Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Iranians walk over an illustration of Barack Obama during a demonstration in Tehran, May 29, 2015. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Navigate to News section

It’s Nuclear: On Iran, Obama and the Scope of Anti-Semitism

Does the president understand the depths—and destructive implications—of the ayatollahs’ radical views on Jews?

Jonathan Zalman
June 03, 2015
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Iranians walk over an illustration of Barack Obama during a demonstration in Tehran, May 29, 2015. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday, Jeffrey Herf, a professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland and the author of a number of books on Nazi Germany, published an article in The Times of Israel called “Obama and his American critics on Iran’s anti-Semitism,” which is worth a read. In it, Herf examines the “unusual” public discourse that has begun to swell—a chorus he breaks down bit by bit, who wonder about the bounds of Obama’s understanding of anti-Semitism, and “how his view on that subject affects prospects for a nuclear deal to stop the ayatollahs from getting the bomb.”

Herf argues that Obama, “apparently stung by criticism that his approach to Iran is facilitating rather than preventing its path to the bomb and that he bears primary responsibility for the tensions in American-Israeli relations,” has gone on the offensive by giving an interview to The Atlantic‘s Jeffery Goldberg (read our coverage here), then hitting up Adas Israel in Washington, D.C., in what CNN called “foreign policy damage control.” Herf then cites Michael Doran’s essay in Mosaic, “A Letter to My Liberal Jewish Friends,” in which the author argues that the existence of shared values”—a tenet of Obama’s speech—”though important, was not the key issue. It was, instead, the necessary criticism of Obama’s policies towards Iran’s nuclear program.”

Herf has longed for Obama to publicly discuss his views on “the role of anti-Semitism in the government in Tehran.” He was pleased when Goldberg told Obama about his concerns in negotiating with people who are “captive to a conspiratorial anti-Semitic worldview not because they hold offensive views, but because they hold ridiculous views.”

Yet Goldberg did not press Obama to specify his views and understanding of anti-Semitism at the height of Nazi power, and during the Holocaust; instead, Obama reflected on the anti-Semitism of European leaders who have made “irrational decisions.” Herf was dissapointed, because he wanted to hear Obama elaborate on his understanding of “a key interpretive framework that the Nazis employed to misunderstand the political realities of the time. If the President understands this dimension of anti-Semitism it was not evident in his interview with Goldberg:”

…for the Nazis, anti-Semitism was not primarily a form of discrimination or an organizing tool. It was an ideology that justified mass murder and did so not for the ulterior purpose of organizing others but because they believed that exterminating the Jews in the world would save Germany from destruction and eliminate the primary source of evil in the world. The extermination was carried out for the sake of these beliefs. Nor was this ideology at the margins of Nazi policy; it was at its center. The President’s comments to Goldberg raise questions about whether the President fully or accurately understands the link between ideology and policy during the Holocaust.

Obama, writes Herf, “suggested that the ideological imperative would give way to practical and rational interests in maintaining power. In so doing, he diminishes the impact of the ayatollahs’ radical anti-Semitism on the whole spectrum of Iran’s foreign and military policy.”

Herf continues, by citing Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal and Walter Russell Mead of American Interest, who posit that:

…the radical anti-Semitism that lies at the core of the Iranian regime is not primarily or only a prejudice or, to use the more common term, a kind of racism which rests on distorted and false pejorative views of Jews. Rather, the ayatollahs’ anti-Semitism is of the radical sort which in the past led both to an absurdly irrational yet deadly misunderstanding of world realities and to the Holocaust. It is an anti-Semitism which, in Saul Friedlander’s terms, produced the era of extermination following an era of persecution. The views the President offered to Jeffrey Goldberg indicate either that he does not understand the nature of radical anti-Semitism, or does not believe that the ayatollahs are sincere in what they have written and said since Khomeini’s exile writings in the 1970s and the assertions that he and his and his successors have repeated since coming to power in 1979. He appears to assume a moderation and pragmatism in Tehran which is belied both by that regime’s core beliefs and its actions.

Therefore, Herf hopes that Congress, in examining Iran’s potential terms of the deal, “will raise the issue of Iran’s anti-Semitism not only as a form of prejudice but as a fundamentally irrational world view that is incompatible with a system of containment and deterrence.”

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.