Sunday, June 28, 2009

Watching Iran

Like all of you, I’m sure, I have been following the events in Iran this last week with the oddest mixture of confused emotions: satisfaction that the most potentially dastardly of our enemies has been humiliated in public by having been shown up as the kind of “leader” who has no choice but to steal votes in order to remain in office, dismay that there are no signs that the election results will be set aside any time soon and that the incumbent will therefore probably remain in office, worry about the implications of the election results for Israel and of the ongoing unrest for the Jews of Iran, and a general sense of ill ease regarding the future of the Middle East with an volatile and unstable nuclear Iran (which I find even more unsettling than the ill ease I general feel about the future of the Middle East with a relatively stable, non-chaotic nuclear Iran.)

Mostly, though, I feel chastened: after all these many months of thinking of Iran as the ultimate rogue state—the one whose leader openly calls for the eradication of Israel (as opposed to those less forthright world leaders who feel just the same way but who for some reason forebear to say so openly in public),the one whose leaders not only don’t condemn Holocaust denial but who shamelessly support the idea and run conferences devoted to “proving” the concept that the story of the Shoah is mere Zionist propaganda, the one whose possibly inevitable success in acquiring nuclear weapons could conceivably be the single most important development in Jewish history since Hitler came to power—after months, if not years, of thinking of Iran in those terms, I am now reminded that no one is as oppressed by the leaders of Iran as the Iranians themselves. Indeed, as I watched the youtube footage of the demonstrations in Teheran and elsewhere in Iran—you can look at thirty separate clips on the youtube page of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the failed presidential candidate, at — I was reminded of nothing as strongly as I was of the fall of East Germany and how that whole series of events demonstrated undeniably that, in the end, even the most ruthless cadre of oppressors cannot withstand the force of a nation rising up en masse and in quiet dignity to claim its civil and human rights.

Of course, we’d be a little premature breaking out the champagne just yet. Indeed, even if Ahmadinejad’s unbelievable two-thirds majority was phony—and that certainly appears to have been the case—there were still more than thirty-nine million votes cast and there were an awful lot of those people, millions upon millions of them in their own right, who did not find the incumbent’s policies sufficiently reprehensible, let alone sufficiently repulsive, so as to make voting for him out of the question. More to the point is the fact that it remains entirely unclear whether the protests—including today’s massive demonstrations which you will know about when you read this, but which are still in the future as I write this to you—will ultimately be exercises in blowing off steam or in actually getting the government to declare the election results irremediably tainted and to announce its intention to bring the people back to the polls. This latter option seems, to say the very least, unlikely. Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak was quoted yesterday on yahoo as saying that Ahmadinejad’s re-election was “bad news” for Israel and the world. I suppose that more or less sums it up. But it’s even worse news for the people of Iran.

What has been interesting to me especially in watching all this unfold has been the use of the internet to foment public dissent in a way that seems to me to be unprecedented. (When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I had just bought my first computer and hadn’t decided yet whether I should spend the money to acquire an e-mail account. Who knew if it would catch on?) There are, for example, almost 28,000 people who are following the moment-by-moment description of what is going on in Teheran on Twitter by reading the postings of persiankiwi, an anonymous blogger, possibly an Australian, who has possibly become the world’s most widely read post-biblical person of unknown identity. (Take a look for yourself at .) Or you can join the almost 15,000 readers of Mir-Hossein Mousavi himself, who is also on Twitter, by going to This is not a game for the non-intrepid, however. The full list of twitterers writing from inside Iran that was posted up until yesterday at was taken down last night out of fear that the government would somehow be able to identify the authors involved, then punish them for the candor. But new sites spring up so quickly that it’s almost impossible to keep track. This morning, for example, I found, where dozens of bloggers and twitterers writing eye-witness accounts of what they have seen in these last few days are listed for all to see. The amazing thing, at least to me, is how possible it is to be part—or rather, to feel part—of ongoing events in other places in a way that simply would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Do you want to be one of change_for_iran’s 24,000 readers? You only need to click once or twice…and there you are!

I’ve mentioned Mousavi’s presence on the ‘web in terms of his youtube page and Twitter identity, but he’s also on Facebook (at, on Flickr (at and on the less well-known (at, where the so-far failed candidate suggests some interesting sites he himself has bookmarked and suggests that others go to visit. Clearly, it’s a whole new world out there!

When I read in the paper the other day that the State Department had made a formal request of the managers of Twitter that they forego a planned upgrade to their software that would have disrupted the Iranian people’s ongoing effort to tell their story to the world through the Twitter site, I didn’t quite get it. But now that I’ve taken the time to read about this in more detail and to visit the sites in question, I understand perfectly why this mattered so much to our government. This is something new, something very exciting and interesting. (Even the Obama campaign itself didn’t quite manage to use the internet in this kind of concerted, in-your-face way to bring their message to the American people nor, as far as I know, has anyone else.) If the Persians had had Twitter in the days of Esther and Mordechai, would Haman have gotten as far as he did without anyone (other than his wife Zeresh) noticing that he was bringing ruin not ultimately to the Jews of Persia, but to the Persians—that is to say, the Iranians—themselves? Would Mordechai simply have tweeted Esther to bring her up to speed instead of having to engage in the elaborate scheme reported in the Megillah whereby he finally told her of Haman’s murderous machinations? Who knows about any of that? But what I do know is the world seems different to me than even a few months ago, that the power of mass, instant communication has somehow moved past being an amusing diversion and taken its place among the most powerful of all tools for change in the world: an instrument that permits people to communicate with each other without having to get the permission of others, without having to pass their remarks by a censor, without having to do anything more complicated than type it all out and then push the “send” button.

In my opinion, this is all for the good. A world in which repressive regimes can no longer hide their excesses behind a cloak of invisibility and silence is going to be a better place than one in which the wicked can work efficiently and quickly without having to bear the opprobrium they deserve and ought to have earned. Whether the Iranian people will seize their own destiny remains to be seen, of course. Whether the people will show themselves to be less implacably hostile to Israel than their current president who sounds almost demented with anti-Semitism when he speaks of Israel or Zionism too remains to be seen. But the recent past is only the recent past…and there is the distant past to consider as well. King Cyrus of Persia was personally responsible for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E., and it was he who ended the exile of our ancestors in Babylon and sent them home. Later on, the kings of Sassanian Persia created a stable, cultured homeland for our greatest sages to produce the Talmud, the masterpiece of all rabbinic creativity and jurisprudence. In our own day, the Shah of Iran provided a welcome voice of Muslim friendship in an otherwise wholly hostile Middle East in the early days of Israel’s statehood and was in fact the first Muslim leader to recognize the Jewish state. So we’re not starting from scratch here…and who knows what might not happen if the voices of the Iranian people—the real voices of the real people, not the shrill haranguing of their crazy president—begin to be heard. Perhaps when the din quiets, we’ll hear voices of reason, even of friendly dialogue. You never know!

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