Understanding Iran, Facing Our Fears: A Sermon for Yom Kippur
Rabbi Brant Rosen
Yom Kippur, 5769
When I became a rabbi, I never dreamed I would end up traveling to some of the amazing places in the world to which I’ve gone over the past several years. I have no doubt that these experiences have expanded my understating of what a rabbi and a Jew could be. And as a result, I do believe that to be a Jew today, as I’ve often said, means to be a global citizen. It means to see one’s Jewishness against an unprecedented new world order. It is a challenge, to be sure, but I also believe it presents us with an invaluable opportunity.
This is all by way of introducing my latest travel plans. You may have heard a rumor that’s going around town that I’m planning to travel to Iran next month. Well, I’m here to tell you that yes, the rumor is true. At the end of November I’ll be traveling to Iran for two weeks with an interfaith delegation. I’ll say more about the trip a little later, but I’d like to devote the balance of my remarks to you on why I decided to go. I’m not unmindful, of course, that the notion of an American rabbi traveling to Iran might at the very least raise some eyebrows. But in the end, my decision to go emerged out of very deeply held convictions – convictions that I’d like to share with you today.
I’ve actually considered addressing the subject of Iran in a sermon for many years now. I’ve long believed that our conflict with Iran is one of the most critical international crises of our day – one that obviously affects us deeply as both Americans and as Jews. In particular, I’ve become increasingly alarmed by our government’s response to the Iran conflict and I’ve also been troubled by what I believe to be a fear-based, knee-jerk reaction by the leadership of the American Jewish community. There is no question that the issue of Iran pushes all of our Jewish buttons and rekindles many of our deepest Jewish fears. I understand this. I share these fears as well. But at the same time, I harbor an even deeper fear: I fear that the current direction of our response will only further exacerbate this crisis and, God forbid, move us inexorably closer to military conflict – something that would only spell disaster for America, Israel and the entire Middle East.
Of course, there is ample reason to fear and ample reason to be concerned. Iran’s President Ahmadinejad is an odious leader and his public pronouncements are, in a word, sickening. As Jews, we have every right to be outraged when he speaks of wiping Israel off the map and when he gleefully engages in Holocaust denial. The thought of such a regime acquiring the capability for nuclear weapons should give us all more than enough cause for alarm.
Having said this, however, I have to say I am just as concerned by the American and Jewish community response up until this point, which I think reflects an utter misunderstanding and misread of the challenges Iran poses. While I do not diminish for one moment the incendiary nature of Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, I believe it us does no good at all when we compare him to Hitler and accuse Iran of being an Islamo-fascist, totalitarian regime. First of all, I believe this to be an inaccurate and unhelpful analysis, but even more critically, if we really, truly believe that Ahmadinejad is Hitler, then it leaves us with only one real option. we’re left with a zero sum game. Once the other side becomes Nazis, we’ve left ourselves with no other option than to storm the beaches at Normandy.
I do believe that as Americans and as Jews, we utterly fail to understand Iran. I believe we know precious little about its history, and we harbor all kinds of faulty assumptions about its people. And if we are going to address Iran’s challenge intelligently and effectively, we will need to understand them properly. And if we are going to understand our relationship with Iran, we will have to study history – something we Americans are notoriously bad at doing.
I do think that the notion of understanding your enemy has gotten something of a bad rap – particularly in the current political climate. If you were to believe our leaders today, trying to understand your enemy is tantamount to condoning their behavior. I remember well after 9/11, when our country was asking the “Why do they hate us so much?” those of us who wanted to delve more deeply into this question were dismissed as naïve or worse.
But after all is said and done, we will have to understand our enemies. Unless we accept that we are to be at permanent war with our adversaries, we will have to make an attempt at understanding the behavior and their attitudes. We will have to let go of our short attention spans and study their history– and in particular, we’ll have to face the role we have played in their history. I’m profoundly saddened that the notion of understanding our enemy is somehow considered to be equal to validation. Because in the end, engagement and dialogue will only be achieved through understanding.
