We are now at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Av, of which the Mishnah states, “מִשֶּׁנִּכְנַס אָב, מְמַעֲטִין בְשִׂמְחָה: — When Av begins, joy diminishes” (Ta’anit 4:6). Accordingly, the nine days that culminate with the fast of Tisha b’Av are marked by an absence of mirth. Jewish weddings are not held, and observant Jews do not attend any form of live entertainment. It is also customary to refrain from eating meat, drinking wine, or swimming recreationally during this period.
The ritualized sadness stems from the longevity of Jewish memory, our recollection that the Temple and the city of Jerusalem were destroyed not once, but twice, on the 9th of Av. Indeed, Tisha b’Av is a symbolic lightning rod for Jewish tragedy, for it was on this date that the Jews were also expelled from Spain in 1492 and the trains to the death camp at Treblinka first rolled out of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Coincidental or not, it is hard to ignore that the P5 + 1 nuclear agreement with Iran was unveiled just as Jews around the world entered the most depressing period on the Jewish calendar. To a time of sadness for mournful recollections of the past we add anxiety for a future filled with uncertainty.
Political pundits and spin doctors fill the airwaves of simplistic sound bytes. Presidential candidates take fighting stances — far be for me to claim they do not have concerns, but their primary focus is on polling numbers. Meanwhile, our Commander-in-Chief seeks to defend what he believes may be his legacy, a triumph (potentially illusory) of diplomacy over war mongering. As Jews our priority must be Israel — because a nuclear Iran represents an existential threat to Israel in a unique way. Make no mistake, Iran’s regime is a foe of America and a nightmare for Saudi Arabia. Yet there is only one country whose right to exist is denied by Iran; only one state she has threatened to obliterate utterly.
But for thoughtful and committed Jews it is not a time for bombast or hyperbole, finger-pointing or invective. It is a time for sober and serious reflection; a time to recall the past with clarity and to look for the sanity that lies far beyond the noise.
Could we have obtained a better deal from Iran? The answer is as unclear as the question is now irrelevant. Would Iran have already built a nuclear weapon if there had been no negotiation? The answer is as unclear as the question is now irrelevant. Musing over hypothetical scenarios may serve as a way of passing the time, but to focus on the paths not taken will get us nowhere.
Of course, if we are truly honest in our self-scrutiny this is a moment that has been in the making for two decades. It began in Bill Clinton’s first administration, when the U.S. government brushed off the expression of Israel’s concerns that Iran had begun to develop the means to acquire nuclear weaponry. It continued during President’s Bush tenure, when we were so serious about preventing Saddam Hussein from obtaining non-existent weapons of mass destruction, we launched a war against Iraq, and were willing to sacrifice thousands of live, while the real threat, the centrifuges of Natanz, continued to spin their deadly harvest just a few hundred miles away. It is also a moment framed by President Obama’s words during his final debate with Mitt Romney in October, 2012:
“Our goal is to get Iran to recognize it needs to give up its nuclear program and abide by the U.N. resolutions that have been in place. We are going to continue to keep the pressure on to make sure that they do not get a nuclear weapon. That’s in America’s national interest and that will be the case so long as I’m President. We are going to take all options necessary to make sure they don’t have a nuclear weapon.”
Not quite three years later, “give up its nuclear program” has morphed into “postpone having a nuclear weapon.” More than a victory for Iran, this week represents the culmination of two decades of failed American policies.
The biggest advantage of the proposed P5+1 agreement is that Iran won’t have a bomb . . . today. It is hard, however, to declare postponement a great triumph — especially when the cost of buying more time rewards Iran with as much as $100 billion in frozen assets. Even if Iran were to spend the lion’s share of that amount in jump starting is damaged economy, terrorism is a relatively cheap investment. After all, despite crippling sanctions Iran has still found a way to fund terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shi’ite radicals in Yemen. Last year, on the strength of the $2 billion it gave to Bashar al-Assad, Teheran was able to prop up the Syrian dictator and serve as an accomplice in the murder of tens of thousands of Syrians. Perhaps next year, Assad will get an extra billion or two. In Syria . . . and Yemen . . . and Iran itself life is cheap, so it won’t take much of Iran’s windfall in unfrozen assets and oil revenues to create more mayhem and misery.
Those who would defend the proposed agreement tell us that it was only supposed to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It is unfair, therefore, to ask the agreement to do what it never was designed to do. That is undoubtedly true.
