Dear Ahmadinejad: Let me tell you about cancer

This column originally appeared at

When the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad compares Israel to a cancer, I take it personally.

On Monday, you see, I traveled to Israel to co-officiate at a wedding. And I have cancer.

I’ve been in remission from lymphoma for several years, and I visit Israel on average once or twice a year. So, as someone who claims a perverse expertise, permit me to point out three problems with his analogy:

First, cancer is, by definition, spreading. “Growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell,” Edward Abbey memorably wrote. Therefore a cancerous nation should, by definition, spread and grow large. Yet Israel (even if it annexed every bit of the West Bank) has given back far more territory than it ever conquered.

[Related: EU’s Ashton condemns ‘hateful’ Iran remarks on Israel]

The Sinai Peninsula dwarfs the other lands that were captured in a war that Israel did not start. Indeed, the lands Israel returned (more than 20,000 square miles) are larger than Israel itself. Israel is around 8,000 square miles, smaller than New Jersey, while Iran, which is 167,618 square miles, is slightly larger than California. Of course, this does not count the other Arab and Muslim nations of the world, of which there are more than 40, as opposed to one Jewish state. So on behalf of those who suffer with cancer and poor math skills everywhere, I wish Ahmadinajad would demonstrate a mathematical awareness consistent with his doctorate in engineering.

The second problem in the analogy is that healthy cells predate cancerous ones. Cancer is something that afflicts a body after it is formed. Since the State of Israel goes back 3,000 years, and Islam began in the 7th century (thus dating 1,500 years), it seems anachronistic, to say the least, to imply that Israel is an alien growth. Here, of course, a trained engineer may be forgiven for his ignorance of biology and history.

Finally, may I say as someone who has gone through two neurosurgeries and chemotherapy, at this stage of cancer treatment we know only how to either cut it out or blast it away? So how does one eliminate a cancerous people? The analogy leads inevitably, inexorably, to the prospect of genocide. When you define a nation as a cancer you imply the solution is mass murder. My cancer was put into remission by a line leading into my vein that dripped life-giving poison. What would the Iranian leadership use as a “cure” for Israel? Radiation, no doubt.
Ahmadinejad’s accusation is neither an idle threat nor overblown rhetoric. Iran eagerly pursues nuclear weapons. And as Abba Eban memorably said, there are things in Jewish history too terrible to be believed, but nothing too terrible not to have happened.

Do you suppose the world community will stir at this outrage? With “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the world’s most notorious anti-Semitic forgery, available in hotels in Jordan and on TV serials in Egypt, are there rounds of condemnations at the United Nations? Will Ahmadinajad no more be invited to international gatherings and symposia? Will the Muslim nations arise and say as one that we do not speak of people and nations in that manner? Will the world recognize that the Iranian leadership dreams of combining the two great warning signs of history, Hiroshima and Auschwitz?

No, this is what will happen: The furor will abate, the world will convince itself that he doesn’t really mean it, or he doesn’t really have power. He will be applauded on the streets of Arab capitals, and the nations will swallow some sleeping draught composed of complacency, indifference, foolishness and a pinch of anti-Semitism.

As I walk in Israel, I will see the eyes of a people who have never, not for a single day since the founding of the state, been accepted by their neighbors. I will know that if tomorrow the military situation were reversed, and Israel’s enemies had her firepower and she had theirs, there would not be roadblocks, housing and land disputes and voting discrimination as now exist against Palestinians, but wholesale slaughter. I will remember that whatever one thinks of the settlements, there were unremitting attacks against Israel before a single settlement existed.

In the background I will hear the voice of a malevolent man with power. It is not an unfamiliar voice in Jewish history. Thousands of years have taught us that when evil speaks, it is always in earnest. Asked what was the lesson of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel answered, “That you can get away with it.” Ignore this voice and we will learn that lesson once more.

Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, David Wolpe is the author of seven books including “Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times” and his latest, “Why Faith Matters.” Follow him on Facebook.