, have a festive meal and celebrate the dramatic reversals that resulted in Haman being hung in the place of our hero, Mordechai, and in brave Queen Esther and her people being saved.
No doubt many Israeli children dress up on Purim now as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the modern-day Haman who denies the Holocaust, denounces Zionism and threatens to wipe Israel off the map.
Beyond the dramatic parallels between the Book of Esther and the current crisis being played out on the world stage, are there any lessons to be learned from Purim-related texts and history?
I’ve been thinking about that since last Shabbat morning, listening to the Torah reading of Parshat Zachor (Remember), the brief but powerful passage recalled each year on the Sabbath before Purim.
“Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt,” God says, how the arch enemy of the Israelites attacked from behind, targeting the weary and most helpless, presumably women and children.
When the Jewish people reach and settle the land of Israel, God continues, “Thou shalt blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.”
This is the God of vengeance speaking, not the God of compassion. But how can one blot out the name of Amalek and at the same time not forget? It seems impossible to do both.
Some of the rabbis suggest the message is to remember that there is evil in every generation, and that those modern-day Amaleks who seek to destroy the Jewish people must be confronted and defeated.
It all makes for a pretty hawkish message, and one that resonated among many of the 14,000 attendees at this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, with its strong emphasis on the Iran crisis.
There was an air of urgency amid the excitement in the halls of the Washington Convention Center this week, a sense that with the appearances of President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and dozens of other star-power officials from Washington and Jerusalem, this was center stage for an international news story building toward a climax.
Israel is portrayed in the media as eagerly seeking tougher talk and action from the U.S. in terms of striking at Iran’s nuclear sites before the “zone of immunity” is reached.
In his address on Sunday morning, Obama went farther than he has until now in seeking to reassure Israel and its supporters (in this presidential election year) that he has Jerusalem’s back. He reiterated that the military option is on the table, but added that containment is not an option and, more significantly, that Israel has the sovereign right to act on its own. That was seen as an indication that the U.S. would not stand in Israel’s way should it decide to act.
At the same time, though, the president asserted that diplomacy, and tighter sanctions are the best ways of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
It was a delicate balance he was striving for, and not surprisingly, even before he had left the hall Obama’s remarks, nuances and body language were being parsed, pro or con, by AIPAC delegates, depending on their own political views.
As the official pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC insists on its nonpartisan nature, emphasizing to Democrats and Republicans alike the strategic and moral values of a strong Israel-America alliance. But you don’t come to the annual policy conference to hear a wide range of viewpoints on the Mideast; you come to be educated and energized by the AIPAC “message” to Washington. And this year it clearly, if implicitly, was: stand with Israel as it faces the threat of extinction, get tougher with Iran and make clear this is not just Israel’s problem but one shared by America, the Mideast and the world.
The impression I got from the panelists I heard and the delegates I spoke with was that the time for negotiating with Iran (if there ever was such a time) has long passed and that its nuclear program must be thwarted through pre-emptive means before it is too late.
“I admire President Obama; he is sophisticated, articulate” and pragmatic — “and that’s the problem,” said Ali Alfoneh, an Iranian-born resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, drawing laughter from a large crowd at a session Sunday afternoon on leadership infighting within the Islamic Republic.
He asserted that Iran is “no longer a theocracy” but instead has become a military dictatorship ruled by the Revolutionary Guard — part army and part police force, and fully committed to fostering Islamic ideology.
Its leaders, he said, feared President George W. Bush because they believed he was willing to use force against them and they “genuinely fear Israel” for the same reason. “But they don’t believe that about President Obama,” Alfoneh insisted.
“Stop trying to negotiate with Iran,” and understand that such talk is “interpreted as a sign of weakness.”
He added that Washington is overly focused on the nuclear issue when it should be concentrating on fostering regime change in Iran, which its leaders dread.
Emanuele Ottolenghi, Alfoneh’s co-panelist and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, agreed, saying that Iranians are “disaffected, disappointed and disgruntled” with the regime, and the U.S. “hasn’t leveraged this at all.”
The message he emphasized was that “Iran fears regime change and military attack, and we should constantly make them fear we’ll do both.”
Both speakers made the point that every time the U.S. has drawn a red line, Iran crossed it, with no real consequences. And while they said the West should continue to negotiate, they added that it should be with the Revolutionary Guard, not the government, and according to Alfoneh, “with a sword held over their heads.”
Judging from the response, the audience strongly favored this aggressive talk, but there was no discussion, from the speakers or in the Q&A segment, of the ominous repercussions — military, diplomatic and economic — of an Israeli attack on Iran.
One of three speakers did focus on the issue at a session the next day on “Why Iran Really Wants Nukes.” Both Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Iran is seeking hegemony in the region, and that a nuclear bomb would give Tehran prestige and power to export its Islamic revolution and provide greater economic clout.
The two panelists called for regime change by supporting the opposition, and stressed the need for deeper economic sanctions that would include Europe cutting off trade with Iran. Sherman noted that an Israeli attack might not only hit nuclear sites but also threaten oil facilities, the lifeblood of Iran.
It was the only Israeli on the panel, Avi Issacharoff, a reporter for the liberal daily Haaretz, who added a sobering note of caution, saying Israel probably has not decided at this point on a military strike because its leaders know full well the consequences might be “devastating” for the Israeli people.
“I hear more talk in the U.S. of an Israeli attack than I do in Israel,” he said.
Common Values, Different Calculations
When you are in the giant bubble of the AIPAC policy conference, with its record attendance this year, it is sometimes difficult to remember that the delegates you see in the sessions and hallways are not necessarily representative of American Jewry. They are more passionate, active and knowledgeable about Israel than most, and not surprisingly, that fervor sometimes presupposes that Washington must share the same views and policies as Israel on every issue.
The fact that there are real differences, despite common values and visions, leads to the kinds of tensions on display between Obama and Netanyahu in discussing timing issues regarding Iran.
Their meeting led to no dramatic breakthroughs, and for all their mutual concerns about a nuclear Iran, the American and Israeli leaders face different calculations in assessing the crisis. Obama is deeply reluctant to launch the third unpopular war in 10 years after the mixed results and losses in life and currency resulting from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. And Iran does not pose a direct threat to American lives. But Netanyahu needs to know if he can rely on the U.S. to take pre-emptive military action before Iran reaches nuclear weapon capability. If not, he may decide he cannot afford to wait, and go it alone to prevent an attack on his civilian population from Iran or one of its terrorist proxies.
The window is closing, the choices are awful and the consequences are dire.
What would Mordechai, of the Purim story, do?
When he learned of the edict to destroy the Jews of Persia, Mordechai asked Esther to risk her life in pleading with the king for their fellow Jews to be spared. In a memorable statement, founded on deep faith, he told her, “If you remain silent now, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place. … And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?”
Today, Israel is asking its ally, the U.S., to step up and spell out to Iran the serious military consequences should it continue its nuclear program.
Netanyahu invoked the Purim parallel at the close of his address to AIPAC Monday night, noting: “2,500 years ago a Persian anti-Semite tried to annihilate the Jewish people.” Thanks to Esther’s intervention they were allowed to defend themselves and defeated their enemies. (He even presented Obama with a copy of the Book of Esther at their White House meeting.)
In every generation there are those who wish to destroy us, Netanyahu said. But in this generation, he added, “We are blessed to have a State of Israel to defend the Jewish people.”
The prime minister asserted that Israel “must remain the master of our fate.”
What role the U.S. will play as the clock clicks down toward a nuclear Iran remains to be seen. But those with trust in the eternity of the Jewish people believe that, either way, in the end Israel will defend itself and one more generation of Amalek will be defeated.
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