But it is also the point. Iran’s murderous ideology has not changed one iota; it’s determination to play the role of a regional superpower has not changed; its denial of the Holocaust and its implacable hatred of Israel remain the same. Yet the root of the problem isn’t Iran’s failure to recognize Israel, but its failure to recognize America! How much can one expect from a government in which the burning of American flags is encouraged at public demonstrations, and the phrase “Death to America” is taught as a kind of national mantra, an Iranian pledge of allegiance, if you will. Even if Iran abides by the guidelines of the treaty — and I have no doubt that Teheran will do everything it can in the coming years to see how far it can push and how much it can get away with — it is magical thinking to assume that the regime will morph into a kinder and gentler government between now and the sunset of the provisions which have temporarily stayed Iran’s hand from nuclear weaponry. Could it happen? Of course. It is very dangerous, however, to put faith in a regime whose calling card is deception and deceit.
I cannot help but notice that Israelis across the entire political spectrum are opposed to the agreement with Iran. Ari Shavit, a columnist for Ha-Aretz and an inveterate opponent of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policies toward Palestinians, had this to say two days ago in an op-ed peace,
“Experience reveals a yawning gap between the way the United States and Europe understand the Middle East and the way the Middle East understands itself . . . Here on the ground, between Casablanca and Kabul, the Vienna agreement could be perceived as evidence that America is in retreat, Europe is declining, and Shi’ite power is on the rise. Hence the concern that in the long run a nuclear arms race will develop around us, in the short term a conventional arms race will emerge, and in the intermediate term neighboring powers like Hezbollah will strengthen and feel that their time has arrived. The move that is intended to bring peace for our time may lead to the opposite.”
Shavit closes with the hope that the Vienna accord not become the Munich of the 21st century — not exactly a ringing endorsement.
WINSTON CHURCHILL ON THE MUNICH AGREEMENT WITH HITLER TO BRING “PEACE IN OUR TIME”
These guarantees were not worth the paper they were written on, or the breath that uttered them. What is the position now? The Czech Republic is being broken up before our eyes. Their gold is being stolen by the Nazis. The Nazi system is to blot out every form of internal freedom.
-14 March 1939
In the week ahead I urge you to go to the website for AIPAC. On the homepage follow the link for congressional action on Iran. Click on the link, and enter your name and address; with one click of the button you will send a message simultaneously to Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio as well as Congressman Ander Crenshaw to vote “No” on the Iranian agreement.
None of us knows what will happen. Congress may approve the agreement with Iran, despite our best efforts. It may also happen that even if the Senate or House reject the treaty, it could prove impossible to marshal the votes necessary to override President Obama’s veto. Of course, should Congress derail the plan, the Iranians might look at a congressional veto as a great way to drive a wedge between the U.S, Europe and Russia. Even without congressional approval, the U.N. is likely to dial back sanctions with support from Europe, Russia, and China.
And so we live in an hour of anxiety, but as Jews we cannot and will not despair. Israel’s survival doesn’t depend on a flawed agreement to which she is not a signatory. Israel will move on and do whatever it needs to do. The Jewish State will never resign itself to victim-hood. It has neither the luxury nor the time to pout or wring her hands helplessly.
This is the season of Tisha b’Av, whose message is not only about the appetite of our enemies, but also about our resilience and ability to transcend and survive adversity. Iran is powerful, resourceful, fanatical and intelligent: a daunting combination. Yet we have faced such foes before, and will again. At the end of the Tisha b’Av fast it is customary to go outside to look at the sky, and upon witnessing the waxing moon recite Kiddush Levanah, a ceremony which likens Israel’s destiny to the phases of the moon. Shining brightly, growing faint, at times we even seem to disappear into the blackness of night — only to reappear and grow larger. Perhaps it is more than an interesting coincidence that the phrase Rosh Hodesh (New Moon) in gematria, Hebrew numerology, is the same as, “David melekh Yisrael hai v’kayam — David, King of Israel, lives on.” We will prevail because it is our destiny. And because we have no choice. The burden of Jewish history compels us to realize that salvation is often at its closest when it appears farthest away.
2 responses to “FROM VIENNA TO TEHRAN BY WAY OF MUNICH”
Thank you Rabbi. Your sermon was very meaningful to me on Monday and I’ve just reread it. At a time of immense change at work it was very timely to be reminded to be real, to be flexible and resilient, to learn from and not fear change. Thank you!