September 21, 2018

Obama and Israel: rationality, self-interest and hatred

This past week President Barack Obama went on a Jewish offensive trying to gain support for the forthcoming agreement with Iran by giving an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg, the wise and deeply committed Jewish writer for The Atlantic, and by speaking at Adas Israel Congregation, the largest and most prestigious Conservative Congregation in Washington, D.C. While others have focused ad naseum on his remarks to the synagogue, I want to concentrate on a brief but highly instructive exchange with Jeffrey Goldberg.

Obama: You know, if you look at the history of anti-Semitism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European leaders—and there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country—
Goldberg: And they make irrational decisions—
Obama: They may make irrational decisions with respect to discrimination, with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool. At the margins, where the costs are low, they may pursue policies based on hatred as opposed to self-interest… (italics mine)


The president presumes that anti-Semitic leaders indulge their hatreds at the margins of national policy but when push comes to shove, they follow rational self-interest.

Would that it were so!

History suggests otherwise. Examples abound, let me offer three from recent memory.

This past week I received an important new book by an Israeli historian Yaron Pasher entitled “Holocaust versus Wehrmacht: How Hitler’s Final Solution Undermined the German War Effort.”  Pasher is an expert in military logistics. His basis argument is simple, his evidence exhaustive, meticulous and irrefutable. During the times of greatest stress on the German military, the moments when fighting was fiercest and their logistical needs most acute, Germany launched its most intense efforts to murder the Jews.

In early 1942, Germany was fighting deep within Soviet territory. Expecting a short war and an easy conquest comparable to their experience in Poland and Western Europe, Germany had not supplied its fighting men with winter gear; its equipment was breaking down in the cold of the Russian winter, its 600,000 horses were not being fed, and its soldiers literally freezing to death. At that moment, the death camps were opened and during the next winter, spring and fall and into the following winter, the death trains rolled on unabated whileThe Wehrmact forces did without vital, urgently needed supplies.

The murder of Hungarian Jews is the second instructive instance: according to German documents, 437,402 Jews were shipped on 147 trains primarily to Auschwitz between the 15th of May and the 8th of July 1944. At this time, German forces were collapsing and the D-Day invasion of the European continent had begun, still the trains were secured. The deportation of Jews took priority over the war effort.

These were not marginal issues to Germany, but essential to the survival of the regime. Hatred often banishes rationality in policy decisions and anti-Semitism is, in the words of the late Robert Wistrich, the longest hatred.

Even before the war, anti-Semitism was more powerful than self interest. If territorial expansion and world conquest were Hitler’s highest priority, he would not have gotten rid of Jewish scientists. His own economics minister argued that ridding Jews from German industrial life would leave Germany underprepared for war. Germany lost World War I because it could not keep up industrially, and still it risked defeat again in order to be rid of its Jews.

By all rational calculations, the leaders of Iran know that Israel has second-strike capacity, and that should be sufficient to restrain them. When Iran first threatened Israel with nuclear annihilations, Israel acquired from Germany two nuclear submarines. It now has more. So any leader of Iran must calculate that a nuclear attack on Iran would result in the annihilation of his own citizens and destruction of Iran. For a rational regime, Mutual Assured Destruction should take the use of nuclear weapons off the table. Unless…

Unless Iran’s leaders truly believe that this is a worthy price to pay for the damage they can inflict on Israel.

Unless its religious leaders believe that the world to come is more important than this world, and that, like the suicide bombers before them who willingly sacrificed their lives in attacks on civilian Western and Jewish targets, a martyr’s death is greater than life itself.

We do now know their calculations, and the President is being overly simplistic if he believes that irrationality is only pursued at the margins. He may be revealing to us more about the discipline of his own thinking, his own rationality, than about his adversaries.

And let me remind my Jewish readers who so easily routinely, and thoughtlessly, compare the situation of Jews in our time to the Holocaust, the idea that Israel poses an existential threat to Iran is credible and demonstrable, while the Nazi fear that Jews posed an existential threat to Germany in the 1930 and 1940s was sheer madness.

I concede that the Iran agreement may the best of all the current alternatives, but the argument that rationality and self interest overcome hatred is not a convincing argument.