So I’d like to offer a different American Jewish paradigm for meeting the challenges posed to us by Iran. One not based exclusively on fear, but also on understanding. One that rejects lines in the sand and zero-sum games in favor of a more intelligent form of diplomacy. One that doesn’t turn a blind eye to threats, but also sees engagement, dialogue and peacemaking as sacred Jewish values.
I think the most critical thing Americans fail to understand about Iran is that it is not Islam per se, but national pride that generally binds Iranians together. Indeed, Persia is a country with a proud and venerable history. For most Americans, Iran is just another Islamic theocracy in the Middle East, but this is a profoundly false impression on our part. Most of these counties were created artificially when the European nations carved up the Ottoman Empire after World War I, but not so with Iran. Iran is one of the world’s oldest and proudest nations. Its history dates back to half a millennium before the birth of Jesus, when Persia’s emperors Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes built Persia into a wide-reaching world power. It is also worth noting that Persia is home to the oldest Jewish Diaspora community in the world. Jews first came to that country during the Babylonian exile – and while many of them were allowed to return to Israel by Cyrus the Great, many others remained and built a Persian Jewish community that exists to this day.
Iranians have always been deeply proud about their venerable national history. I think in some ways it is natural that Americans fail to grasp this, given that our own history extends back little more than two hundred years. But even today, all Iranians young and old, identify deeply with their ancient history. Though Iran is a diverse country in many ways, varying widely in religious observance and political belief, almost all Iranians are united in their reverence for Persian history, poetry and culture – and it is from this culture that they have developed their common sense of national identity.
But there is another aspect to their identity that runs just as deep: a deep sense of resentment over the foreign subjugation of their nation over the centuries. It is a profoud frustration and when you study Persian history it is not difficult to understand why. In the modern era, Iran was dominated primarily by Great Britain, who seized Persian territories as well as most of Persia’s industrial resources. Britain would later gain control of Iran’s army, treasury, transportation system and communications network, and finally in the early 20th century, they would control Iran’s significant oil industry as well. The proceeds from Iranian oil powered the British Empire during this time, while most of Iran lived in abject poverty.
Today, if you ask most Americans who Mohammed Mossadegh was, more often than not, you’ll probably get a blank look. But I’ll willing to bet that if you ask the average Iranian of any age, every single one will tell you who he was. Mossadegh became Prime Minister of Iran in 1951 and to this day, he represents what was the last and best hope for democracy in Iran. Mossadegh was a highly educated, enlightened leader and he was truly committed to liberalizing Iranian society. But unfortunately for the British, he was also a nationalist committed to ending foreign domination of his country and shortly after taking power he called for Iran to nationalize its oil industry.
The British resisted of course, and together with the CIA they overthrew Mossadegh in 1953. The British and the Americans then installed the Shah as the sole leader over Iran and he procceeded to rule the country with an increasingly repressive regime. Indeed, those of us who accuse the Islamic Republic of being totalitarian shouldn’t forget our support of the Shah’s totalitarian rule for over twenty-five years. At any rate, you can be sure that contemporary Iranians haven’t forgotten this.
For most Americans, this is all ancient history if they even know about it at all. For most Americans our collective memory of Iran begins in 1979, when the Islamic revolution took place and 52 Americans were taken hostage in the US embassy. This is an image that continues to burn indelibly in our collective consciousness: angry Islamic extremists holding our citizens against their will, burning American flags, chanting “Death to America” in the streets. For most Americans, this image is Iran.
But we also need to understand that for Iranians, these events represented something else entirely. After all, the overthrow of Mossadegh was directed by the CIA from the basement of that same American embassy. Iranians, who had been frustrated for centuries over foreign meddling and domination, were now venting their fury on America, the country who had deposed their democratically elected leader and supported the Shah’s repressive rule.
I do believe that most of us are ignorant of this history – and that we ignore it at our peril. We need to study and understand this history – and face up to our role in it – if we want to maneuver through our volatile relationship today. For most Americans, Iran is simply a belligerent regime that hates the West, supports terrorists and now, dangerously enough, is seeking nuclear capability. But to Iran, America is just the latest foreign power seeking to subjugate them to its will, a superpower that deposes regimes it doesn’t like, and now wants to deny Iran access to technology, modernism and independence.
