Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Military Option

There have been moments in my life when I’ve been overcome by the sense that the distinctions we insist on making between different cultures, nations, and ethnicities are petty and small, that we are all far more similar than we are different. I feel that way when I read the novels of Naguib Mafouz, for example, the late Nobel-Prize-winning Egyptian author whose books underscore—to me personally, at any rate—how easy it should be for Jews and Muslims to live in peace, how much cultural baggage (and how many obsessions and how much inexplicable peculiarity) we share, how comfortable I would be in the settings he describes in Cairo and Alexandria that ought to seem foreign and threatening to me, but which actually remind me more than anything of the New York of my own childhood and of Israel. (If you haven’t read Mafouz, you’re in for a huge treat. Start with the three novels collectively called the Cairo Trilogy and move on from there. And speaking of Egyptian novels, I just finished Alaa Al-Aswany’s book, The Yacoubian Building, which I recommend to all my readers. It’s funny, touching, intelligent…and it too reminded me how similar Egyptian culture and Israeli culture really are, how easy it would be for “brethren to dwell together in peace” if we only had the nerve to set politics aside and simply to look at each other clearly and directly.) That sense of the brotherhood of humankind comes to me often when I read novels in translation, actually. As you all know, I read a lot. But whether I’m reading my way into the Japan of Haruki Murakami or Kenzaburo Oe (and in some ways especially the latter), or into Orhan Pamuk’s Turkey or Manil Suri’s India or Aravind Adiga’s…the sense I have is always the same, always how amazing it is not how different we all are, but to what degree we are all so similar.

But then there are also moments when I realize that Jews, in addition to living in the same places as their neighbors, also view the world entirely differently than their co-citizens. (When a cockroach looks at a pineapple, does it really see the same thing I do? It’s hard to imagine that it does. Yet it’s the same piece of fruit!) This truth too has been visited upon me in many different contexts. For example, I remember once walking with a very good friend of mine, the Methodist minister who served the church down the road a piece from the synagogue in California in which I worked before I came to Shelter Rock. Somehow, the name of a member of my synagogue came up and I mentioned in passing that that person’s parents and grandparents were murdered at Auschwitz as were also all but one of his siblings, a younger sister who also survived. He mentioned that he hadn’t ever met anyone who had experienced the murder of a close relative, let alone more than one. That sounded reasonable to me in terms of his life, but when I told him I couldn’t even begin to count the people that I’ve known or met in my life who had experienced just that—the senseless, violent murder of one or many close relatives—I could almost feel the chasm growing between us, not one of hostility or of distrust or dislike, but of unshared experience: I couldn’t imagine seeing the world through his eyes and I don’t think he could imagine seeing it through mine. When I mentioned, as we walked further, that I didn’t believe a day has passed in my life since I was a teenager in which the Shoah hadn’t insinuated itself into my thinking in one way or another, I could almost hear the chasm widening even further. We were friends. We were good friends, friends who truly liked (and still do like) each other, who got along, who always spoke openly with each other. Yet, despite the fact that we were friends in the best, not the least, sense of the word, I was struck by the degree to which we were both looking at the same pineapple and seeing entirely different things. We live in the same world. We lived in the same town. But we also lived (and live) in different universes. I used to be afraid of the ghosts, but even that has changed as I’ve grown older. I’ve gotten used to living in my world. I accept things as they are and am at peace with my own obsessions. I might as well be!

And so these are the thoughts I bring to the topic I actually wish to write about today, the question of the ever-more-likely prospect of the world having to learn to live with a nuclear Iran.

