Anti-Iran Crowd Label Lew a “Chamberlain”

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by Ali Gharib

Two years ago at the annual conference hosted by the Jerusalem Post, the crowd booed Alan Dershowitz. Why would they attack a man who seems to have no shame in excusing each and every one of Israel’s missteps? Though Dershowitz hews closely to a standard hawkish pro-Israel perspective, he’s also a nominal supporter of a two-state solution, and that’s enough to run afoul of a certain brand of right-wing Zionist, the kind you might find enthusiastically attending a Jerusalem Post conference. The same thing had happened the year before: when Dershowitz implored the audience not to boo an American president when “speaking on behalf of the state of Israel”—whatever that means—they responded by booing.

Amid this sort of contempt for American presidents and pro-Israel stalwarts like Dershowitz, it should come as no surprise that attendees at the latest Post conference in New York over the weekend booed U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Lew appeared at the conference to make a case for Obama’s diplomacy with Iran. The June 30 deadline for a deal is rapidly approaching, and many analysts expect one to emerge. “A diplomatic solution is the best, most enduring path to achieve our goal of keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Lew told the crowd. That sort of talk alone raised the crowd’s hackles.

The jeering continued, making it difficult for Lew to continue his speech. It came dangerously close to a shout-down, the kind of behavior excoriated by the pro-Israel community when it happens to Israeli officials and their supporters. Someone in the crowd this weekend reportedly called Lew a “court Jew.” Another shouted “Chamberlain” at Lew. That’s right: Jacob Lew, an observant Orthodox Jew who served as an aide to Tip O’Neill when he was working to bring Soviet Jewry over to the U.S. (which Natan Sharansky later pointed out at the Post conference), is just like the British prime minister whose deal purportedly allowed Adolf Hitler to run amok and launch his ghastly genocidal campaign. Haaretz labeled it “one of the surliest reactions ever accorded to such a high-ranking administration official by a Jewish audience in the United States.” Eventually, Post editor Steve Linde asked the crowd to “please let Secretary Lew speak.” They didn’t oblige.

Embarrassing Even to Israelis

This is how heated the rhetoric over Iran has gotten. Chemi Chalev pointed to the irony of Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz defending Lew and expressing embarrassment at the crowd’s treatment of him: “Steinitz seemed quite oblivious to the significant role played by right wing Israeli politicians, from his party leader Benjamin Netanyahu on down, in creating the kind of atmosphere that has incited and inflamed right wing opinions, Jewish or otherwise, against Obama.” (Commentary, for its part, gave a qualified defense of the heckling: “The audience had a right to be upset with Lew.”)

Indeed, Steinitz himself led a disinformation campaign against the interim nuke deal with Iran, and others have been worse. In April, Steinitz’s cabinet colleague Naftali Bennett implicitly made a Neville Chamberlain comparison himself. Right-wing pro-Israel politicians have gone even farther: “It’s unfair to Neville Chamberlain to compare him to Barack Obama,” Bill Kristol protégé Sen. Tom Cotton told The Atlantic. Sen. Mark Kirk has repeatedly compared nuclear diplomacy to appeasing the Nazis. And elite right-wing commentary has been even more off the rails: Bret Stephens, a sometime Jerusalem Post editor, took to The Wall Street Journal to say that Iran diplomacy was “worse than Munich.”

If the pro-Israel right is constantly predicting a genocide against Jewish people as a result of Iran diplomacy, should we then be shocked that the Israeli right’s devoted grassroots following in America would extend the Chamberlain treatment to Lew?

Why Curry Favor with Ideologues?

But if the Jerusalem Post crowd’s vocal hostility wasn’t a surprise, there was still something novel about Lew’s appearance: that he appeared at all. Israel’s “special relationship” with the U.S. is indeed unique in some ways. Even Democrats feel the need to pander to just about any pro-Israel audience, including irrevocably right-wing ones. This effect can be seen in the fight over Jerusalem’s place in the Democratic platform during the 2012 party convention, among other instances.

This is not, of course, to say that government officials shouldn’t appear before audiences with whom they disagree; they should and do. But they shouldn’t waste their breath on hopeless ideologues—and the Jerusalem Post has long been a bastion of hopeless right-wing ideologues, with the audience to match.

Any audience, of course, is liable to have its extremists. Obama was received at an AIPAC conference in 2011 with a smattering of boos amid the raucous applause, despite a warning from the group to act respectfully. Every crowd might have its extremists, but a Jerusalem Post crowd might have its moderates. The Obama administration ought to know how to navigate this distinction. But when it comes to Israel, the administration seems to think no audience is too far to the right.

To see the absurdity of trying to pander to the far-right pro-Israel crowd, think for a moment how likely it would be that Obama dispatches a cabinet-level official to a religious right confab like the Values Voter Summit. The chances are nil. The administration should realize that the Jerusalem Post has cultivated an audience no less to the right.