What’s truly ironic about this story, however, is that though Iran has great historical resentment toward the US, a significant percentage of Iran’s citizens – particularly its young people – admire America for its freedoms, its liberalism, its ingenuity, its openness to modernity – and they wish the same for their country. They also have a strong desire to meet and learn from Americans, but what they don’t want is to be dictated to about what is best for them by Americans. And you can be sure that if we bomb or invade or attempt yet another regime change in Iran, their citizens will be inflamed against us in ways we cannot even begin to imagine.
More than anything, I believe what is most needed between our two countries is not more incendiary rhetoric that will only further inflame the other side, but a deeper understanding of one another. Shirin Ebadi, a prominent Iranian women’s rights and human rights activist – and one of my personal heroes – puts it very well:
For better or worse, the United States is the sole superpower in the world today, and Iran is the most strategic country in a restive region vital to US interests…And despite their government’s official stance, Iranian young people remain cheerfully pro-American, the last pocket of such sentiment in the angry Middle East. The two nations know they share strategic interests…but ideology and mutual suspicion play as much a role in their ongoing rift as realpolitik, which makes the exchange of ideas – essentially, access to each other’s culture and attitudes beyond official rhetoric – so imperative.
If you do accept that the best way to deal with this crisis is for us to better understand one another – then it follows that, yes, you need to talk to one another. Alas, I fear that the very notion of talking itself is politically passé at the moment. Talking has now become politicized. Our leaders somehow consider talking as legitimizing the enemy – or worse, as appeasement. But really if you truly seek peace and security, then who do you talk to if not your enemy?
As I mentioned earlier, this is why I am particularly disturbed by the Jewish community’s knee-jerk comparison of Ahmadinejad to Hitler. It automatically cuts off any road to diplomacy. It implies that any attempt to engage Iran is tantamount to Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich. I must say, as a Jew, I am deeply troubled when we invoke the shadow of a second Holocaust. We need to be very careful when we use words like this. More often than not, I think it reflects our own collective trauma more than the actual facts on the ground.
If we Jews truly want to avoid a second Holocaust, I would suggest the first step would be to stop comparing every provocation against Israel and the Jewish people in the most extreme terms possible. Iran is not the Third Reich and Ahmadinejad is not Hitler. This is not to say we shouldn’t take Ahmadinejad’s hateful rhetoric seriously, but it does mean that this is a thorny, difficult and complex crisis. And we would do well to respond to it with intelligence and understanding, not by drawing lines in the sand and increasing even further the likelihood of yet another tragic military conflict in the Middle East.
Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is clearly the most terrifying aspect of this crisis, particularly for Jews. But as difficult and fearful this prospect is, I believe in my heart we must handle it with intelligence and understanding. Many analysts provide compelling evidence that although Iran is obviously anti-Israel, this attitude is not the primary motivation for their actions. Their political maneuvers are often much more pragmatic and strategic than we typically give them credit. And many experts are saying that Iran’s desire for a nuclear weapon has less to do with the destruction of Israel than with deterring a United States that has invaded two states that border Iran in the last five years. This is a moment of heightened tension between the US and Iran, with the Bush administration routinely calling for a change of regime in Tehran, so perhaps it’s not so surprising that the Islamic Republic feels it requires a deterrent capability to ensure the survival of its regime.
Both the US and Iran have common strategic interests at stake in the Middle East. Still, I have no small cynicism over how easy it will be for our respective leaders to find the requisite intelligence and understanding. We have every right to expect the most out of our governments, but sadly, their words and actions don’t generally give us reason to expect all that much from them. And it is true that many Iranians are becoming more and more disenchanted with their government. Young people especially are increasingly expressing their discontent over their government’s inability to deal with low wages, spiraling inflation, and high gas prices, and over the Islamic regime’s continued discrimination against women and their religious intrusion into their private lives.