Like many of you, I read Dennis Ross’s article in the Times Wednesday with the greatest interest. A man I admire and respect, Ross seemed cautiously optimistic that the sanctions are working, that even the most conservative members of the Iranian leadership are slowly coming around to accept the need to back down, to understand that the world will not tolerate their nation’s acquisition of nuclear weaponry. It is a very encouraging article, which (if you are reading this electronically) you can access by clicking here. But even if you didn’t read the piece, his opinion is worth taking into account and was at least provisionally encouraging. Even more encouraging was the follow-up piece by Scott Shane and Robert F. Worth (accessible by clicking here) in Thursday morning’s paper that suggested that the recent spate of artless and mostly unsuccessful Iranian-backed acts of terror in Thailand, India, Georgia, and Malaysia, are signs of desperation that should be taken as indications that the leadership in Iran is becoming frantic, their erratic behavior a sign not of their inveterate intransigence, but of their growing realization that they are not going to get away with bullying the world into backing down.

I myself am feeling less sanguine. But I’m also aware of the fact that I find myself unable to consider the issue other than in the context of the lead-up to the Shoah. Does that make me insightful or obsessed, wise or paranoid? It’s hard to say. At center stage, we have a world leader who commands a large army and controls enormous amounts of money, and who also regularly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. That this would include the murder of its civilian population goes without saying. The world’s leaders, almost to a man (or woman), insist that this is just rhetoric, just bluster. The less sympathetic refer to the man as a lunatic or worse. But everybody counsels us to assume that he can’t actually mean it, that it would be too devastating to too many people (including Muslims and including the Iranians themselves) for a nuclear war to begin in the Middle East. Yet that same world that insists that he can’t possibly mean it also never tires of heaping ridicule on Neville Chamberlain for imagining that he could buy Hitler off with a few acres of Czechoslovakia, that peace could be had for the rational asking. (You may remember that Stalin also imagined he could make peace with Hitler, as a result of which 25,000,000 Soviet citizens died. If the USSR had gone to war with Germany the day after Poland was invaded, would the civilians among those 25 million souls—including millions of Jews—have survived? They surely might have!)

So, looking through my eyes, the question isn’t whether Iran should or shouldn’t be free to develop whatever kind of weapons it wishes, but whether Ahmadinejad is Hitler, whether he is ultimately crazy enough to risk the annihilation of millions of his own countrymen for the sake of murdering another six million Jews. (In this regard, I have to say the Holocaust denial conference that the man sponsored a few years ago suddenly strikes me as more chilling than weird: is he secretly hoping that someone will someday start a movement to claim that he too didn’t actually murder millions?)

The world will clearly not respond in a fully unified manner because the world mostly can live with a nuclear Iran. The papers last week, for example, featured long stories about how India is champing at the bit to pick up all those Iranian goods that the West is busy embargoing and not buying for itself, including oil. The Russians and the Chinese are, at best, half-hearted opponents of a nuclear Iran. In the end, Iran will acquire nuclear weapons unless it is stopped by some combination of Western embargos, international pressure, and fear of the consequences of defying the world. So the problem is not having a crystal ball. After the Jews of Israel are annihilated, of course, all will politely agree that the world should have done whatever it would have taken to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. If Iran builds a string of nuclear reactors and then devotes itself solely to peaceful pursuits, we will all agree that going to war to prevent them from going nuclear in the first place would have been a huge error. But without the benefit of a crystal ball, all we can do is try to guess the best we can which path will lead us to the best place.

We can dither for a while, but the bottom line, at least for me, is this: if it had become clear in the mid-1930’s that the Germans were about successfully to develop nuclear weaponry, who could argue that no course of action, no matter how extreme, would not have been appropriate to prevent that from happening? It pleases me to hear President Obama say, as he has repeatedly, that no option is off the table, that no response, including a military one, has been ruled out. Senator Gillibrand said just the same thing the other week at Temple Sinai when she came to address her Jewish constituents on Long Island, and she said it unequivocally. Whether going that route would be an unimaginable disaster or the most prescient of pre-emptive strikes, who can say? Yet answering that question correctly is the great challenge facing our nation and its allies, most especially including Israel. May God grant our president and our allies’ leaders the wisdom to make the right choice.

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