Ze’ev Maghen, Senior Lecturer in Islamic Religion and Persian Language at Bar-Ilan University, and Chair of the Department of Middle East History, recently published “From Omnipotence to Impotence: A Shift in the Iranian Portrayal of the “Zionist Regime“. The article examines and challenges some of the prevailing notions about the prospects for and the price of an agreement with Iran, and what the implications would be for Israel.
One of the interesting points about his study concerns the wild swings of Iranian thinking on Israel. One minute it’s omnipotent, the next, impotent. Not only does this reflect the Iranian mullahs’ lack of touch with reality, but also their terrible lack of confidence which they must compensate for by using totalistic language. Profound imbalance, profound instability.
Maghen opens with a description of the banal, ubiquitious nature of calls for the destruction of the U.S. and Israel in Iran. After classical music performances, soccer goals, and even a speech by Ayatollah Khamenei meant to counter President Ahmadinejad’s extreme rhetoric about Israel, Iranians robotically call for Israel and America’s demise:
In January 2006, the Iranian daily Jomhuriya Eslami carried the text of a speech delivered in Tehran’s main mosque by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene’i. Attempting to defuse the diplomatic tension occasioned by newly elected President Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel’s destruction at the previous month’s “World without Zionism” conference, Khamene’i concluded his uncharacteristically moderate sermon with the following ringing remarks: “We Iranians intend no harm to any nation, nor will we be the first to attack any nation. We do not deny the right of any polity in any place on God’s earth to exist and prosper. We are a peace-loving country whose only wish is to live, and to let live, in peace.” Without missing a beat or evincing even a hint of irony, the reporter who had covered the event continued: “The congregation of worshippers, some seven thousand in number, expressed their unanimous support for the Supreme Leader’s words by repeatedly chanting: marg bar Omrika, marg bar Esra’il – ‘Death to America, Death to Israel!’”1
Maghen then describes the two leading theses dealing with this phenomenon and how Israel and the West should react to it. The first thesis is that the rote repetition of “Death to Israel” is just that- uttered without thought or meaning.
“Calls for Israel’s destruction,” maintains international relations expert Homayun-e-Esaghpour, “whether they emanate from the Iranian street or from the mouths of the political elite, must not be taken at face value. They are weary old catechisms, nothing more.”3
The alternative thesis is that these proclamations, especially by Ahmadinejad, are merely a way to gain credibility on the Arab street, and are used as a “bargaining chip” in negotiations with the U.S.
“The Iranians we should listen to,” explains Mark LeVine, “are not the 100,000 or so marchers in support of Ahmadinejad’s remarks, but the tens of millions who had something better to do that day.
The ultimate argument being made is that Israel’s obsession on the Iranian threat is a mere hyper-reaction to Iranian bluster, and that there is no real reason for there to be tension between Israel and Iran, were it not for Israel’s overreactions.
Maghen accepts half of the first assumption, that Iranians do not necessarily speak with their hearts when they call for Israel’s destruction. But he turns the conventional extension of that assumption on its head.
But herein lies the rub: for it is, in the end, often far more dangerous not to mean it than to mean it. If Iranian citizens and their leaders actually harbored profound and seething hatred for Jews or Zionists, this – I will maintain – would bode far better for the State of Israel’s future in the Middle East than the situation that currently obtains.
The reader, at this point, expects some serious explanation, and Maghen takes a tangent into mass psychology. He says that those whose hatred burns strong also burn out. The hatred that has murdered millions in the course of human history is that hatred that remains cool and level, part of a larger ideology.
The vast majority of Germans in WWII did not personally and passionately hate all Jews: they had never even met the men, women, children and infants whom they would eventually butcher in batch after human batch; how could they possibly harbor genuine feelings towards them in any direction? It wasn’t for the most part real, immediate emotion but rather methodically and systematically drilled-in ideology that powered the German genocide machine. The enormous crime of the Germans is not that they murdered six million Jews because they hated them, but that they murdered six million Jews despite the fact that they didn’t hate them.