We would do well to bear in mind that many Iranians don’t appreciate being personally judged by their government’s actions just as much as many of us Americans don’t like being personally judged by ours. Ironically enough, this is probably what our two peoples seem to have most in common at the moment: an overall disenchantment with our respective governments. Thus, as important as I believe it is for our leaders to engage, their inability to dialogue thus far shouldn’t keep American and Iranian citizens from getting to know one another in meaningful ways – as Shirin Ebadi put it, to find “access to each other’s culture and attitudes beyond official rhetoric.” I do believe that given the terribly poisoned atmosphere between our two countries, it is more imperative than ever for us to meet one another, to dialogue, and to understand one another. And it is in this spirit that I will be going to Iran later next month.
The trip I’m participating in is an interfaith peace delegation sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, one of the oldest peace organizations in the country. The Fellowship was founded in 1915, as a reaction to the buildup to World War I, to promote non-violence, justice and peace among nations and it has been doing this brave and important work ever since. Among the most central activities of the Fellowship are their citizen diplomacy delegations, where ordinary individuals from countries whose governments are at odds with one another have the chance to meet, dialogue and move toward a mutual understanding between peoples and nations. I am truly excited for this opportunity and I am especially thrilled that I will be joined in our delegation by longtime JRC members Sallie and Alan Gratch as well as Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a long time Jewish peace activist and who attended a similar Fellowship delegation last Spring.
On our trip, our itinerary will take us to Teheran, and Qom, as well as the historic Persian cities of Shiraz and Esfahan where we will engage in interfaith dialogue with Shia professors and clerics and with as grassroots community groups. We will learn from one another, share our respective religious traditions’ views on peace, and avoiding politics, we’ll attempt to seek out common ground, and hopefully, create an atmosphere for further reconciliation.
We’ll also spend significant time with members of the Iranian Jewish community – a community about which American Jews know precious little. There are, in fact, 30,000 Jews in Iran, which makes it the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel. Persian Jews, as I mentioned earlier, comprise the oldest Diaspora Jewish community in the world, and they are deeply proud of their heritage. They don’t consider themselves to be an oppressed Jewish community – on the contrary, they have generally good relations with the Islamic regime, who regularly subsidizes Jewish schools and institutions. The Persian Jewish community is eager for broader connection with Jews abroad, and I am particularly excited to have the opportunity to meet and learn with them. In the end, I strongly believe that this experience, like all other international delegations of which I’ve been a part, are more than simply a two-week trip to an exotic place. It will be an opportunity to learn, to form relationships and to bear witness with others upon our return.
I want to conclude by saying I know that many of the things I’ve said here today are challenging and perhaps even provocative. I don’t expect you to agree with every aspect of my analysis. I understand well the charged and fearful nature of this issue for us, as Americans and as Jews, and I don’t take that fear lightly. I have offered you these words today only in the hope of broadening the terms of the debate about Iran in the American Jewish community. Too often, it seems, the most vocal leaders of our community create the impression that there is only one appropriate Jewish way to think about complex issues such as these. But I believe the healthiest and most effective courses of action invariably emerge when we allow ourselves to countenance a variety of viewpoints. The rabbis of the Talmud surely understood this in their deliberations – indeed, open and honest debate has always been the Jewish way – and I hope that our congregation can be a place where we can have an honest and open debate on critical issues such as this.
I also believe that seeing the other in the image of God – even the ones you consider to be your enemy – is a core Jewish value. For too many of us, our image of Iran is embodied only by the hateful words of Ahmadinejad or the news clips of angry anti-American crowds demonstrating in the streets of Teheran. But I am convinced that this is not the only face of Iran – I believe it has other faces as well, ones that are eminently worth reaching out to. That is why I am taking this trip and why I am so eager to share my experiences with you when I return. Through this, it is my hope that our congregational community can discuss this issue, yes, by expressing our fears, but also with understanding and ultimately with hope, which seems to be such an increasingly rare commodity for us all these days.
And that, quite simply, is my prayer this Yom Kippur: let us all find a way to give honest voice to our fears, let us find a measure of understanding, and in the end, let us face the future with hope.