At the risk of being tarred and feathered by those who prefer silence on Israel's human-rights record to open discussion, I'd like to write frankly about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Sunday interview with George Stephanopoulos. Some of the things Ahmadinejad said were, in fact, quite reasonable. If we can't recognize that and respond, then we have little hope of understanding the morass in the Middle East, or of combating Ahmadinejad's perverse anti-Semitism.
In the interview, on ABC's This Week, the Iranian president wrapped his Holocaust-denial in a series of legitimate criticisms of present-day Israeli policy, lending strength to his highly offensive worldview. Sadly, Israel's new conservative government is playing right into Ahmadinejad's hands, and not just by refusing to end settlement activity and avoiding the necessary political concessions that could hasten a two-state solution.
At last Thursday's Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony on Capitol Hill, a series of speakers shifted the focus off the victims of Nazism, admonishing President Barack Obama to take a more aggressive stance toward Iran. Referencing Tehran's quest to obtain nuclear weapons, Israeli Ambassador Sallai Merido asked, “When a regime is again ... terrorizing its neighbors, threatening to destroy the Jewish people, how will we meet this challenge before it's too late?”
When the Israeli government engages in this kind of overheated, verbal hardball -- instead of pursuing calm diplomacy -- it only lends prominence to Ahmadinejad's zealous anti-Semitism. That is a tragedy, because a founding principle of the Zionist project was to protect the Jewish people from discrimination, not to inflame it. Ahmadinejad has become a beacon for all those who deny the Holocaust. He needs to be contained, not egged on. Here is the key excerpt from his ABC interview, which encapsulates his stance toward Israel and Jews:
AHMADINEJAD: ... I have posed two questions over Holocaust. My first question was, if the Holocaust happened, where did it take place? In Europe. Why should they make amends in Palestine? The Palestinian people had no role to play in the Holocaust. They had no role, for that matter, in the Second World War. Racism happened in Europe, the amends are made in Palestine? My second question about the Holocaust, if this is indeed a historical event, why do they want to turn it into a holy thing? And nobody should be allowed to ask any questions about that? Nobody study it, research it, permit it to research it. Why?
STEPHANOPOULOS: It's the most studied historical event in history.
AHMADINEJAD: If this is a historically documented event, why do Western states show so much sensitivity towards a historical event? They do not want the lid to be taken off. I am asking them to permit studies.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's talk about something that's happening right now. President Obama has appointed Senator George Mitchell to help negotiate a peace between Israel and Palestine. Do you support that effort?
AHMADINEJAD: Well, we are asking for the legal rights of the Palestinian people. What we are saying is that the Palestinian people, like other peoples, have the right to determine their own fate. Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike. We should -- they should allow them to engage in elections, free elections and a free referendum to determine for themselves their own fate. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Let's consider what Ahmadinejad does here, rhetorically. He begins with a perfectly legitimate, though controversial point: The horror of the Nazi Holocaust convinced the world community to embrace Zionism, and Palestinians disproportionately suffered as Jews claimed the Holy Land as their own, displacing 800,000 Arab residents. This argument accepts at face value the basic historic facts of World War II. But then Ahmadinejad veers sharply, positing that perhaps what we know about the Holocaust is false, that the event may not have happened at all, or at least not in the way most educated people know it did.
You cannot oppose the existence of Israel as a Jewish state on the grounds of both point one and point two. Point one accepts the veracity of the Holocaust; point two does not. It is unclear whether Ahmadinejad is being intellectually dishonest -- pandering to the populist anti-Zionist fervor present throughout the Muslim world -- or whether his paranoid anti-Semitism is a matter of personal conviction. Jon Lee Anderson's recent New Yorker piece on the Iranian president, who is currently up for re-election, leaves little doubt that Ahmadinejad's maddening ideology is backed by savvy public relations. Either way, Ahmadinejad bookends his false assertion about the Holocaust with two facts that are, indeed, true -- that the Palestinians were victimized by the founding of the state of Israel and that they now have the right to their own self-determination. This mixing of fiction and fact is not only disturbing but politically potent in reaching out to those already primed to believe the worst about Israel and Jews.
Let me be clear: There is absolutely no excuse for anti-Semitism, or for racism of any kind. But the current Israeli government appears to oppose reasonable self-determination for Palestinians, a stance interpreted by many in the Muslim world as evidence of a racist ideology. This is a rational interpretation. Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has said, "Minorities are the biggest problem in the world." Lieberman opposes withdrawing Israeli settlers from Palestinian territories. Under his influence, Benjamin Netanyahu's administration has indicated that it no longer considers itself bound to the peace agreement made at Annapolis in 2007, in which Israel and 40 other nations vowed to pursue a two-state solution. In an interview with a Russian newspaper last week, Lieberman went so far as to claim that President Obama "accepts all our decisions" -- despite reports that Obama is, in fact, preparing congressional Democrats for a possible showdown with Israel's reactionaries.
An Israeli government perpetuating such policies, all while claiming to speak for the world's Jewish population, does little to combat prejudice against Jews. Rather, it plays right into Ahmadinejad's hands, vastly increasing the likelihood that Jews living outside Israel will have to confront anti-Semitism. We saw this sad phenomenon in January, during Israel's brutal incursion into Gaza. Some 1,000 Palestinians, hundreds of them civilians, were killed in retaliation for Hamas rocket attacks that killed four Israelis. Simultaneously, Jews in France, Sweden, Belgium, and Denmark were victimized by anti-Semitic violence and vandalism.
That said, global anti-Semitism is not the only reason why Israel should move quickly toward a two-state solution, curb its politicians' race-baiting rhetoric toward Palestinian and Israeli Arabs, and make a broader commitment to human rights. Israel should do so because every nation should do so. These are, simply, the right things to do, and the best ways to ensure the security of Israel's own citizens. Lastly, it is in part because the Holocaust is so painfully, historically, and recently real -- so very, very true -- that Jews worldwide should be holding Israel to a much higher standard.