The same holds true for the events of 11 September 2001. Muhammad Atta, the ringleader of the terrorists that brought down the twin towers, did not genuinely and fervently hate every single individual working in the World Trade Center on that fateful day, let alone all of the passengers on the plane he commandeered: how could he? He had never met them, and they had never personally done anything to him. What’s more, Atta had spent many years in the US preparing for his mission, during which time he rubbed elbows with all types of Americans. Is it plausible that he managed to maintain a constant boiling rage all day every day throughout that entire time toward every one of these acquaintances and all of their fellow countrymen, solely because of their national affiliation and/or the policies of their government? Could such a creature survive? Here again: it is not genuine, vehement hatred that we have to fear; it is training…
Like coals that cook best when they have become gray and red, not when a fire leaps out of them, hatred becomes dangerous precisely when it loses its edge and its fervor.
That Israel is the devil, the root of all evil, a criminal cancer that must be excised from the Muslim body politic – all of these are for Iranian Muslims eternal truths (not ephemeral feelings!) that have gradually, through endless tantra-like repetition, been installed down underneath the level of conscious meaning, in the place where basic instincts, automatic assumptions and ontological verities reside…
In short, the analysts, as we said, are correct in asserting that the Iranians do not really “mean it”; what they fail to realize is that is the very reason why they may well do it.
Maghen then deals with the second assumption, that since Iranian rhetoric is calculated and insincere, it is possible to negotiate a settlement between Iran and Israel. He vehemently disagrees with this conclusion in the most important sentence of the piece:
Today’s Iranian leadership is not interested in trading recognition of and relations with Israel for a rapprochement with America; it is interested in trading recognition of and relations with America for a US abandonment of Israel.
In a position reflecting one argued many times on this site, Maghen posits that the focus of the rhetoric on Israel, and not the U.S., is because of a new perception that Israel is weak and vulnerable, whereas the United States is powerful. As we have repeated, in the Middle East, weakness is suicide, and invitation for violence. In the West, the culture dictates that the weak are to be helped, in the Middle East, they are to be eradicated.
This vision of a feeble Israel is a fairly new one, brought about by retreats from Lebanon and Gaza, and the performance against Hezbollah in 2006.
Up until recently, the prevalent theme of the Iranian media’s constant parade of feature stories on Jews/Israelis/Zionists has been the familiar exponential exaggeration of the power and influence of those groups.13 Such traditional coverage has involved, for example, “histories” of the Jewish behind-the-scenes work to ensure that the United States and United Nations (!) always support the Israeli agenda,14 as well as regular claims to the effect that the administration of the former entity “growls like a baboon whenever the Zionist lobby tugs at its tail”15 or even that Israel simply “runs American policy” (sahyonist hagar dandegan-e-siyasat-e-amrika-and).16 It has also included in-depth “analyses” of how the Jewish cabal that built and still owns Hollywood has utilized the enormous potential of honar-ehaftom- donya (“the world’s seventh art,” i.e. cinema) in order to bolster the Zionist cause, inter alia by making movies that paint Islam in the darkest colors;17 “irrefutable testimony” showing that Jews control every single one of the “two thousand newspapers in America” and also “strive to weaken the cultures, [national] identities, economies and political independence of all the world’s countries” (talash mikonand farhang, hoveyyat, eqtes ad va-esteqlal-e-siyasi-yehar keshvari-ra dar jahan tad‘if konand);18 “probing research” into the claim that the Israeli Mossad was behind the London bombings of July 2005 (as well as the New York attacks of 9/11);19 “documented proof” that Zionist money and pressure is indirectly responsibility for what is claimed to be the anti-Iranian bent of the hugely popular al-Jazira television network;20 “clear evidence” that Israel and American Jewry are the primary forces pushing the United States toward a fullscale invasion of Iran;21 “ample examples” of the “Jewish dictatorship over Europe”;22 “strong arguments” to the effect that World Jewry was the force behind the mid-twentieth century Stalinist depredations;23 and even an in-depth “scholarly” exposé of the way in which the Jews carved Protestantism out of Catholicism in order to return Christianity to the Old Testament ethos and consequently to the notion of the Jews as Chosen People.24
But Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah call Israel “rotten” and on her last legs.
Interestingly, the Iranian press, which reflects this trend, goes further than Israeli military/political failures. They report, with great eagerness, on the fractuous Israeli society, and the many conflicts that agitate therein.