This realization, in an ideal world, would extend to calling out far-right pro-Israel activism when it arises. To be fair, we saw flashes of this from the administration in its reaction to Netanyahu’s bigoted election tactics. But it has not been nearly enough. Obama should stand up and say that Israeli officials like Naftali Bennett’s proposals for annexing most of the West Bank amount to calling for apartheid. Next, the Obama administration should take up the idea of liberal pro-Israel academics to instill “personal sanctions” against officials like Bennett. Given that the administration thought it could reason with Jerusalem Post readers, however, I’m not holding my breath. At the very least, though, Democrats should stop trying to appease or cajole the extreme pro-Israel right into coming around. If not going on the offensive, the administration in particular should defend itself against vicious charges like those hurled at Lew.

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Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.

9 Comments

  1. Ron Hawk – the few Jews left in Iran are harassed, jailed and live in fear. Nazis and Islam cared (care) little about the truth. Both publicly stated (state) their aim to eradicate Jews. Thank heaven there is a state of Israel that can defend itself. Obviously the threats coming from Iran mean little too you. But Israel cannot afford not to take the threats seriously, because they are on the front line not you.

  2. @Ron Hawk, well said based on facts and NOT fiction or emotions!

  3. I can’t help but wonder whether the administration sent Lew to the JPost conference precisely because it knew that he would get this kind of reaction. I follow this stuff pretty closely, but didn’t know much about the sorts of folks at the JPost conference until this story occurred. The administration showed up, and the Right showed its true colors — precisely, perhaps, what the administration (and I) want.

  4. The argument that the emerging nuclear deal with Iran is akin to “Munich” and the appeasement of the Nazis, and it is going to lead to another holocaust of the Jews is pure and complete nonsense. To draw historical analogies between two situations there have to be very large similarities between those two situations. I challenge anyone supporting such an idiotic analogy to show us those historical parallels. Germany was a major world power who had nearly defeated 3 world powers only 20 years earlier. It was ruled by a powerful, ruthless and unified fascist power structure. It was one of the most, if not the most, technologically advanced country on the planet. It had been among the first and most successful nations to industrialize and its knowledge base was the envy of the world. It was one of the largest economies. It had been an imperial nation looking to expand its empire and looking for “living space”. Prior to WWI it was already stained by the same disgraceful anti-Semitic afflictions as most of other European nations, and after WWI it turn it up a notch. After the rise of the Nazis it stopped pretending altogether and began to overtly go after its Jewish population, (as well as many other underprivileged and helpless minorities). As the result of WWI it had lost territory to other imperial powers and was looking to get it back. It had a mighty military and was rapidly and alarmingly expanding it. Its naval fleet, especially the u-boats, were top notch and an awesome force. Its Luftwaffe, despite Hitler’s severe mismanagement, was a spectacular force. It perfected the jet engine and rockets that we take for granted today.

    Iran is not a major industrial, military or financial power. It is a third world country, for goodness sake. It has been more of a colony up until recently and not an imperial power by any stretch. It has no territorial grievances. Even if it wanted to take over the world the way the Nazis were promising a 1000 year Reich, it doesn’t come close to achieving a fraction of that fantasy. Iran barely withstood the invasion of another third world country, Iraq. It barely has a functioning air force (or even a national airline) or a navy you can speak of. Despite its hostility toward Israel, I know of no anti-Jewish drives or laws they are practicing. Its economy is in tatters. Its ruling regime is one national riot away from falling. There are many, many other ghastly differences. To inflate Iran to be such a fantastic giant as some people make them out to be is pure propaganda. What is this deal that’s giving Iran half of another country? If the nuclear talks are “Munich”, that means in 1938 Chamberlain got Hitler to give up his most advanced weaponry in exchange for allowing Germany to access some of its own foreign reserves. Is that what happened? If that had happened Chamberlain would have been declared a hero. Let’s look at it another way. If the nuclear deal is Munich, that means the world powers are agreeing to allow Iran to keep advancing its military capabilities (which Nazi Germany did), and annex another country for nothing more than a promise to not ask for any more countries. Who is the braindead analyst who thinks these two vastly different scenarios are the same?

    I can’t believe this crappy analogy keeps getting used and does not get challenged in our compliant media. Folks, don’t buy the nonsense. Munich, my big, hairy foot.

  5. So funny Mr. Gharib is using Alan Dershowitz as an example since Mr. Dershowitz himself has been extremely negative about the nuclear talks and specifically President Obama’s handling of negotiations. Remember that he authored a scathing opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal just three months ago comparing Obama with Neville Chamberlain and why they will likely both be remembered for their greatest foreign policy failings in dealing with dictators.

    He wrote (quite accurately I might add) that: “Most people today are not aware that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain helped restore Great Britain’s financial stability during the Great Depression and also passed legislation to extend unemployment benefits, pay pensions to retired workers and otherwise help those hit hard by the slumping economy. But history does remember his failure to confront Hitler. That is Chamberlain’s enduring legacy.”

    He warned Obama could face the same fate if Iran developed nuclear weapons capacity. Dershowitz even tweeted out that Obama couldn’t negotiate a “one-month lease” which in my book is not an endorsement.

    Far from using Dershowitz as an example of recalcitrant Zionist extremists, I think using Dershowitz shows that while there might be disagreements on many areas of Israeli policy, there is universal agreement that the deal shaping up with Iran is not a good one.

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