One article in the daily Javan – entitled “Post-Zionism and the Identity Crisis in Israel” – pits “extremist Jews” (yahudiyan-e-efrati, i.e. nationalists, settlers) against “religious Jews” (yahudiyan-e-madhhabi, i.e. ultra-orthodox nonnationalists), and delves into its own (not altogether inaccurate) version of what divides these two persuasions;34 another article describes the large numbers of Russian immigrants to Israel who have not managed to integrate and have either joined “Jews for Jesus” or various Satanic and even Neo-Nazi cults, or have left the country forgood;35 and yet another discusses the intricacies of recent Israeli
political maneuvering and includes a photograph of Shimon Peres and Amir Peretz talking in an office. “Note that Peres is wearing a suit and tie,” writes the author of this lengthy essay, “whereas Peretz is not even wearing a jacket and has his shirt open. This is the
traditional method of showing disrespect in Israel, whose politicians all hate one another with a vicious hatred.”36 La yuqatilunakum jami‘an, echoed Ayatollah Khamene’i in a recent speech to Tehran university students, quoting the 14th verse of the 59th chapter of the Qur’an in reference to the Jews of Madina, tahsabuhum jami‘an waqulubuhum shatta – “[The Jews] will not fight against you in one body; you think they are united, but their hearts are divided.”37
In Maghen’s eyes, the current portrayal reflects classic Christian anti-Semitic description of Jews as simultaneously haughty and weak. But, for Christians, the Jews “win”, and crucify Jesus, and are thus to be feared. In the Koran, Muhammed defeats and slays the rebellious Jewish tribes, and therefore Jews are to be despised.
Having established a begrudging respect for the West and a despisal for a ‘weak’ Israel, Maghen takes the conversation to the difference between Christians and Jews in Muslim eyes, and what that means for the role of Israel in relations between Muslims and Christians. The practical attitude of willingness to negotiate with the U.S. is similar to early Islam’s understanding that the Christian world was a fact that would have to be accomodated.
The premier theological underpinning for this political-military policy of compromise was a celebrated Qur’anic verse, the contents of which immediately explain why there is no room today for the State of Israel in this ideal Islamic system of international balance and mutual tolerance: You (i.e. Muhammad and the Muslims) will certainly find the most violent of people in enmity against the believers to be the Jews and the idolaters; and you will find those who are nearest in friendship to the believers to be those who say: “We are Christians” (Q. 5: 82).
This is not an ancient verse useful only in academic or religious discussion; it has currency today:
This multifaceted distinction between the classical Islamic attitude to Christians and the classical Islamic attitude to Jews plays a greater role today than ever before in the formulation of “Islamic” foreign policy toward non-Muslims. This is true for three main reasons: (1) because at no time before in Muslim history have Islamic classical sources been as accessible to the Muslim masses as they are today, due primarily to the increase in literacy and the impact of the “information revolution”; (2) because at no time before in Muslim history has there existed an actual Islamic theocracy that is capable of formulating an “Islamic” foreign policy (especially if we accept the definition of the term “theocracy” rendered by the man who coined the term – Josephus Flavius – as “a government in which the laws of God are enforced by those most qualified to do so”); and (3) because at no time before in Muslim history has their existed a genuine Jewish political entity toward which such “Islamic” foreign policy could be formulated. All of this harbors major significance for the Iran-Israel standoff, more than anything for reasons that we shall now put forth.
There is a consequence for Israel to this Muslim respect for Christianity. Muslim leaders, especially Ahmadinejad, are making the argument that were it not for the unnecessary and provocative outpost within Muslim lands (Israel), there would be peace and understanding between the two great cultures.
Maghen urges Israel to fight to dispel this notion, and to take Iran’s threats seriously. While Iran might be willing to reach an accomodation with the West, the existence of Israel will have to be a casualty of that agreement.
Maghen’s argument, while compelling, rests on two assumptions that he fails to prove. The first is that the Iranians who call for Israel’s destruction do not actively hate Israel. The burden of proof is on him, because there are many indicators that imply an active, burning hatred of Israel in Iran, and in the Arab world.
Maghen also fails to explain why, if indeed the calls for Israel’s and America’s destruction are rote declarations, do they result in a deep-rooted hatred for Israel on the one hand and a respect for America on the other. If it’s just because of Israel’s current perceived weakness, where was the respect in past decades? One might argue that the classical Muslim view toward Jews is the reason for the disparity, but Maghen himself says that this view is more powerful today because of the information revolution, not a factor decades ago.
Maghen’s piece is a timely warning against those who call for the West to accomodate Iranian interests in the Middle East, especially at the expense of Israel’s security.